Born: February 15, 1964
Position: Point Guard
Cleveland Cavaliers (NBA): 1986-’95
Washington Bullets (NBA): 1996
Golden State Warriors (NBA): 1996-’97
Orlando Magic (NBA): 1997-’98
The Price Is Right
In 1986, the Cleveland Cavaliers had been around for 16 seasons and had made the playoffs just four times. The franchise had won 44 or more games just once. Over the next nine seasons, though, Cleveland would make the postseason eight times. Four times they surpassed 44 wins in a season, including a pair of 57-win seasons.
The reasons for this turnaround were numerous. The ousting of despicable owner Ted Stepien, hiring a legendary coach like Lenny Wilkens and snagging a great general manager like Wayne Embry.
Together they assembled a crack core of Brad Daugherty, Larry Nance, and Mark Price.
Price was drafted by the Dallas Mavericks in the 2nd Round of the 1986 Draft, but was quickly shipped off to Cleveland for a future pick. Initially, the move didn’t exactly inspire much confidence. With veteran point guard John Bagley at the helm in Cleveland, Price played just 18 minutes a night in relief. When he was on the court, his shooting numbers were woeful: 40.8% overall from the field including just 33% from three-point range.
To his credit, Cavaliers GM Wayne Embry didn’t budge from his commitment to Price. In fact, he doubled down. Bagley was traded to the New Jersey Nets in the summer of 1987. And even after drafting Kevin Johnson that same summer, Embry sent him packing to the Phoenix Suns as part of a package for Larry Nance midway through the 1987-88 season.
Price rewarded the faith with an outstanding sophomore season. His field goal average rose 10-percentage points – .408 to .506 – and his three-point shooting saw an even more dramatic rise – .329 to .486. Price eviscerated opposing defenses with his array of tricks.
His high percentages came with off-the-dribble moves, not stand-still, catch-and-shoot jumpers. When it came to splitting a double team, slipping through a pick-and-roll or just leaving his man in the dust with pure quickness, few players have ever approached the ability of Mark Price.
Price the playmaker was no joke either. With his ability to break down the defense off the dribble, Price could suck in defenders and then flick the ball out to the perimeter for open jumpers, or find teammates cutting to the basket. In the open court, his off-the-dribble, one-handed passes were thrown with pinpoint accuracy to dependable finishers like Nance, Daugherty, Hot Rod Williams and Ron Harper.
From Price’s breakout 1987-88 season through his final Cleveland season in 1994-95, the Cavaliers averaged 47 wins a season including a pair of 57-win campaigns and another powerful season of 54 wins. These were easily the best years the Cavs had ever experienced.
For his part Price averaged 17.6 points, 7.8 assists, .483 FG%, .412 3PT%, and .910 FT% during that stretch. He was named to the All-Star Team four times, the All-NBA 3rd Team three times, and to the All-NBA 1st Team in 1993.
Famously, though, the Cavaliers struggled to defeat the Chicago Bulls in the playoffs, and Price struggled to maintain his health.
Hitting the Board
In Price’s first playoff series – during his breakout 1988 season – he played absolutely sensational. The opposing Chicago Bulls had no way of stopping the diminutive guard. With Chicago up 2-0 in the best-of-5 series, Cleveland was in a do-or-die Game 3. Price responded with 31 points going 11-14 from the field and 9-9 from the FT line leading the Cavs to victory. Ultimately losing the series 3-2, Price was nonetheless blistering for the Cavaliers with a 57/42/96 shooting split. He shredded Chicago for 21 PPG and 7.6 APG in the five-game series.
After a lackluster performance in the 1989 playoffs, another great series for Price followed in 1990 against the Philadelphia 76ers. Although Cleveland again lost in five games in the first round, Price was electric with 20 PPG, 9 APG and a shooting split of 53/35/100.
Then early in the 1990-91 season came Price’s run-in with the Board. Embry recalled in his autobiography, Inside Game, how he got news his franchise point guard was severely injured:
“I was at home watching our game at Atlanta on November 30 when Mark Price chased down a loose ball in front of the scorer’s table in the third quarter, stepped on a board that anchored the signage, and fell to the floor clutching his left knee… I tried desperately to reach our trainer, Gary Briggs, in the dressing room but got no response. A few minutes later, my phone rang.
“‘We think Mark has a torn ligament,’ a forlorn Briggs said, adding in a few choice words about the board anchoring the signage… On December 4, Mark had surgery to repair the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. He was done for the season.”
Ravaged by injuries to Price and other players, Cleveland limped to 33 wins that season. Returning for the 1991-92 season, Price’s minutes were limited to just 30 a game, but he seemed his normal self otherwise. Splitting defenders and lobbing alley oops to Nance, Price blitzed his way to 17 PPG, 7.5 APG and another otherworldly shooting split of 49/39/95.
The Cavs reeled off 57 wins and advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals. Price was superb throughout the post season, but in the sixth and deciding game of the ECF, he stunk up the joint. An uncharacteristically bad 5-18 shooting night from Mark doomed the Cavs to a 99-94 defeat to, who else, the Chicago Bulls.
Despite the stinging defeat, Price enjoyed perhaps his best season the following year. This was the 1992-93 campaign that saw him named to the All-NBA 1st Team averaging 18 PPG and 8 APG. However, the wind behind the Cavs’ sails was slowly dieing. In the 1993 and 1994 playoffs Cleveland was swept by the Chicago Bulls.
The 1994-95 season was the end of an era for Price and the Cavs. Lenny Wilkens was already gone as coach replaced by Mike Fratello. Now Larry Nance and Brad Daugherty were both retired.
Suffering from a variety of injuries (including a broken shooting wrist), Price himself only appeared in 48 games that season. It proved to be his last with Cleveland. The Cavaliers were ready to move on with Terrell Brandon as their point guard and traded Price to the Washington Bullets in September 1995.
His stint with the Bullets lasted only seven games due to a left plantar fascia injury. His final two seasons (1996-97 and 1997-98) were spent with the Golden State Warriors and Orlando Magic before his playing days came to an end.
“[Mark Price] didn’t want to do nothing but shoot the basketball all day long,” Gilbow said. “He’d be outside (shooting) behind the church. Or get a key. Anyone who had a gym he could get into, he was there.
Very very committed. Very very dedicated. Very serious about all of it, at an early age.”
To say Mark Price was a career unfulfilled rings with much truth. Although credited with 12 NBA seasons to his name, Price was only fully healthy and super productive in six of them. Of a possible 984 games (73.4%), he played in 722 of them. Out of a possible 47,232 minutes he played just 21,560 (45.6%). From those six seasons he wrung out four All-Star Teams and four All-NBA appearances. To eliminate the string of injuries that robbed him of copious court time would be to add on a slew of awards and honors.
However, to say Mark Price was a player unfulfilled rings hollow. Injuries limited the court time, but they did not prevent Price from maximizing his talent while out on the court. His 1989 season remains one of the great shooting campaigns ever: 52.6% overall from the field with 44.1% of his three-pointers finding the net. His FT% nestled in at 90.1%. In fact, in the history of the NBA, Price is second in FT% with a career mark of .9039 which is juuuust behind Steve Nash’s average of .9043.
Few players have so easily balanced the role of intoxicating scorer with dependable playmaker like Price. He was offensive savant who rarely found a shot he couldn’t make or a dime he couldn’t drop.
All-NBA 1st Team (1993)
3x All-NBA 3rd Team (1989, 1992, 1994)
4x All-Star (1989, 1992-’94)
Career Regular Season Averages (722 games):
Playoff Averages (47 games):