Blast from the Past: Winning Ugly

by Joe Gabriele Managing Editor

Mike Fratello’s Cavaliers of the mid-90s took the expression “winning ugly” to a whole new level.

The Lenny Wilkins squads of the late-80s and early-90s made basketball a thing of beauty. Lenny’s teams had skilled ballplayers who could dissect an opponent. The Cavs had their share of gritty competitors and even some tough hombres. But if there was a critique of that squad – justifiably or not – it was that they were a “finesse team” full of nice guys.

Despite an unprecedented run of success, Wilkins’ hard-working squad couldn’t crash the glass ceiling represented by Michael Jordan and the Bulls – falling to Chicago in four of their five playoff appearances. That undoing was punctuated on May 17, when Jordan canned an 18-footer at the buzzer to wrap up a 4-0 sweep of Cleveland in the 1993 Eastern Conference Semifinals.

One week later, Lenny Wilkins resigned as head coach.

Three weeks after that, Mike Fratello was hired, and although the player-infrastructure of Daugherty, Price, Nance and Hot Rod Williams was still defining the team, a group of youngsters – including Bobby Phills, Gerald Wilkins, Tyrone Hill, Terrell Brandon and rookie Chris Mills – was poised to ease the transition.

The Cavaliers’ old guard – literally – still had some fuel left in the tank.

In Fratello’s first year, Price still went on to defend his Long Distance Shootout title and notched 20 points in the All-Star Game. But, after passing Austin Carr to become the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, Brad Daugherty went on the injured list with a back problem that would eventually end his career. The great Larry Nance, who tore the MCL in his right knee, also saw his last action as a Cavalier that season.

Still, the new combination of Cavaliers reached the playoffs once again. But once again, it was the Chicago Bulls – for the fifth time in seven years – that would send Cleveland home for the summer. This time, it was Scottie Pippen doing the damage as the Cavaliers were swept in three games. The Bulls’ 95-92 overtime win in Game 3 was the final game ever played at the Richfield Coliseum.

In 1994-95, the Cavaliers gave the franchise a facelift – moving games to Gund Arena in downtown Cleveland and changing the team colors and uniforms.

The Gund was christened on November 8, with the Cavaliers falling to the World Champion Houston Rockets. But despite losing Gerald Wilkins with a ruptured Achilles’, Fratello guided the Cavaliers to an 11-game win streak to end the month of December.

The Cavs continued to battle the injury bug throughout that season – losing Price for 27 games with a wrist injury and watching his backup, Terrell Brandon, go down with a stress fracture in his right leg shortly thereafter. All in all, Fratello’s squad lost 267 player-games to injury.

The bright spots of that regular season were Tyrone Hill being named to the All-Star team and, more importantly, the Cavaliers discovering their new identity – as one of the truly great defensive teams of all-time. By season’s end, the Cavaliers bragged the NBA’s best defense – holding opponents to just 89.8 ppg and keeping foes beneath the century mark a league-high 62 times.

That tenacious D propelled the Cavs back into the postseason. But this time it was the Knicks who sent the squad packing. Cleveland surprised the Knicks with a Game 2 win at Madison Square Garden, but fell in Game 4 when Danny Ferry’s missed a game-winning three-point attempt at the buzzer.

The new-look Cavaliers got off to a rough start to the 1995-96 season. They dropped their first two games of the season and, before their home opener against Indiana, lost starting forward Tyrone Hill when he suffered a bruised spinal cord in an auto accident prior to the game. Hill went on to miss the first 38 games of the year.

The Cavs began that season 0-7.

But by midseason, Fratello’s squad would find their footing. In February, Terrell Brandon was chosen to play in the NBA All-Star Game as the Cavaliers ran off seven straight wins. Brandon turned in a strong performance at the midseason classic, netting 11 points off the bench in San Antonio.

The Cavaliers once again set records for their defense, setting an NBA mark for allowing the fewest points per game in a season at 88.5 ppg, topping a record held since 1954-55. Fratello’s stingy bunch held opponents under 100 points in 22 of their final 24 contests and in 68 total games that season.

