This is the latest in a series of examinations into different games, events and decisions that impacted Knicks history in some way, shape or form. Stories that are not as famous as, say, “The Dunk” or Willis Reed playing Game 7, but still have a place in Knicks history, especially for die-hard fans. Here is an archive of all the stories featured so far.
As the 2013 NBA free agency season continues, I thought it’d be interesting to look back at the 1993 NBA free agency season and see how sometimes the best moves are the ones that you don’t make…especially when they require you to trade Charles Oakley for Kendall Gill.
There are three key things that you need to keep in mind about the NBA offseason in 1993 for this story to make any sense to you. First off, up until he actually retired in September 1993, the thought of Michael Jordan not playing basketball in the 1993-94 NBA season was not in anyone’s mind. The only thing being discussed about Jordan was whether NBA Commissioner David Stern would punish him at all for his gambling problem (which was big news at the time). Secondly, since everyone presumed Jordan was playing, teams that wanted to beat the Bulls, like, say, the New York Knicks, were obsessed with finding a way to slow down Michael Jordan (as no one could stop him). Finally, for whatever reason, people had convinced themselves that Kendall Gill could be a helpful tool in combating Michael Jordan.
Yes, it is hard to believe this now, but during the 1993 offseason, the most desired free agent on the market was Charlotte Hornets shooting guard Kendall Gill (The Detroit Pistons’ Dennis Rodman was likely #2). Although Gill had never been an All-Star or made any All-NBA teams in his first three years in the league since being the fifth overall pick in the 1990 NBA Draft, he was a good defender who could score a bit (he had averaged over 20 points a game in 1991-92), but more importantly, it was just rare to see a player as good as Gill actually available after just three years. Most worthwhile restricted free agents heading into their fourth season just stick with their current teams. However, Gill did not like playing third banana to Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning, he did not like playing under coach Allan Bristow and he did not get along with Hornets’ point guard Muggsy Bogues. Gill did not suffer in silence. He tried to get traded during the 1992-93 season but the Hornets, who considered it, figured they would get more during the offseason (and they were also concentrating on what turned out to be a pretty darn successful season for the team. They beat the Celtics in the first round and played the Knicks extremely close in the second round before losing). After the season, though, with Gill a restricted free agent, while the Hornets still liked him as a player, they knew that he would not sign with them long term. Not only that, but they were also feeling that he was not worth either the headaches or the money he was looking for (he was trying to get paid roughly the same as what Patrick Ewing made in 1992-93). So Charlotte set off to find Gill a new home. Actually finding that new team, however, was not going to be an easy task.
The main problem for Gill choosing the team he wanted was the way that the NBA free agency system worked like at the time (thankfully a system that would go out the window in a couple of years to be replaced by basically the same system the NBA uses now). Teams ostensibly could just sign players outright with their salary cap space, but the salary cap was so low ($15.175 million for the 1993-94 season) that few teams had any salary cap space of note. Instead, teams had to be more creative with making cap space. One way they did this was by taking advantage of a bizarre loophole in the system with regards to re-signing your own players. You see, while you could not spend over the cap to sign other free agents, you could go over the cap as much as you wanted to re-sign your own free agents. That is true today, as well, but during the 1980s and early 1990s, whatever money you added to your payroll when you re-signed your own players would then become money you could spend on other players if you then got rid of the player you had re-signed later on. So if the Knicks wanted to sign a free agent for $1.8 million, they could just cut one of their current players making that much money (or more) and then use that player’s cap space to sign a free agent. So over-the-cap teams could still sign free agents, they would just have to let one of their current players go. As you might imagine, that led to a major incentive for teams to re-sign their own free agents, whoever they were, to large contracts so that they could cut them the following season and use that cap space for better players. That’s what led to the New York Knicks and other teams giving out some ridiculous contracts to their own players – it just gave them more freedom to sign other players. it was just a foolish system as a whole. In addition to this loophole, though, obviously the Knicks could trade one of their players to Charlotte in a sign-and-trade for Gill. That, of course, is what the Hornets were pursuing.
The Knicks decided to offer Charles Oakley and Tony Campbell (and later, Greg Anthony in place of Campbell) in a three-way trade for Gill. The Knicks would trade Oakley and Campbell (later Anthony) to Philadelphia, Philadelphia would trade Hersey Hawkins or Jeff Hornacek to Charlotte and Charlotte would trade a re-signed Gill to the Knicks. The only problem with that trade, of course, is that it would leave the Knicks without a starting power forward. This is where AC Green steps in.
In the discussion of Dwight Howard deciding to spurn the Los Angeles Lakers this offseason, you might have noticed some articles mention that the last time that a player who the Lakers wanted to re-sign turned the Lakers down was back in 1993, when the Lakers’ best player, power forward AC Green, decided that he wanted out of what was, at the time, a bit of a sinking ship (the Lakers made the playoffs but finished four games under .500). Green’s two biggest suitors were the Knicks and the Phoenix Suns. The Knicks could only offer Campbell or Anthony’s $1.7 million to Green. The Suns cut Tom Chambers and offered his $1.895 million salary (with 30% raises, that offer would eventually equal the Lakers’ offer of $3 million). The hope with the Knicks was that Green would try to take advantage of yet another NBA loophole where players would sign for a single year at a reduced salary and then re-sign the next year for big money, as the NBA did not then have a restriction that players had to play multiple years for a team before being able to gain “Larry Bird rights” and then be able to be re-signed for much larger contracts. So Knicks Coach Pat Riley, Green’s old coach with the Lakers, could promise Green (under the table) that the Knicks would re-sign him the following year for more money and, of course, could promise that the Knicks would be more competitive than the Lakers (the NBA actually went to court with the Portland Trailblazers during the 1993 offseason over just such a deal, where the Trailblazers signed Chris Dudley for whatever cap space they had, $700,000, with the unspoken agreement that he would re-sign the next season for a big contract. The NBA lost, but eventually they won in court the following year when every team started doing it. You can read this past Unsung Knick History for a full exploration of the three times that the NBA took issue with contracts signed by Chris Dudley).
In the end, the Knicks could not woo Green (he signed with the defending Western Conference champion Phoenix Suns) and the trade died. Gill was nearly traded straight up for the Los Angeles Clippers’ Danny Manning but Manning nixed the deal. Gill eventually ended up being traded to the Seattle Supersonics for Dana Barros and Eddie Johnson (the Hornets then flipped Barros to Philly for the aforementioned Hersey Hawkins). Gill signed a six-year/$22.8 million contract ($3.8 million a year – $200,000 less than what Michael Jordan made in 1992-93!). It did not work out for Seattle and they ended up trading him back to the Hornets in two years for, who else, but the aforementioned Hersey Hawkins.
The Knicks ended the offseason with just one minor move, signing Anthony Bonner away from Sacramento (using a salary spot they got by cuttting Bo Kimble). Tony Campbell, though, was traded (with a draft pick) for point guard Derek Harper during the 1993-94 season (Harper would play a major role for the Knicks in their playoff run – Harper put up 16.4 points, 6 assists and 3 rebounds a game during the NBA Finals). And Charles Oakley went on to make the All-Star team and was also clearly a major part in the Knicks Finals team.
So here, at least, the move that the Knicks didn’t make turned out to be the best move of all.
If you have any suggestions for future Unsung Knicks History pieces, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org!