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Sam Smith: Just like MJ, LeBron could pass on the Knicks

Once upon a time, not so long ago, the Knicks offered a ton of money to a future Hall of Famer free agent guard. But Michael Jordan turned them down, and LeBron James could do the same in 2010.
Sam Smith at Bulls.com

Sam Smith: Just like MJ, LeBron could pass on the Knicks


Michael Jordan As the story goes, Jordan passed on an opportunity to close out his career on the stage where he so regularly shined.
(Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)

It remains one of the most delicious rarely told stories in the NBA, and an object lesson for those teams, the Bulls included, who have dreams of stealing away one or more of the great free agents of 2010.

It was the time Michael Jordan was a free agent and almost signed with the New York Knicks.

Well, perhaps not almost, and Jordan's agent, David Falk, still denies it ever was serious or under discussion. But it's part of NBA lore, and Knicks and Bulls insiders at the time remember it as what was portrayed then by Falk as a strong possibility.

In the end, Jordan signed a one-year $30 million contract with the Bulls, and then in 1997-98, a one-year $33 million deal for his final Bulls contract. But there were some at the time who believed Jordan, like LeBron James now, wanted the Madison Square Garden/New York City spotlight to conclude his glorious career. Though it's also a function of the players there at the time, and the Knicks of 1996-97 were a good team with Patrick Ewing, a healthy Allan Houston and Jordan's best buddy, Charles Oakley. With Jordan, they likely would have been champions. They seemed a lot better prepared to guarantee Jordan a title than they would now with James in two years.

And that was the plan of the aggressive then Knicks president Dave Checketts, who always said you could not rebuild in New York; that the community wouldn't stand for a run of draft choices. They're not exactly doing that now, but might have to if their free agency coup of 2010 fails.

The key was Knicks ownership at the time.

ITT was a part owner and one of its properties was Sheraton Hotels. Though any compensation other than salary has to be included in the salary cap, strange things can happen in the NBA regarding a New York franchise. So the plan being cooked up was to somehow—I never heard quite how—get Jordan substantial Sheraton holdings, perhaps in endorsement money which would be separate from the salary cap and seemingly within the rules.

Jordan was just concluding his eight-year $25 million contract with the Bulls, signed in 1988 as the Bulls only re-negotiation ever. It was precedent setting at the time with no athlete ever making as much, but soon outdated with expanding league revenue and salary cap. Jordan stuck to it, and perhaps as thanks, the Bulls paid him his full basketball salary the 18 months Jordan was out playing baseball.

Jordan returned in March 1995, and the Bulls won their fourth championship and record 72 games in 1995-96. There was a brief labor impasse lockout and signing moratorium at the beginning of July 1996, and the Knicks were said ready to pounce then with Falk's approval. Perhaps it was just a Falk bargaining ploy, which is hardly uncommon.

The Bulls, because of the Bird exception, could pay Jordan more than any team, just like the Cavs with James. But the word was Jordan could make up the money in New York easily in other sources. Falk initially told the Bulls it would take a salary starting in the mid to high $20s of millions of dollars to sign Jordan, so there apparently was some hesitation as no one in the NBA made anywhere near that.

In the end, the Bulls topped that figure at $30 million, and maybe the New York threat was the reason. Falk, to this day, insists there never was one, though that's not what you hear around the NBA offices in New York. Perhaps Jordan is telling James now what really went on and what to do.

-- Two coaches already and counting. I'd be surprised if Reggie Theus in Sacramento doesn't get the boot any day now with attendance and the team in the tank after ownership already dumped on him earlier this season and six straight home losses. Theus was good last season and is missing his best scorer, but who cares. Eh? A 44-point quarter by the undermanned Jazz last week didn't help, either. And Mo Cheeks may not be far behind the way the 76ers are playing and have looked. Though even at 1-10, it was somewhat of a surprise that Eddie Jordan in Washington was wiped out so quickly after just having his option for 2009-10 picked up this summer. Gilbert Arenas and Brendan Haywood, his best offensive and defensive players, haven't played this season, and the Wizards were the only team in the East other than Detroit to make the playoffs the last four years. But insiders say relations between GM Ernie Grunfeld and Jordan had badly deteriorated to a low lack of communication, which sounded a lot like what happened at the end with Scott Skiles. Ed Tapscott inherits a mess with the backcourt of Dee Brown (yes, really) and DeShawn Stevenson officially the worst in the NBA as it averages about 10 points, half the next lowest scoring backcourt duo. Sounds like a team in desperate need of Larry Hughes. And one which almost had him. Again.

