Cleveland Cavaliers Flashback: Danny Ferry


Cleveland Cavaliers General Manager Wayne Embry had a long and distinguished career in the NBA.  However, his legacy will always be haunted by making one of the worst trades in NBA history for Danny Ferry.  “Boston waited a year for Larry Bird. San Antonio waited two years for David Robinson,” Cleveland general manager Wayne Embry said. “You will see. Danny Ferry will be well worth the wait.”  Unfortunately for Cavs fans, Embry couldn’t have been more mistaken.

Ferry was a school boy legend at Demantha Catholic High School, in Hyattsville, Maryland.  Demantha was a basketball powerhouse, coached by famed high school coach Morgan Wooten.   The two-time All-American was selected as USA Today’s High School Player of the Year and also earned Parade Magazine’s prep Player of the Year in 1985. Ferry was fiercely recruited by the top college programs in the nation, including Tobacco Road competitors Duke and North Carolina, who went all out to secure his services. Ferry selected Duke University and his contributions grew each season, helping the team advance to three final fours.

During his 1989 senior season , Ferry was the best player in college basketball, averaging 22.6-points per game, 7.4 rebounds per game and 4.7 assists per game.  His 6’10 muscular frame allowed him to post up opponents, while enjoying a mismatch against them from the outside, shooting nearly 43 percent from three point range.  Ferry’s all around game allowed him to become the first player in ACC history to amass 2,000+ points, 1,000+ rebounds and 500+ assists during his college career.

Ferry was recognized for his accomplishments winning the Naismith College Player of the Year award, the USBWA College Player of the Year award, and the UPI Player of the Year award.  Ferry also played on the final Olympic basketball team comprised solely of amateur players in 1988, winning a Bronze medal.

Many fans and media members hailed Ferry as the next Bird, calling him a no-brainer lottery pick.  The Sacramento Kings decided to select Pervis Ellison with the first selection overall, setting up the Los Angeles Clippers to take Danny Ferry second. The Clippers celebration turned sour when they learned that Ferry would not play for them.  They tried in vain to convince him, but Ferry proved his point by accepting an offer to play for the Italian league’s Il Messaggero.  Italy was great for Ferry, as he immediately found a Beatles-like fan following.  He did not disappoint them, averaging 26 points per game and 6 rebounds per game, leading the team into the playoffs.

The next year, on November 16, 1989, the Cleveland Cavaliers obtained Ferry’s draft rights, along with guard Reggie Williams, in exchange for the Cavs leading scorer, Ron Harper, two first and one second round draft picks.  Harper, a 6-foot-6 guard in his fourth NBA season, was averaging 22 points per game, 6.9 rebounds per game and 7.0 assists per game at that time.  The Cavs then signed Ferry to a 10-year guaranteed contract worth almost $40 million, which is the equivalent of about $77 million in 2013.  To fully put this deal into perspective, Patrick Ewing, “Magic” Johnson and Kareem Abdul Jabbar, the three highest paid NBA players from the 1988-89 season, earned just over $3 million each.

That first season, Ferry averaged 8.6 points per game, 3.5 rebounds per game and 1.8 assists per game while shooting 42 percent from the field and just 29 percent on three point attempts.  Ferry seemed lost on offense and overwhelmed on defense, which is typical for many NBA rookies.  However, the next season, he was injured and when he returned to play those numbers decreased.   The best season of his career was the 1995-96 season when he averaged 13.3 points per game and 3.8 rebounds per game in almost 33 minutes per game, all career highs.  He never again came close to these mediocre numbers. Ferry was a virtual pariah on the trade blocks, being impossible to trade for anything of value.  After paying for Embry’s regretful folly for a full decade,  the Cleveland allowed Ferry walk via free agency.

Amazingly, Ferry’s career wasn’t over, as the San Antonio Spurs signed him to a three-year deal that netted him another $6.5 million.  Ferry rewarded the Spurs by becoming an accurate off the bench shooter.  In 2000-01, his first season with the team, Ferry ranked fifth in the league in three-point percentage (.449). The next season, he hit 43 percent of his threes, but played in only 50 games.  His final season his numbers shrank to the worst of his career.

In retrospect, Ferry’s versatility might have masked the fact that he wasn’t dominant at any specific part of the game, and his size wasn’t as much of an advantage in the NBA, as it had been in college or Italy.  For his playing career, Ferry fills the Cavs record books, reflecting his longevity as a player, more so than his productivity.  He ranks in the Cavs top ten in games played,  minutes played, 3 point goals, 3 point attempts, personal fouls, and free throw percentage.  His NBA career averages are: 7.0 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 1.3 APG, a 44.6 field goal percentage, a 39.3 three point percentage and 84.0 free throw shooting percentage.

After retiring as a player, the Spurs signed Ferry to work in their front office, where he stayed from 2003–2005. On June 27, 2005 the Cavaliers signed Danny Ferry to a 5-year contract, worth close to $10 million dollars, as their eighth general manager.  Ferry made several roster changes that weren’t quite good enough to help LeBron James win a ring. From my perspective, almost every deal Ferry made felt like a panic move to keep LeBron in Cleveland.  Regardless, the team flourished under coach Mike Brown and the Cavs made a series of serious postseason appearances starting in 2006.  In 2008, the team won it’s first Central Division title since 1976 and repeated these feats again the following season.

Once LeBron left for Miami via free agency,  Ferry resigned his post, but I had to wonder if he was asked to leave, having failed to acquire the talent necessary to keep LeBron in Cleveland.  Ferry returned to San Antonio as VP of Basketball Operations a few months later.  In June of 2012, the Atlanta Hawks made Ferry their President of Basketball Operations and General Manager, a position he still holds today.

The incredible tale of Danny Ferry will forever remain one of the great mysteries in NBA history. It is mind blowing to think that a player who dominated college ball the way he had, could come into the NBA and fall flat on his face.  Of course, players fail every season, but those that reach the lofty heights that Ferry had ascended to usually go onto become superstars.  Going to Cleveland, who paid a king’s ransom for him, then paid a second one to sign him for ten years, obviously put a huge amount of pressure on Ferry.  I have to ask myself, what if Ferry had just signed with the Clippers instead of playing the prima donna card?  There is a part of me that thinks that this story would have a much different ending had he simply taken the other path.  We will never know.

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