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Remembering the Free Agent Madness of '96

I was 7 years old in the summer of 1996. I remember when the Knicks signed traded for Larry Johnson and signed Allan Houston, but I don't have much memory of the context. I've been doing a little research, though, and have turned up some artifacts of what ended up being a wild few months of free agency. Those of you who were fully past wetting the bed in '96 likely remember the scenario. Many of the league's superstars were up for new contracts: MJ, Shaq, Payton, Juwan Howard, Tim Hardaway, Alonzo Mourning, Steve Smith...the list goes on and on. Mike Wise's excellent article from the June 30, 1996 NY Times previews the free agent madness. It's excerpted heavily after the jump...


It is not a hostage situation, but it is close. It is not a high-profile college program in need of an all-American or an art auction, but it has elements of both. The greatest collection of National Basketball Association free agents officially put their services up for sale on July 8.

With more than one-third of the league's players eligible to go elsewhere -- including Shaquille O'Neal, Jordan, Howard and Gary Payton -- the league's power structure into the 21st century is at stake. Merely that.

"I'm talking to everybody," Ewing said earlier this week, referring to his off-season job as the Knicks' recruiting coordinator. "I expect us to be in the running for Juwan Howard and a lot of guys. Reggie Miller. Allan Houston. No question. We can catch the Bulls."

If the Knicks spend their money right, so can perhaps the Lakers, another team significantly under the league's $24.3 million salary cap.

The players and owners agreed to the terms of a six-year collective bargaining agreement on Friday, but a moratorium has been placed on all free agent signings and trades until July 9. Instead of preparing contracts this weekend in anticipation of July 1, general managers have another week to plot and dream.

"We want to add a consistent scorer," said Ernie Grunfeld, the Knicks' general manager. "That's our main priority."

The Knicks have nearly $9.5 million to spend -- after they sign their three first-round draft choices -- but the figure is a bit of ruse. For example, they could give $5 million of that figure to, say, Steve Smith in his first season.

With the regular 20 percent annual raise kicking in, they could offer the Atlanta shooting guard $37 million over five seasons -- an average of $7.4 million a season.

That would leave them with about $4 million to spend on a second-tier free agent, say, Houston's Mario Elie, Miami's Chris Gatling or Washington point guard Robert Pack.

"We might also go with two second-tier players, too, depending on what scenario plays out," Grunfeld said. "A lot of teams will be calling the same players, but everything could happen in a matter of days."

The club also has a scenario in which they would have about $3 million left over to sign the 34-year-old point guard Derek Harper to a two-year deal or a maximum three-year deal. If Harper goes elsewhere, the Knicks would probably go shopping for a point guard through a trade or perhaps go after a free agent stopgap like, say, Kenny Smith.

Payton is also available, but that is a ruse as well. In the free-agent wars, you can do one of two things immediately: put yourself in an instant position to give the Bulls a run, or give your fellow general managers a good laugh at your expense.

If, say, the Knicks were so bold (and naive and incompetent) to use all of their money on Jordan, they could dangle a three-year deal worth $34.6 million in front of His Airness, only to have it rejected once the Bulls offer him $40 million for two seasons. In such a scenario, Chicago would be exercising the league rule in which a team may spend any amount it wishes to re-sign its own free agents without it counting against their cap.

I don't have much of a point to make. It's just interesting to look back at a free agency period that rivaled the forthcoming summer of 2010 in importance, both for the Knicks and league-wide. We all know what happened following this article. Jordan re-signed with the Bulls (for one $30 million year, I think), and went on to win a couple more championships. Shaq left Orlando for Los Angeles. Payton and Mourning signed lucrative deals to stay put in Seattle and Miami, respectively. Long story short, the additions of Johnson and Houston in 1996 were momentous, but relatively tame in what was a massive free agent market. Nonetheless, the teams that included those two were the last Knick squads to truly contend. With 2010 looming large, and a long list of free agents hitting the market, this bit of history can serve as a reminder to keep an open mind. Granted, the team we'll be looking at next summer is quite different from the '96 roster, but history does show us that help can come from all different directions. The first and most important step is cap space. What happens from there is anybody's guess.