Did Michael Jordan Start the Trend of Using Knicks As Leverage To Get Better Contracts?

Published 04/29/2021, 6:15 AM EDT
Chicago Bulls # 23 Michael Jordan sitting next to Bill Cartwright on the bench during the Chicago Bulls vs New York Knicks game on May 14 , 1993 at Madison Square Garden. (Photo by Tom Berg/WireImage)


Michael Jordan changed the game for all NBA players. During his career, Jordan was the most mercurial talent to ever enter the NBA. His rise had a direct causal effect on the popularity of the NBA. Thanks to Jordan becoming a global icon, the NBA became one of the most popular sports leagues in the entire world. But he perhaps doesn’t get the credit he deserves for player empowerment, as he secured one of the biggest contracts in NBA history in 1996.

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The NBA landscape in 1996 was very different. The salary cap was just in its initial stages and didn’t have the far-reaching restrictions it had today. The 80s and the 90s saw the NBPA negotiate with the league to ensure that they got a greater share of the increasing NBA revenue. Michael Jordan was the catalyst for this, as he was very responsible for the league earning so much money.

In 1996, the NBA boasted what could be the greatest free-agent class in history that had Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Charles Barkley, and many other NBA stars. Jordan was obviously the most sought-after free agent in that class. But given the introduction of the salary cap and the Larry Bird rights, it wasn’t very easy to sign him.

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Chicago Bulls All-Star forward # 23 Michael Jordan playing against New York Knick # 20 Rolando Blackman at Madison Square Garden. (Photo by Tom Berg/WireImage)

Was Michael Jordan going to the Knicks a possibility?

The Larry Bird rights, named after the legendary player, allow teams to cross the salary cap to re-sign their star-free agents. For Michael Jordan, he was staring at the face of the first major unrestricted free agency of his career. A player of Jordan’s caliber deserves the best, but as Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf said in ‘The Last Dance,’ Jordan was underpaid for the majority of his career.

Jordan wanted to see how much he could get out of the Chicago Bulls for what he thought, at that time, would be his last big basketball contract. Jordan was already the highest-paid player in the NBA at that point, and rightfully so. But he felt as though he deserved more from the Bulls. So he and his agent, David Falk, had preliminary conversations with the New York Knicks. However, they made it clear to them to not make an offer until something changed.

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David Falk told Jerry Reinsdorf that Michael Jordan wanted to know what he was worth to the Chicago Bulls. Therefore, the Bulls would have to make a blind bid to ‘His Airness’. Reinsdorf was obviously concerned about this, as he didn’t want to give a poor bid and lose the greatest player of all-time. So Falk told Reinsdorf that the first digit of the number they’d accept wasn’t a 2 – a vague answer.

Chicago Bulls All-Star forward # 23 Michael Jordan file photos. (Photo by Tom Berg/WireImage)

The Knicks explored every option to bag MJ

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In the meantime, the New York Knicks had cleared a great deal of cap space for free-agency. However, they didn’t have nearly enough to match what the Chicago Bulls could offer Jordan. They tried every possible avenue to compensate for their lack of salary options to possibly bring in Jordan. The possibility of the biggest star playing in the biggest market would have been huge for the league.

Eventually, the Knicks made Jordan an offer and told his agent to decide by the end of the day. Falk said that wasn’t enough time. However, despite the Knicks wanting to give Jordan more time, they couldn’t risk not signing Jordan and then losing out on other free agents. The results can be difficult, as we saw in the 2019 Kawhi Leonard saga for the Los Angeles Lakers.

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Jerry Reinsdorf eventually offered Michael Jordan a $30.14 million contract for one year. This deal was huge, in part because of Reinsdorf’s fear of the Knicks luring in Michael Jordan. So Jordan, in the tamest way, was one of the first players to leverage another NBA franchise to get himself a better deal.

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Aaditya Krishnamurthy

1205 articles

Aaditya Krishnamurthy is an NBA & NFL journalist for EssentiallySports, before which he worked at BusinessWorld magazine. He has been a fan of Basketball for over 10 years now, since Shaquille O’Neal was a Phoenix Suns player. During his time at Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts, he started a sports magazine for the college called the Overtime Tribune and hosted the Overtime Tribune Podcast until he graduated.

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