This is the second in a series (of indefinite length and regularity) 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, LJ’s 4-point play 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.
Today, we look at the very first salary cap in Knick history and how the Boston Celtics took advantage of the new salary cap system to keep the Knicks from their goal of signing Celtic Hall of Famer Kevin McHale and almost decimated the early 1980s Knicks!
The National Basketball Association made professional sports history by being the first of the four major American sports to institute a salary cap in 1983 (they were the first to ever institute a salary cap decades earlier, but that barely lasted a year – this was the first time a permanent salary cap was put into place).
The salary cap for each team was due to kick in for the 1984-85 season. It was set at $3.6 million (or 53% of league revenue – as you might imagine, neither the players nor the NBA realized how much more money they would soon be making when a certain fellow with the initials of MJ came along). Five teams had already exceeded $3.6 million in salary, so those teams had their salary cap lock in at whatever their salary was at the end of the 1982-83 season. Those five teams were – the Los Angeles Lakers, the New Jersey Nets, the Philadelphia 76ers, the Seattle Supersonics and, naturally, the New York Knicks.
However, there was a wrinkle in the NBA system. Since these five teams had been given the opportunity to go over the cap, any team in the NBA that was under the cap at the start of the 1983 offseason was allowed to spend however much money that they wanted until the end of the 1983-84 season, at which point that their salary cap would also lock in at that number just like the aforementioned five teams.
So as you might imagine, the 1983 offseason saw quite a lot of players suddenly get richer than they ever had before, with teams under the cap giving their star players extensions before the cap kicked in. And also as you might imagine, the teams that were already locked in were at quite a disadvantage (except perhaps the Lakers, who were locked in at over $5 million in salary – the Nets, on the other hand, barely cracked $3.6 million! It was not exactly the fairest system in the world).
That disadvantage showed itself for the Knicks in June of 1983.
After winning in the first round of the NBA Playoffs, sweeping their “Best of 3” series against the New Jersey Nets, the Knicks’ 1982-83 season ended when they were swept by the eventual NBA champion Philadelphia 76ers (they were the first “Fo” in Moses Malone’s famous declaration that the Sixers would win the title in “Fo, Fo, Fo,” in other words that they would win each of their three series – they had a first round bye – in the minimum four games required; Malone was only off by one game!). The Knicks were a young team, though, with their top player, Bernard King, being only 26 years old, and their next three leading scorers all under the age of 26 (starting center, Bill Cartwright, was 25; starting point guard Rory Sparrow was 24 and guard/forward Sly Williams was 25). Therefore, the Knicks seemed poised to make a move in the NBA in the future, (and roughly the same team of players ended up taking the Celtics to seven games in the playoffs the next season, a year the Celtics would ultimately win the NBA title), so as you could expect, other teams wished to take advantage of the Knicks’ lack of financial flexibility (the Knicks’ salary cap was locked in at $4.6 million).
However, one team, the Boston Celtics, was particularly interested, as the New York Knicks were targeting one of their players! Future Hall of Famer Kevin McHale was a restricted free agent during the 1983 offseason, and the Knicks were highly interested in him. With King at small forward, Cartwright at center and McHale at power forward, the Knicks would have one of the best frontcourts in the league. The Knicks were working out an offer to McHale for roughly five years and $6.25 million dollars. They had even waived veteran player Paul Westphal, who they had just signed the previous year, to make room for McHale under their $4.6 million salary cap. The Knicks never made that offer, however, as the Celtics played the 1983 offseason as aggressively and strategically as they could.
Since the Celtics could spend as much money as they pleased, they signed three Knick free agents to offer sheets, center Marvin Webster (a great shotblocker), the aforementioned Sly Williams and, most importantly, point guard Rory Sparrow, who had been a revelation for the Knicks after coming over from the Hawks for Scott Hastings.
Webster and Williams’ deals were both three-year deals for $450,000 per year. Sparrow’s deal was a four-year deal for $500,000 per year.
If the Knicks matched on two of the free agents, then they would not have enough cap room to re-sign McHale. They pretty much felt that they had to re-sign Sparrow, so they matched that offer quickly.
They waited a bit on Webster and Williams, and ultimately decided that the risk of not matching and then seeing Boston match their offer to McHale was too great. So they re-signed them both, then dealt Williams to Atlanta for the much-cheaper Rudy Macklin (the Hawks eventually cut Williams in the last year of his deal, and he ended up on the Celtics, of all teams).
This made it so that the Knicks literally could not sign McHale to an offer sheet, and he ultimately re-signed with the Celtics for roughly four years/$4 million.
However, this story has been told over the years as the Celtics just signing these three players to keep the Knicks from signing McHale to an offer sheet. In actuality, though, the Celtics’ master plan was almost directly the opposite. They wanted the Knicks to sign McHale to an offer sheet. Their master plan was to convince the Knicks that the Celtics would not match the 5-year/$6.25 million offer, so that the Knicks would give up on Webster and Williams. In addition, their giving a fairly inexperienced young guard four years/$2 million dollars was also designed for the Knicks not to match. The Celtics plan was to then match the McHale offer, keep Sparrow and deal Webster and Williams for draft picks. If the Celtics’ master plan had worked, they would have had a new point guard, some draft picks, kept their great power forward and decimated the up-and-coming Knicks.
As it were, they only succeeded in putting the Knicks into a salary cap funk that they would be stuck in for a few years (it is a good sign to note that Sparrow, who played until 1992, never made as much money in a single season as he did for those four years as a Knick, a good sign the money was too high).
If you have any suggestions for future Unsung Knicks History pieces, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org! I’d prefer you share your suggestions via e-mail rather than in the comments section, so we can keep them a surprise! Thanks!