Cleveland made the postseason for the fifth straight season and the eighth time in nine years. But they ran into an equally defensive squad for the second straight season, and, despite the strong play of Brandon and Dan Majerle, were swept in three games by the New York Knicks.

By 1996-97, the last vestiges of the Coliseum’s last Cavalier team were gone. Brandon had replaced Mark Price and made his second straight All-Star appearance – this time in Cleveland, where he shined on a weekend that honored the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players. Brandon scored 10 points in the contest.

On March 1, at halftime of a Cavs-Celtics game, Brad Daugherty’s uniform number “43” was raised into the rafters.

The Cavs defense continued to set records – even if it was a low-water mark. That record-setting performance took place on March 25, with Cleveland dropping a 64-59 slugfest to the Spurs. At the time, it was the second-lowest scoring total in NBA history. The Cavaliers scored just 24 points in the second half and both teams combined for just 21 in the final quarter.

Despite winning 42 games, the Cavs were eliminated from playoff contention on the last game of the season by the Bullets at Gund Arena.

That year, Fratello’s club broke their own record – leading the NBA with 85.6 ppg and holding opponents under 100 points 72 times that season. Overall, the Cavaliers became the first NBA team to hold opponents under 90.0 ppg for three straight seasons.

The next season, the Cavaliers knew they could defend their opponents. But they lacked the offensive firepower to take the team to the next level. So in the offseason, Cleveland pulled off one of the biggest blockbusters in franchise history – working out a three-team trade that sent Terrell Brandon, Tyrone Hill and a 1998 first round pick to Milwaukee (which traded Vin Baker to the Sonics) in exchange for Shawn Kemp.

Kemp was sensational in his first year in Cleveland – playing in 80 games and averaging an even 18.0 ppg. Midway through the year, Kemp became the first Cavalier ever voted to the starting lineup of the All-Star Game. Kemp was accompanied in New York that weekend by four Cavalier freshmen who were selected to play in the Schick Rookie Game.

Kemp finished the All-Star game with 12 points, 11 rebounds and a game-high four steals.

The Cavaliers remained strong defensively – going 20-0 that season when scoring 100 points. With a renewed youth movement and strong veteran play by Wesley Person and Kemp, the Cavaliers returned to the postseason in 1997, facing off against Reggie Miller’s Indiana Pacers in the first round.

Despite 25 and 13 from Kemp, the Cavaliers dropped Game 1 at Market Square Arena. In Game 2, Fratello’s squad led by 11 at the half, but watched the Pacers come out of the locker room on a 25-12 run, eventually falling, 92-86.

The scrappy, sixth-seeded Cavaliers bounced back to win Game 3 at Gund Arena, with Shawn Kemp leading all scorers with 31 points and Cleveland closing out the affair on an 11-4 run.

But the Cavs’ offensive shortcomings resurfaced in Game 4. Cleveland trailed the entire way, but used a 14-4 run to make the score 75-73 with 2:15 to play. But the Pacers closed the game on a 5-1 run and closed the series with the 80-74 win.

Kemp led the Cavaliers in the series – averaging 26.0 ppg, 10.3 rpg.

After the season, Wayne Embry was named the Sporting News NBA Executive of the Year, the second time he received the award.

The 1998-99 season – which didn’t begin until January 20, when NBA and NBPA reached a Collective Bargaining Agreement – was Mike Fratello’s last in Cleveland.

The Cavaliers started the season losing their first three, winning their next five, then losing their starting center for the season.

The squad struggled to establish any type of consistency for the remainder of the strike-shortened campaign, dropping 10 of their last 11 games to finish the season at 22-28.

After the underwhelming 1998-99 campaign, the Cavaliers fired the soon-to-be Czar of the Telestrator.

On June 1, the team named Jim Paxson general manager. On June 23, his predecessor, Wayne Embry, was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame. And on July 7, the Cavaliers named Randy Wittman the 12th coach in team history – severing almost all ties with the Cavaliers’ glory days of the 20th century.

Fratello’s teams weren’t as talented as the Cavalier teams before them or as flashy as the Cavalier teams that would eventually develop. But those teams got the maximum results from minimum talent.

Fratello’s teams won ugly. But they did find a way to win.