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Better Know a Cavs Season: 1991-92, the apogee of the orange-and-blue era (Part I)

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The 1992 Cavaliers were a team in transition, in a league in transition, in a nation in transition, in a world in transition. Against this backdrop, they authored one of the most memorable seasons in franchise history.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Washington Bullets
Mark Price averaged 17 points per game in the 1992 season on the road to his second All-Star selection. He also led the league with a .947 free-throw percentage.

The Cleveland Cavaliers entered the 1991-92 season at a crossroads. In the two years since their 1989 breakthrough, the team had been beset by injuries, with stars Brad Daugherty (foot) and Mark Price (knee) both missing extended periods of time as the Cavs slumped to a two-year record of 75-89.

1992 brought a much-needed breath of fresh air to the Richfield Coliseum. Led by characters both familiar and new, the Cavaliers embarked upon their best season to date. They set an extraordinary NBA record for single-game dominance, ended a 16-year run of postseason futility, and ushered one of the greatest players of all time into retirement.

Meanwhile, professional basketball and the world changed around the Cavs. One of the game’s brightest stars stunned fans by walking away after an HIV diagnosis, and Cleveland crossed paths in the playoffs with a pair of young guns who would meet tragic early ends. The Cold War drew to a close, and one of the world’s foremost basketball-playing nations, Yugoslavia, began to crumble.

It was nonetheless a golden age for the NBA, a television-friendly league right at home in perhaps America’s most television-friendly decade. Let’s take a look back at the 1992 Cavaliers, their highs and lows, their league, and their world.

THE TEAM

Almost all of the figures traditionally associated with the orange-and-blue-era Cavaliers were squarely in their primes heading into the 1992 campaign. Chief among them was Daugherty, who celebrated his 26th birthday 13 days before the season tipped off. The North Carolina big man established career highs in points and rebounds per game, and represented Cleveland in the 1991 All-Star Game in his home state.

Larry Nance, fresh off a four-year high in scoring in his 10th season in the league, continued to represent a rock-solid frontcourt complement to Daugherty. Hot Rod Williams returned for a sixth tour as a change-of-pace big, and Craig Ehlo (starter of a career-high 68 games in 1991) was slated to anchor the backcourt.

The wild card was Price, who tore up his knee in a win over Atlanta on November 30, 1990 — after which the Cavs went 24-42. The three-point ace’s return was uncertain; Sports Illustrated’s NBA preview suggested Price was targeting a Christmas return, while the UPI reported three days before Opening Night that he wouldn’t be back until January.

With Price’s status up in the air, general manager Wayne Embry made guards a priority on draft day. Terrell Brandon, whose 26.6 points per game in 1991 are a still-standing Oregon record, was taken No. 11 on June 26. The Cavs also added Jimmy Oliver of Purdue at No. 39 after a first-team All-Big Ten season.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Milwaukee Bucks
Brad Daugherty, a three-time All-Star, was the undisputed leader of the Cavs entering the 1992 season.

Cleveland’s other pieces as 1992 began included John Battle (a longtime Hawks fixture signed as a free agent), John Morton (the Cavs’ last pre-LeBron No. 23), Steve Kerr (crossing paths with an era-defining Cavs team for the first time but not the last), Danny Ferry (the team’s future general manager), Chucky Brown (playing for the first of a dozen different franchises), Henry James (not the author), and Winston Bennett (a third-round pick in the final three-round draft).

Lenny Wilkens entered his sixth season as the Cavs’ head coach, and his 19th season as a head coach overall.

PRESEASON OUTLOOK

Sports Illustrated picked the Cavaliers to finish sixth in the Eastern Conference in its season preview, which hit newsstands on November 11. Chicago, Detroit, Boston, New York and Philadelphia were the magazine’s choices for the top five seeds. “Cleveland could conceivably jump to as high as third in the conference,” SI wrote, “if a healthy Price can join a healthy Brad Daugherty at center and Larry Nance and Hot Rod Williams at forward.”

NOVEMBER 1991

Apartheid ends in South Africa. Dale Earnhardt wins his fifth NASCAR championship. Walt Disney Pictures releases Beauty and the Beast. Shailene Woodley is born in San Bernardino, California and Freddie Mercury dies in London, England.

(Released November 27, 1991)

Not since the 1974-75 season had the Cavaliers opened with five consecutive away games (that year, they opened with six). Cleveland tipped off the 1991-92 campaign with its second-longest road trip of the year, swinging from Portland to Los Angeles to Texas, where it played all three Lone Star State teams. It was not an excursion to remember.

