Unsung Knick History – How We Almost Had a Grant Legacy in New York

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.

The Knicks have a long history of having fathers and sons both play for them. Ernie and Kiki Vandeweghe, Henry and Mike Bibby, Al and Allie McGuire and I am sure others that I am missing (Patrick Ewing Jr. sadly never quite caught on to the team, despite coming close a couple of times). Interestingly enough, their latest draft pick, Notre Dame point guard Jerian Grant, almost counted, as well! Based on a request from blog commenter alsep73, we take a look at the somewhat comical (and sort of kind of tragic) tale of how the Knicks almost signed Harvey Grant and the franchise-altering decision they made to find a fill-in for Grant when they failed to sign him.

The Knicks finished the 1991-92 season with a much improved season but the same result as their previous season, a loss to the Chicago Bulls in the playoffs. Still, the Knicks, now after a full season by new coach Pat Riley, were clearly on the rise, with young players like John Starks and Anthony Mason bolstering their star center Patrick Ewing and their veteran star power forward Charles Oakley. The Knicks closed out the 1991-92 season with the following playoff rotation: Mark Jackson at the point, Gerald Wilkens at off guard, Xavier McDaniel and Oakley at the forward spots and Ewing in the middle. Starks, Mason and Greg Anthony were their primary bench players. Going into the following season, Riley felt that he definitely wanted to get another shooting guard but he also wanted to add to the front court depth, specifically with a scoring forward who could play both small forward and power forward as needed (Mason and Oakley played backup center for Riley, an interesting piece of early small ball). The first thing Riley addressed in the offseason was pick up a new shooting guard, trading a first round pick for Dallas Mavericks star Rolando Blackman (at the time their all-time leading scorer, a mark he would hold until Dirk Nowitzki passed him during the 2007-08 season), who was still a good player but was also 33 years old.

Their next move was a tricky one. This was back in the days where cap holds were not a thing, so basically if you had your own free agents, they would not affect your cap space. You could use your full cap space to sign another free agent and then re-sign your own free agents to go over the salary cap. The league eventually came up with the idea of a cap hold to close that loophole, but they had not yet invented that idea in 1992. So when Xavier McDaniel exercised an opt-out clause in his contract during the 1991-92 season, he became a free agent at the end of the season and his salary came off of the cap. After cutting Kiki Vandeweghe and Wilkens and getting Jackson and Blackman to restructure their contracts, the Knicks were roughly $4 million under the then $14 million salary cap. That was huge at the time. In an ideal world, they could then go out and sign a good free agent (it was not a great market that season, but there were some good players out there), have room to sign their own draft pick (Hubert Davis) and then resign Xavier McDaniel and exceed the salary cap.

However, if you’re reading this, you’re likely a Knick fan, so you know that the Knicks do not live in an “ideal world.”

An annoying rule that the NBA had back then that they have since changed is that draft picks had to be signed using your available cap space. If you didn’t have cap space, then you would have to cut players to create cap space. It was a ridiculous situation. However, the same cap rules that applied to the Knicks applied to other teams. They could use their cap space to sign a rookie and then go over the cap to re-sign their own free agents. The Washington Bullets, however, were in a bit of a pickle. Due to some players getting raises, they had some cap right room after the 1992 NBA Draft, but they would lose that cap room when the new financial year kicked in on July 1st (along with those raises). Not only that, but they had a prominent free agent of their own, a restricted free agent by the name of Harvey Grant.

Harvey Grant came into the league as the 12th overall pick in the 1988 NBA Draft (his twin brother Horace was the 10th overall pick the previous year). The small forward/power forward had a slow start to his NBA career for the Washington Bullets, averaging 5.6 points his rookie season and then 8.2 points in his seconds year. Then, out of nowhere, in the 1990-91 season he exploded to average 18.2 points per game. He came in second that year in the Most Improved Player balloting (he lost to Orlando Magic point guard Scott Skiles). Grant duplicated his 1990-91 season in 1991-92, so he entered the offseason as a prized free agent commodity, especially for a team like the Knicks who were looking for a scoring forward. His problem was that while he was playing well, the Bullets overall were not.

Tony Kornheiser summed it well in a piece in the Washington Post in 1992:

[A]t the end of last season, what Grant saw was: “Everyone in the league had gotten better, and it seemed we were at a standstill.” He had played four years in the league, and each year the Bullets had sunk further below .500. “I think playing on a winning team is very important to him,” said John Nash, the Bullets general manager. “I think he looks at his brother Horace and envies that situation; rightly so.”