It goes back to this preseason when the Bulls, Wizards, Nuggets and Clippers were in talks for a massive player deal. Those rarely come to fruition because of so many moving parts, though sources say this one was getting serious before Hughes got hurt and then Kirk Hinrich. I usually don't pay much attention to these scenarios since GM's talk all the time and come up with some crazier stuff than my e-mailers. And presumably everything has changed since the Nuggets later dealt for Chauncey Billups and the Clippers for Zach Randolph. I've heard different versions of this, but the Bulls supposedly were getting Chris Kaman and Antonio Daniels after everything settled. Who knows how close it ever was. But despite what the Clippers have been saying, they have had long interest in dealing Kaman, now out two weeks. And I'd assume especially now with Randolph playing well with Marcus Camby.

So maybe there are a few deals in there for the Bulls to pursue. I'd go for Kaman, unless the Bulls are set on the 2010 strategy of revamping for free agents. Kaman has an eight figure annual deal for the three years after this season. One never knows what the Clippers want or are doing, especially now. But perhaps a package of Andres Nocioni with a declining contract and Joakim Noah as backup insurance for Camby could get something done. The truth is the Bulls don't have that much intriguing to offer with the Clippers paying big for point guard Baron Davis (no need for Hinrich) and Luol Deng a base year player and difficult to deal. The Wizards situation could be more promising. They liked Hughes; they just didn't want to pay him so much. They desperately need backcourt scoring. Etan Thomas now doesn't play through two coaches. Maybe Thomas and Darius Songaila (though he has two more seasons after this) if the Bulls want to begin clearing that backcourt jam as the Wizards are playing young big men, anyway.

-- Kevin Garnett is a noted trash talker, but for a guy who for years refused chances to be with better teams and a chance to win—and only reluctantly went to Boston and only after they acquired Ray Allen—it was curious to hear him warn Chris Bosh after a Celtics win. Said Garnett: "When you're a good player and trying to be better ... you want the help around you. He has to make a decision on whether he wants to be here." Garnett was the one, by the way, who cried when the team dealt Dean Garrett. With Jose Calderon being beaten regularly now with the lingering effects of a hamstring injury and his great assist/turnover ratio looking mortal, Jermaine O'Neal looking old and hurt and Andrea Bargnani out of position at small forward, no wonder GM Bryan Colangelo is looking around the league to shake things up. Though there's much criticism of the Bulls passing on LaMarcus Aldridge for Tyrus Thomas, how about Toronto's decision to forgo Aldridge, whom Bosh lobbied for and is close with as both are from Texas. That's the draft pick that could come back to haunt Toronto the most as Bosh considers his future.

-- It may be the first time Stephon Marbury has won at anything in his NBA career (that's 18 playoff games and never out of the first round in 13 years). It seems Marbury could get his buyout and release from the Knicks Monday, and there'll be no shortage of suitors, though as I often say, Life is too short to have Stephon Marbury on your team. Anyway, it seems the Mavs, Heat, Warriors, Raptors, Magic, Wizards, Timberwolves (now that would be funny) and Suns also seem like possibilities, though Dallas, Miami and Golden State seem to have expressed the most interest if Marbury is freed and they have to pay just a veteran's minimum. Take a shot and if it doesn't work cut him. It's not bad business. The Knicks are getting beaten up in the local media (what else is new) for not sending Marbury away sooner, though reporters tend to have an easier time spending $20.8 million of someone else's money. Really, how much of a distraction was it for a bad Knicks team, anyway? C'mon. And who's to say someone, say Miami with the underproducing Shawn Marion, might not have taken a shot? Anyway, it seems Marbury has worn the Knicks down and out with the media baying for action. A question I get all the time is why some teams have been able to do this, like the Pacers with Jamaal Tinsley and Bucks with Damon Jones and Bulls previous with Tim Thomas, and the Knicks just can't send Marbury home, because a player doesn't have to go. Those guys agreed to go home and be paid. A player cannot be denied access to games and practice unless suspended (they did suspend him for one game in the dispute over whether or not he refused to play in Detroit). With no other reason to suspend him, the Knicks had to allow him to come. They didn't have to play him, but he could be around. Marbury may win this game of chicken, which would give him one NBA career win that means anything.

-- The Warriors seem to be finding out—big surprise—Jamal Crawford is no point guard, and now have so many shooting guards that former Hall of Famer Anthony Morrow, of the 37-point debut, isn't even playing. So the Warriors finished their 0-5 road trip with Don Nelson doubting he has a playoff team in losing 138-125 in New York. Former Bull Chris Duhon set a franchise record with 22 assists and is now second all-time in NBA history for most assists in a game against a team not trying to prevent a score. The leader is Scott Skiles, whose 30-assist game came against a Denver team coached by Paul Westhead. Here's one to consider, by the way. With all those shooting guards, it's only going to get worse when Monta Ellis returns. And he'll return from that offseason moped injury and ankle surgery to a new management direction that sought to more severely penalize him than general manager Chris Mullin. Ellis is a great scorer, though a bit small and not quite the three-point threat of Ben Gordon. Would it be worth a shot at Ellis with Hinrich, whom the Warriors have long admired as both are injured now, anyway. Ellis and Derrick Rose could be some dynamic backcourt. Would it be better than Gordon if Gordon's contract requests were met?