Clyde Drexler burned the Cavs with 31 points, seven rebounds and seven assists as the Trail Blazers took the season opener 117-106. There were several bright spots — Ehlo knocked down three three-pointers, Brandon dropped 15 in his debut, and Ferry added 10 off the bench — but it was an inauspicious third straight season-opening loss for Cleveland. The next day, the Cavs fell 106-105 to the Clippers in Los Angeles; James and Kerr hit double figures off the bench, but couldn’t overcome 23 points from former Cavalier Ron Harper.

Cleveland won for the first time on November 5 in Dallas, getting 29 from Nance on 11 for 13 shooting. Ever the perfectionist, Nance told reporters afterward that he “shouldn’t have missed any shots.”

However, it was back to losing two days later. Sleepy Floyd’s 22 points off the bench helped the Rockets dust the Cavs in one of five games played November 7, 1991 that barely moved the needle for the hoops world.

“Because of the HIV virus that I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers,” Magic Johnson told reporters that Thursday afternoon.

Magic Johnson Retirement Annoucement
Magic Johnson’s retirement stunned the league he helped popularize, and sent shock waves across the sports world.
Photo by Bob Riha, Jr./Getty Images

Reaction was swift from across the league and the Cleveland sports universe.

“I am speechless,” an emotional Embry told reporters.

Wilkens echoed Embry’s sentiments, pointing to Johnson’s ability to “market not only himself, but the NBA as well.” Indeed, as many contemporary commentators pointed out, Johnson’s magnetic personality and rivalry with Larry Bird electrified a league widely perceived in the late 1970s to be running in place. The rising tide that was the Celtics-Lakers feud lifted all the Association’s boats, helping the Cavs weather the darkness of the Ted Stepien years and emerge as a contender for a new generation.

“To a lot of people, especially young people, Magic Johnson is God,” said Bennett, whose collegiate years at Kentucky coincided with Johnson’s prime. A rough start to the 1992 season for the Cavs on the court had now been exacerbated by tragedy.

Cleveland had one more loss in it — a Daugherty three-pointer that would’ve beaten the Spurs was offline and San Antonio pulled out a 107-101 victory on November 8 — but its luck began to turn after its third 1-4 start in five years. Win No. 2 came November 12 in the home opener against Milwaukee, with a name in the box score that would have stunned fans a month prior: Mark Price.

“Just having him back out there,” Ehlo said, “was a flashback of what it was like in the past.”

Price, on a minutes restriction, put up 11 points, Brandon added 12 points and 11 assists off the bench, and the Cavs were on their way. The victories began to come in bunches. Seattle and Indiana, both playoff teams in 1991, were felled in succession (Daugherty’s six blocks against the SuperSonics were a career high). After the 2-9 Hornets struck with an upset, the Cavs regrouped and downed New Jersey 116-112, keyed by 18 fourth-quarter points and a 10 for 10 performance at the free throw line from a decidedly healthy Price.

Things would only get better for the orange and blue. On November 23, mere hours after Michigan’s blowout 31-3 win over Ohio State on the gridiron, the Cavs turned the tables on the Wolverine State with a 96-89 win over the Pistons. In the absence of Price, out with an ankle injury, Battle stepped up with 13 points off the bench. Chuck Daly was tossed for arguing a flagrant foul call as Cleveland poked its head above .500 for the first time.

“I think because of who we were playing, we wanted the game real bad,” Battle told reporters afterward.

The Cavaliers’ last big test of November came in the form of a back-to-back against the 76ers on the Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving. It was all Cleveland, as the Cavs picked up a 95-91 win at the Spectrum and a 107-97 win at the Coliseum. Charles Barkley was hampered by sore ribs, playing the first game in a special jacket and missing the second, but the wins constituted a powerful warning shot to the Eastern Conference. Daugherty (a 31-point scorer in both games) and the Cavs would back down from no one.

A 115-104 win over the Magic closed out a sterling opening month for the Cavaliers. Virtually everyone got in on the act against Orlando. Daugherty and Price (playing a season-high 30 minutes) recorded double-doubles. Ehlo, Nance and Battle scored in double figures. And Brandon made the only trey he would sink in 23 tries his rookie season, a rainbow half-court shot to beat the first-quarter buzzer that Ehlo said “looked like one of my [golf] drives.”

November had not been without its tribulations, but the Cavs were winning, having fun doing it, and reaping the rewards.

“When they’re healthy with Mark Price, they’re a 55-to-60 win team,” Magic coach Matt Gouskas said. “Who knows what they can do in the playoffs?”

The Cavaliers ended November 1991 with a 9-5 record, tied for second in the Eastern Conference and alone in second in the Central Division. Division leaders were: New York (Atlantic), Chicago (Central), San Antonio (Midwest) and the LA Lakers (Pacific).

Look for Part II later this week.