Unsung Knicks History – Celtics “Cap-Size” Knicks Salary Cap From the Start

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 cronb01@aol.com! I’d prefer you share your suggestions via e-mail rather than in the comments section, so we can keep them a surprise! Thanks!

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19 thoughts to “Unsung Knicks History – Celtics “Cap-Size” Knicks Salary Cap From the Start”

  1. Wow. I adored Bernard King (and had a real soft spot for Marvin “The Human Eraser” Webster), but being 11 years old that summer, I had NO IDEA any of this went down. Heck, this is the first time I heard the Knicks made an offer to McHale.

    Great stuff, Brian. Perfect reading for a lazy Wednesday in August.

  2. I don’t believe they ever actually made the offer, Robert. They just put out the framework of the deal that they would offer, if they offered a contract, to see what McHale’s interest was.

  3. Gotcha. Still, this is the first I’d ever heard of the possibility of McHale being a Knick. Similarly, It was only a couple of years ago that I learned that Isiah Thomas was almost the starting PG on the ’94 year,

    But back to the 80’s… When I was 11, I’m not sure how I would have reacted. Even at that tender age, I knew instinctively to LOATHE the Celts — possibly due to being rocked to sleep at age 1 by my father as he listened to the ’73 NY/BOS E. Conference finals on the radio. The thought of McHale being a Knick would have been a lot to take. More so than say, Reggie Miller signing as a free agent in the summer of ’96 (instead of Allan Houston — a legit possibility at the time).

    Our childhood heroes always have a stronger emotional bond to our psyches, don’t they?

    Anyway, I’m sure I’d have found a way to cheer on McHale’s awkward/utterly effective low-post moves and wayward elbows. But it certainly wouldn’t have gone down easy.

  4. It certainly would have been odd, but man, King/McHale/Cartwright would have been pretty sweet!

    And ix-nay on uture-fay opics-tay. ;)

  5. OT: Isiah Thomas will not accept the job as a consultant for the Knicks (according to sources at ESPN).

  6. Alright, the non-news about Isiah fizzled. “Crisis” averted.

    How about this Collison to the Pacers deal??

    I like the move a lot for everyone other than the Hornets; it’s only mildly beneficial for them in the short-term and is slightly worse for the cap in that Ariza’s contract is a year longer than Posey’s and they may have to sign an expensive backup PG. Long-term it could be disastrous.

    The good news for Knicks fans is that the Hornets no longer have Collison as a trading chip to add someone that will make CP3 stay. Peja’s expiring is their last hope.

  7. I am mystified as to why the Hornets made that deal — they must really like Ariza. Either that or they really wanted to let CP3 know that he’s their PG now and forever?

  8. Wow, so the Knicks could have had Kevin McHale and Isiah Thomas? That’s rather funny, because those two are probably the NBA’s worst GMs of the past decade.

  9. Great piece Brian.

    I loved those Knick teams. As I recall, the Knicks had Ray Williams again in 1984 and had drafted Darrell Walker. So, they finally had depth at guard and, with Hubie Brown in his second year, had learned to play great defense and rode Bernard on offense to, almost, the top of the mountain.

    Always a bridesmaid, though. Think what it would have done to the C’s had they lost McHale! Damn, I wish I did not know this.

    I remember the year we drafted Bill Cartwright, Sly Williams, and a young explosive forward by the name of Larry Demic. I thought we had the R.O.Y. that year, Cartwright. Would have been true except for a couple of guys named Bird and Johnson. Oh to be a Knick fan.

  10. The fact that the hornets traded collison , changes everything if and when paul requests a trade midseason, when the team is barely cracking the wests 10 seed.

    Before hand, they did not need a PG in return, widening the scope of teams that can make reasonable offers.

    Now , they will need a PG in return, narrowing the teams down. Felton can be a great trade chip for this deal being that his contract is user friendly , along with the fact that his numbers will be Dantoi-ized. He is also one of the younger PGs ( compared to a Kidd).

    However, the magic will also benefit from this as Nelson is more promosing then Felton, However we can package Felton with a Gallo or a Randolph , where they cannot.

  11. I think we need to wait for CP3 to be a free agent if we’re to hope the Knicks can get him. If the Hornets decide to trade him, it’s hard to see why they wouldn’t just send him to OKC for Westbrook or elsewhere for some other young, high quality point guard.

  12. #13 – if you were the hornets, Wouldnt you rather have Felton and Gallo or Randolph – fills 2 spots as a minimal cost.

  13. If the Thunder’s package included only Westbrook, then maybe I would prefer Gallo and Felton. I’m not sure the Knicks can market Gallo as a franchise cornerstone just yet. We’ll see just how well this year goes for him.

  14. Great news about Isiah, great article about the Knicks. Life can’t be better unless the Heat deals us LeBron for Rautins.

  15. why all the Rautins hate on the board, you can’t all be G-Town alums (in the name of full disclosure I went to Syracuse).

  16. I don’t dislike him at all by the way. I got no hate for Syracuse at all. Was just the first person on my mind when I drew that up. Sorry!

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