-- Maybe Saturday night in Detroit is better than we imagined. The Pistons had lost their last three Sunday games by 19 per game and Sunday lost by 11 at home to Portland, again yielding better than 50 percent shooting. It's clearly a team in transition, even with the expected return of Antonio McDyess next week, after the trade of Chauncey Billups. I still believe it was the right thing to do with a team whose run was up. Seen Rasheed Wallace this season? LaMarcus Aldridge, whose game has been compared with Wallace's—without the crazy, as they say—scored 27 and Portland is better than I thought. Maybe they should have beaten the Bulls by 42. Brandon Roy is definitely on the MVP list—"As coaches, when we scout Portland, we kind of put him in the same category of Kobe (Bryant), LeBron (James), Dwyane Wade," Byron Scott said. "We treat him the same. He's that good."—and Nate McMillan has them playing tough. Iverson is in Detroit just for a season, probably Wallace's last there, too. They are both, how shall we say it, livers of the good life. You usually can have one. Two can be trouble. But you wonder how much having Iverson and his scoring game will hold back Rodney Stuckey, who has mostly disappeared since Iverson arrived. So it may be a tough season for the Pistons, which only would further open things up in the East.

-- One under the radar free agent for this summer is Utah's Paul Millsap. The thinking is the Jazz will only be able to afford to bring back Carlos Boozer, though Millsap will get a pile of their money if Boozer leaves. They'd like to keep both, which is why there always is Andrei Kirilenko rumors and speculation. One Western Conference coach told me his team prefers when Boozer plays over Millsap because Millsap is such a superior defender… not so sunny in Phoenix, at least indoors where owner Robert Sarver had a meeting with the players last week to tell them to be happier after Steve Nash admitted, "Guys are a little woe-is-me. Guys aren't having fun, myself included." Amaré Stoudemire added being frustrated after Nash the week before admitted to perhaps "a little" being marginalized in the offensive shift from running to walking it to Shaquille O'Neal. No business nearing its end is a happy place, and so it seems for the aging Suns, who lead the league in turnovers and continue to mostly run offense through O'Neal, of all people. "It sure looks like we're just a little too reliant on Shaq," Nash told Phoenix media. "We're just not quite comfortable playing without him the way we used to play because we spend so much time trying to incorporate him." It's led to the middle being clogged, leaving Nash to stand and throw in post passes and Stoudemire drifting about in his game and opinions. Though they've long said it's all about the playoffs because of previous failures, and so we'll see… newspapers in Los Angeles now are matching the Lakers daily record against the 1995-96 Bulls… a cheap big guy pickup could be the Lakers' Chris Mihm, who is recovered from injury but doesn't play in the final season of a modest deal…when Jamal Crawford returned to New York with the Warriors last week he got a video tribune from the team and standing ovation from the Madison Squared Garden crowd. Jamal's a nice guy, but Knicks' legend? Maybe it's been worse than we even imagined.

-- It's wild to watch Grizzlies games. What, you say you don't. Is it just me? I do love this game and that probably proves it. Anyway, there's probably not a more selfish team. It's gotten so rookie O.J. Mayo is effectively playing point guard as he has the ball much of the time, and then makes a drive and shoots. He does know the NBA game already and should long be a scorer. I was watching one day last week when late in a loss (what else?) to the Spurs he took three straight shots. Then Rudy Gay got a Spurs miss and dribbled full court and threw himself at the basket, obviously doubting if he passed to Mayo he'd get the ball back. Then Mayo got the ball on the next possession with the game ending and one sided and drove to get that final score. Larry Hughes would look like John Stockton on that team… this is both sad and funny. I saw this letter in an ESPN.com column, and I hate that people are seeing Michael Jordan this way these days, though I suppose he's brought it on himself. The letter supposedly was from a David Sanders of St. Louis: "What are the chances that MJ was on a golf course somewhere, saw that 'Jordan Gets Fired From Wizards' headline come across the ESPN ticker as he mixed a drink and lit a stogy at the turn, then had to look at Oak and ask, "Is that me? I thought we were with some team in Charlotte ... the Bearcats or something like that?'" Sorry, Mike. But it was funny.

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