Cleveland Cavaliers Flashback: Phil Hubbard



Phil hubbard


Phil Hubbard grew up in Canton, OH and began his hoops  career playing for basketball powerhouse Canton McKinley High School.  Hubbard began his college career at the University of Michigan by scoring 15.1 points per game on 54.6 percent shooting from the field, while pulling down 11.0 rebounds per game.  This led Michigan all the way to the 1976 NCAA

Championship Game against Big Ten rival Indiana.  Hubbard is one of a select group of freshmen to scored at least 25 total points in the Final Four, a group that includes Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Chris Webber and Carmelo Anthony.

The Hoosiers team that Michigan faced was one of the all time great college teams, going a combined 56-1 that season and the previous one.  In the 1976 Championship game, Michigan led at the half 35-29, however  Hubbard fouled out in the second half, and Indiana pulled away to win 86-68.  In the summer of 1976, Hubbard won an Olympic gold medal as Team USA dominated with a 7-0 record.   This completed one of the most tremendous years for any freshman collegiate player.

In his sophomore season, Hubbard improved to 19.6 PPG on 55.6 percent shooting from the field, and pulling down 13.0 rebounds per game, earning him a  selection to the AP All-American Team. Michigan won the Big Ten with a 16-2 record and finished the regular season 24-3 overall. Unfortunately, the Wolverines lost in the Elite Eight to a UNC-Charlotte team, led by future Boston Celtic forward Cedric Maxwell. Hubbard averaged 15.0 rebounds per game to lead the tournament.

Unfortunately for Hubbard, a serious knee injury forced him to sit out his entire junior year. While he was able to return for his senior season, he clearly had lost a lot of his explosiveness and his numbers declined across the board: 14.8 PPG on 49.5 percent field goal shooting, and 9.1 RPG. In spite of this, the Detroit Pistons selected Phil in the first round of the 1979 NBA draft with the 15th selection overall.

The 1979-80 Pistons had a dismal season, going 16-56, but Hubbard showed promise averaging 9.1 PPG and 5.0 RPG in 18.6 minutes.  Hubbard became a starter in his second season, improving his numbers to 14.5 PPG and his 7.3 RPG led the team in rebounding. Hubbard adapted to the injury, learning to play beneath the rim and fight for position.  Shear effort and desire led to him becoming a strong force on the offensive boards, which was quite an accomplishment, considering the severity of his knee injury.

On February 16, 1982, the Pistons General Manager, Jack McCloskey,  picked the pocket of Ted Stepien, owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, in one of several major trade mistakes Stepien would go on to make.  Stepien was the kind of guy who always thought he was right, and was always looking for an angle to put people in the seats.  All he could see was the dollar signs from acquiring Hubbard, a local boy who had made good at Michigan.

McCloskey noticed Cavs second year center Bill Laimbeer’s desire and effort during a game in which they blew the Cavs out.  Laimbeer played like a man possessed right up to the final horn, in spite of the game being a blow out.  It was obvious Laimbeer didn’t like to lose.  McCloskey put together a trade sending Hubbard, Paul Mokeski and their 1982 first round draft pick (John Bagley) to the Cavs for Laimbeer and Ken Carr.  Laimbeer had been so unremarkable and under utilized in Cleveland that most people saw Carr as the center piece of the trade.

After one more losing season in 1983-84, the Pistons ripped off nine straight seasons with at least 46 wins, winning 16 playoff series, three conference championships and back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990. Laimbeer appeared in four All-Star games and remains the team’s leader in rebounds.  He was extremely durable, missing only 9 games in his first 12 years, and at one point had a streak of 685 games played until it was snapped due to a suspension.  Needless to say, this would go down as one of the worst trades in Cavs history.

For Hubbard, the trade meant going from a bad team to an even worse one, as the Cavs were the laughing stock of the league winning only 15 games that season.  The following December, help arrived in the form of World B. Free, acquired from Golden State in exchange for Ron Brewer. Free had legally changed his name from Lloyd to World, a nickname given to him on the courts of Brooklyn because of his skill and flamboyant style as a player.  Free arrived in Cleveland via helicopter to a media circus.  From that moment on, the Cavs were his team.

Free’s ability to get his own shot forced defenses to focus on him, which opened things up for Hubbard inside, allowing him to come into his own, averaging roughly 10 PPG and 5 RPG while playing about 23 minutes a night. The Cavaliers won 23 in 1983 and 28 in 1984. Then, Cleveland hired George Karl to be the team’s head coach. After starting the season 2-19 under Karl’s micro-managing style, he loosened the reins and the team caught fire going 34-27, making the playoffs.  Cleveland battled tough against the defending NBA champion Boston Celtics, eventually loosing 3-1 in the first round.  Each of Boston’s victories were by three points or less. This was perhaps Hubbard’s finest season of his career, averaging 15.8 PPG and 6.3 RPG in the regular season and 15.5 PPG and 5.0 RPG in the playoffs against the Celtics Hall of Fame frontline of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish.

The Cavs were unable to maintain their good play in 1985-86. Injuries forced Hubbard to miss 59 games, and Karl was fired near the end of the season as the team finished 29-53. However a new era of prosperity was about to dawn in Cleveland.  New Cavaliers General Manager Wayne Embry put together a promising nucleus of young players in the off season, trading Roy Hinson for the rights to draft center Brad Daugherty, and drafting Ron Harper and Mark Price. He also hired Lenny Wilkens to be the team’s coach. The Cavs won just 31 games as their young players developed chemistry and got to know one another.  However, Daugherty, Harper and John “Hot Rod” Williams each made the All-Rookie Team in 1986-87. Hubbard, now 30, was the team elder, averaging 11.8 PPG and 5.7 RPG, providing leadership and a steadying influence.

The Cavaliers were an exciting young team full of promise, but another team was also rising in the East.  The Chicago Bulls featured rookies Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, along with the unstoppable Michael Jordan.  The Bulls would go on to be the Cavs nemesis, blocking their path to the Eastern Conference Finals repeatedly.  In 1988-89m the Cavaliers soared to 57-25, with Hubbard playing a reduced role as Nance, Daugherty and Williams received the bulk of the frontcourt minutes.  This was by far the best NBA team that Hubbard played on, but his best hope for a title disappeared as Michael Jordan sank his famous shot over Craig Ehlo as time ran out. Hubbard retired after that season with career averages of 10.9 PPG and 5.3 RPG.

Today, Phil Hubbard puts his Bachelors of Education to good use, working as an assistant coach with the Los Angeles D-Fenders, the NBA D-League affiliate of the Los Angeles Lakers. He helped lead the D-Fenders to the most regular season wins in NBA D-League history and a berth in the D-League Finals during the 2011-12 season. Since 1995, Hubbard has held assistant coaching positions with the Atlanta Hawks, Washington Wizards and Golden State Warriors. During his time working under Eddie Jordan in Washington, the team made four postseason appearances, and Hubbard was a member of the coaching staff of the Eastern Conference All-Star Team in 2007. He was admitted to the Michigan Athletic Hall of Honor in 1992 and the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame in 2006.

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