With the Cleveland Cavaliers seemingly on the verge of trading away recent No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins in a package of players to the Minnesota Timberwolves for All-Star power forward Kevin Love, it’s worth noting that such a scenario — where a No. 1 pick never actually plays a game for the team that drafted him — is historically rare.
But former NBA general manager Pat Williams — still the Orlando Magic’s executive vice president — knows exactly what Cavaliers management is going through. He’s traded the top pick once right before the draft and once right after making the choice.
"I think that there’s so much hope resting on this draft pick that that you don’t want to destroy the hope people have that this kid may be your franchise guy," he told FOXSports.com by phone from his office in Orlando. "I think that’s why these trades are so rare. Plus, I don’t think teams are typically willing to give up a star of theirs to gamble on an untested rookie, no matter how good he is."
Back in June 1986, Williams was GM of the Philadelphia 76ers when they announced, on the day of the draft, to trade the No. 1 overall pick to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Roy Hinson and a considerable amount of cash. As fate would have it, Williams announced his departure from the organization a couple of days after the draft — he had accepted a position with the ownership group that would become the Orlando Magic — so he was out of town by the time the fan backlash had really come into view.
"There were reasons we did it, and they were sound reasons at the time," says Williams, referring to the perception back then that dealing aging future Hall of Famer Moses Malone and the No. 1 pick (used on Brad Daugherty) in two separate trades on the same day for Hinson and two other players who didn’t pan out in Philly was a positive step. Williams also cites the lack of a huge name in the draft, as well as the foreboding perception that the player pool was generally less than stellar.
"We couldn’t get comfortable with the ’86 draft," Williams said. "We had brought (Daugherty) in and spent time with him. A lovely guy, but we couldn’t get excited about him as a No. 1 pick. And the rest of that draft, if you recall, ended up being the famous ‘drug draft.’ So many of them ended up with drug problems. It was a very, very weird draft.
"And so when we had a chance on draft night to get a young veteran in Roy Hinson — and Cleveland kicked in $800,000 as well, which was an enormous amount of money — we thought that we had come away with a good solid player and an amount of money that would be helpful to the franchise, and we didn’t feel that we were giving up that much."
Daugherty would go on to play eight seasons in the NBA, all with Cleveland, and was a five-time All-Star before back problems ended his career prematurely. But the rest of the draft was not as strong, as Williams suspected. Len Bias, who went No. 2 to the Celtics, died of a cocaine overdose less than two days after being drafted. Several other players were later found to have drug issues, and aside from Daugherty, not a single first-rounder in that draft ever made an All-Star Game.
Six years later, Williams, as the general manager of the upstart Orlando Magic expansion team, found himself in a familiar situation. With the No. 1 pick in 1992, the Magic took center Shaquille O’Neal out of LSU. "That was an easy one," he said.
The Magic again had the No. 1 overall pick in 1993, and though all the draft experts said Michigan’s Chris Webber was the consensus top pick, Williams saw an opportunity to diversify his roster a bit.
Magic senior VP Pat Williams has traded the No. 1 overall pick both right before and right after making the choice.
"We brought in Webber twice, and I think we had a very good handle on him," Williams said, "But Penny Hardaway would not accept the fact that we were going to take Webber. He kept calling us, even on that last weekend before the draft, saying, ‘I will come back. I will do whatever you guys want. I am your player, even though you may not know it.’ "
So Williams and the Magic brass set up an exhibition with some Magic and local college players and plugged in Hardaway.
"In those days, you could do whatever you wanted, so we set up a full-court scrimmage, and Hardaway was just brilliant," he says. "That gave us a whole different view on draft day. We knew that Golden State (picking third) was anxious to get a big guy.
"(Warriors GM) Don Nelson said, ‘You take Webber or Shawn Bradley, I don’t care which one, but we’ll take Hardaway at three for you and give you three future first-rounders for your trouble.’"
Williams and the Magic walked away from that negotiation feeling on top of the world.
"We thought Penny with Shaq could be just a devastating combination," Williams said. "Which as it turns out, they were. For three years, they were amazing."
Though the Magic would make The NBA Finals just two seasons later in 1995, the fans were not quite sold from the start. Unlike in 1986, when Williams skedaddled out of town the day after trading the pick, he had to announce the Webber deal to an arena of disappointed fans on draft night.
"We had a big crowd here at our arena, and I explained that we had just taken Chris Webber and they were absolutely rejoicing," Williams remembers. "And then I came out 20 minutes later and said we had just traded Chris Webber and here’s the end result and, well, the fans were just ready to revolt. I had to slink off the stage. They were ready to tear our arena apart.
"But we knew what we had in Hardaway. Our personnel guys were absolutely ecstatic about it, especially after that last-minute workout."
Knee problems would ultimately curtail Hardaway’s initially fantastic tenure with the Magic, but they did make the one NBA Finals, and one of those future Golden State No. 1 picks did become Mike Miller, who was named Rookie of the Year in 2001.
As for the Cavaliers’ current situation, Williams doesn’t see a lot of parallels between his two trades and the decision between Love and Wiggins, but he full well understands what’s at stake.
"It is a little scary, that you’re making a pretty radical move," Williams said. "We knew Webber was going to be a very good long-term NBA power forward. And with Shaq, they would have been quite something. They’d have killed you at the free-throw line, that would have been scary, but the thinking was what would be the best combination long term? For us, it was having a great big man and great backcourt guy. (Bill) Russell and (Bob) Cousy, for example. Willis Reed and Walt Frazier. That was the thinking.
I don’t think that the ’86 or the ’93 situations are in any way related to what we’re reading about with Cleveland and Minnesota. My two were draft-day decisions full of many unknowns, but in this case, all these players, they’ve all played in the Summer League.
Pat Williams, Orlando Magic senior VP
"I don’t think that the ’86 or the ’93 situations are in any way related to what we’re reading about with Cleveland and Minnesota. My two were draft-day decisions full of many unknowns, but in this case, all these players, they’ve all played in the Summer League."
Taking into account the known health and potential impact of Wiggins, Williams believes the decision, though still risky, will come only after a full, educated analysis by Cavaliers management, something that should assuage immediate concerns.
"There’s a tremendous gamble when you don’t know what you’re getting," he said. "But in this case Cleveland has had a whole summer here to really evaluate what they’ve got. But it’s still extraordinarily unusual."