NBA history can change in a deal, and it did for the Los Angeles Lakers and Cleveland Cavaliers on Feb. 15, 1980. What were the ramifications? Likely the Purple and Gold extending its dominion as the most successful organization of the ‘80s.
Butch Lee, a second-year guard, after 36 matches with the Cavs, was sent to La La Land with a First-Round Pick (FRP) in 1982 for Don Ford and a FRP in the upcoming NBA Draft. That season, the Wine and Gold were a 37-win club. Two years later, it barely earned 15 as its leading scorers, Mike Mitchell and Ron Brewer logged just 27 and 47 games. Yet Cleveland’s rightful compensation belonged to the Lakers.
The San Diego Clippers were the other league abomination at 17 victories and competed with the Lakers in the coin flip for the top choice. Ralph Sampson, the coveted next best big man who almost was, projected to go first but stayed at Virginia for fear of the NBA’s gulag, owned by the godawful Donald Sterling picking him. Dr. Jerry Buss’ squad lucked out. Big Game James Worthy became a Laker, and they won three more rings, two coming after the obvious decline of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
In 1982, in an epic clash versus man-child Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown Hoyas, Worthy was the Most Outstanding Player. He scored 28 of the Tar Heels’ 63 points on 13 of 17 shots from the field and soared past defenders for vicious dunks.
Worthy was so good that general manager Jerry West threatened to quit over a potential deal that would have sent him to Dallas for Mark Aguirre, Magic Johnson’s pal, (per Jeff Pearlman, author of Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s).
Worthy would have been leaping over The Land instead of the City of Angels if not for Bill Sharman pulling off one of the shrewdest moves ever. Two years after his career ended, in 1996, he was selected for the NBA’s 50th Anniversary Team, honoring the 50 greatest players of all time. After 12 campaigns, J-Dub (Worthy) logged 19,342 points and 5,455 rebounds in the regular season and Playoffs. His only triple-double came in Game 7 of the ‘88 Finals, facing off against the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons.
In Cleveland, he would not have won as a third-year player without Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson or perhaps even started immediately. He’s said on multiple public appearances that when he was a young whipper-snapper, he thought he had the four-spot locked up, but Kurt Rambis showed him what a professional power forward was. But he still would’ve turned into an All-World performer and a player who elevated in big games.
In fact, his only start as a rookie was his debut on Oct. 29, 1982, against the Golden State Warriors, recording 20 points on nine of 15 shots with six rebounds and a steal. The Warriors beat the Lakers in its home opener by 15 points in front of 15,802 people.
Imagine if, instead of the Fabulous Forum, he was balling at the Coliseum at Richfield.
At close range, Worthy’s turnaround drive was as quick as a lightning bolt with a thunderous finish. He could also back down an opponent and hook over. The wisest move a rival could do then was unleash a double-team. On the break, he was as dangerous as a runaway train.
Had he been a Cavalier, World B. Free and Cliff Robinson would’ve had a teammate who helped others by spacing the floor whenever he got the ball in the post. What separated him at 6-foot-9 was not needing the ball to impact a game.
Stories like this should-have-been Cavalier thriving elsewhere are a cautionary tale for what happens when FRPs aren’t valued. Worthy’s #42 hangs at the Crypto.com Arena when it could have today at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.