They are twins, Harvey and Horace. But their pro careers have been separated at birth. Horace has never been out of the playoffs, and the past two seasons his Chicago Bulls — okay, maybe not his Chicago Bulls — have won the NBA title.

And futher…

“I get tired of people in airports coming up to me and saying, ‘Show me your rings, Horace.’ … “

So he wanted to go to a good team who could pay him enough to make the Bullets think twice about matching the offer, and Nash went as far to say (before free agency began) that “We plan to re-sign Harvey — within reason. If they give him $10 million, we wouldn’t. But our intent is to re-sign him.” Nash was saying this while they were trying to sign their 1992 draft pick, #6 overall pick, power forward Tom Gugliota. They were unable to get a deal done before free agency was finished, so now if they went over the cap to match an offer to Harvey Grant, they would have to cut enough players to get back under the cap by enough room to give Gugliota an opening salary of at least $1 million. That would be a daunting task, so it really looked like the Bullets might have to pick between signing Grant or signing Gugliota if a team signed Grant to a large enough contract. Remember, Nash said that they wouldn’t match a $10 million offer.

The Knicks then signed Grant to a six-year/$17 million contract (complete with an opt-out clause after just the second year of the deal). The contract seemed perfectly designed to screw the Bullets over. So much so that the Bullets actually accused the Knicks of concocting the offer with Grant’s help to specifically prevent the Bullets from matching, which would mean that the Knicks must have tampered with Grant. So the Bullets filed a grievance against the Knicks, but the Knicks prevailed. In retrospect, it was pretty obvious to everyone what kind of deal the Bullets would have a hard time matching. It was silly of them to think that the Knicks would have had to tamper to get such a deal done.

The Bullets, though, shocked the Knicks and Grant by matching the offer. Grant remarked at the time:

The money’s good, don’t get me wrong. But this goes beyond money. They insulted me, they insulted my integrity, me as a person, my character [by claiming that he colluded with the Knicks to come up with the offer].

Since he made it clear he would be leaving after the 1993-94 season (he gave it a 90% chance when they matched the offer), the Bullets instead traded Grant to the Trailblazers for center Kevin Duckworth after another strong 1992-93 season for Grant. Grant finally reached the playoffs during the 1993-94 season. In fact, he made the playoffs all throughout his tenure in Portland (before being dealt back to Washington with Rod Strickland in the Rasheed Wallace trade – Grant and Strickland were teammates for five seasons between their time in Portland and their time in Washington, so it is little surprise that Grant’s son Jerian models his game so much on Strickland. He and his brothers Jaelin, Jerami, and Jerai were very close to Strickland and his family).

For a while there, it really looked like Gugliota was going to have to play in Europe for a season until the Bullets could clear cap space the following season, but eventually the Bullets were able to get an injury exception for the injured Bernard King, and after cutting a few other players, they were able to clear space for Gugliota to sign, as well.

Thwarted in giving McDaniel and Oakley a forward to team-up with, the Knicks then found themselves without McDaniel, as well! McDaniel got sick of the Knicks expecting him to wait until they signed someone else (at which point they could sign him to exceed the cap), so he signed with the Boston Celtics (that whole drama is worth its own future column). Instead of having Grant and McDaniel, the Knicks now had neither!

The Knicks quickly traded a second round pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Tony Campbell, giving them one new forward and then they made the franchise-altering deal of Mark Jackson, a first round draft pick and a second round draft pick for two Los Angeles Clipper stars, point guard Doc Rivers and forward Charles Smith (as well as throw-in Bo Kimble). The two highly paid players ended up taking up most of the cap space the Knicks had cleared out (although they still had enough room to sign Hubert Davis).

The Knicks played very well in the regular season but Smith famously missed a number of layup attempts in the 1993 NBA Playoffs against the Chicago Bulls and the Knicks were once again eliminated by Michael Jordan and the Bulls.

As alsep73 said to me when he suggested this one, I bet Harvey Grant would have dunked the ball.

If you enjoyed this story, you’d probably also get a kick out of my Sports Urban Legends Revealed site. There is an archive of the ones about basketball here.

If you have any suggestions for future Unsung Knicks History pieces, drop me a line at bcronin@legendsrevealed.com!

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