Lesson #5: Don’t panic — that bad break today might be the luck you need tomorrow
by Jack M Silverstein (@readjack)
I believe in the planning and principles behind the ‘96 Bulls and the whole second three-peat. A lot of sound reasoning went into those teams. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t any luck.
As I researched this team, I had fun diving into history’s wrinkles — those mostly forgotten sharp left turns our memories ironed into straightaways. The lesson: like the parable of the Chinese farmer, you truly never know if an event will end up being good luck or bad, so plan the best you can, react pragmatically, and move on.
And with that, here are my two favorite “what if?” moments of the 1996 Bulls — they’re related.
What if Chris Dudley didn’t sign with the Trail Blazers in 1993?
I know what you’re thinking: What the hell does Chris Dudley joining Portland in 1993 have to do with the ‘96 Bulls? If I hadn’t come across this arcane bit of history I would be asking the exact same question.
So let’s move back one year to the summer of ‘93 just to demonstrate the full unpredictability of life. Hang onto your hats: this is about to get convoluted.
Despite a forgettable 1993 with the Nets (71 games, 16 starts, 3.5 PPG, 7.1 RPG), Chris Dudley found himself a hot ticket item in the 1993 free agency race. New Jersey offered Dudley a seven-year contract totalling $20.7 million, with a starting annual salary of $1.56 million.
But the 43-win, out-in-the-first-round Nets were, like Dudley, going nowhere, and despite not even starting, Dudley wanted to sign with a team he considered a championship contender AND one where he could start.
Along came the Trail Blazers. The Blazers still had Clyde Drexler and were still a 50-win team. The problem was the salary cap: because of the so-called Larry Bird Rule which allows teams to exceed the cap to re-sign their own free agents, the Nets could offer more than Portland. The best the Blazers could offer Dudley was $11 million over seven years, starting at $790,000 annually.
Dudley took the $790,000.
Or, really, he took the $4 million.
Because what really mattered to Dudley when he signed with Portland was his contract’s one-year opt-out clause, which allowed him to become a free agent after one season. At that point, Dudley was a Portland free agent, and could cash in on a deal with the Blazers that only New Jersey could have given him in 1993. Which he did in 1994, when as an unrestricted free agent he signed a six-year deal with the Trail Blazers at $4 million per year.
Dudley’s Blazers contract wasn’t the only one in 1993 to employ this method, nor the only one scrutinized. The NBA initially challenged the deals between Kukoc and the Bulls and Craig Ehlo and the Hawks (from the Cavs) and likely would have challenged the one between A.C. Green and the Suns (from the Lakers) had it come earlier in the offseason.
But Kukoc was a prized rookie, Ehlo a double-figures scorer, Green a former All-Star. Each earned a contract for the 1993-94 season already at or above $1 million annually. Ehlo’s new contract (and Green’s) was a pay raise from 1993, even before the opt-out. Kukoc’s was a pay cut, but from outside the NBA.
Dudley on the other hand was taking a 50% pay cut (the first year of his would-be new Nets contract was $1.56 million) specifically to abandon one NBA team for another that, seemingly, couldn’t afford him. The NBA viewed the Dudley contract as a slick dodge. When the league rejected the Kukoc contract, it did so by simply stating the deal was “not a valid provision,” offering no comment about any attempt by the Bulls to circumvent the salary cap.
When Dudley signed with Portland, the league called his contract “a blatant and transparent attempt” to circumvent the cap and bashed the deal repeatedly in the press. The NBA’s challenge of the Kukoc and Ehlo contracts failed at the Special Master level; the Dudley contract made it to the federal courts.
And though U.S. District Judge Dickinson Debevoise seemed to empathize in his decision with the NBA — the league argued that Dudley and the Blazers had a “secret agreement” for Dudley to trigger the one-year opt-out, an assessment Debevoise said “all the world could see” — he found that the deal as constituted did not actually violate the salary cap.
(For an extremely detailed breakdown of the Dudley deal and its effect on the NBA, read this from the Marquette Law Review.)
Dudley was free to join the Blazers. You know who else Portland was considering at center in 1993? A successful Italian team’s rejuvenated star: Bill Wennington. He landed with the Bulls, the only other team interested in his services.
What if Horace Grant didn’t want off the Bulls so damn bad?
In June 1994 the league’s collective bargaining agreement expired. A new one would have to be negotiated by summer’s end, and the league wanted to remove the one-year opt-out clauses.
Around this time, the Bulls were in contract talks with Horace Grant. Everything about Grant’s 1994 free agency was a cot damn disaster. The All-Star forward was sick of Chicago. Providing an escape route were the Orlando Magic, who were so open with their pursuit of Grant in the spring of 1994 that the Bulls filed tampering charges. In July, Orlando worked furiously to free roster space and money for Grant, leading to negotiations.
In a contested sequence of events, something happened between Reinsdorf and Grant that drove a stake into their relationship. According to Reinsdorf, Grant agreed via handshake to a new contract — 5 years, $20 million, plus incentives — and later, Reinsdorf claimed, reneged. According to Grant, the meeting was not a negotiation but a philosophical discussion about “the morality of sports.”
“He knows within his heart, and God knows, that the only time we shook hands was for me to say goodbye and walk out of his office,” Grant said after.
Both sides infuriated, Grant signed with Orlando for $22.3 million over 6 years, which at $3.7 million annually was purportedly under Grant’s market value based on Reinsdorf’s alleged offer of $4 million a year. The Magic could not give Grant more than that because they did not have enough cap space.
But Grant and the Magic had a plan: the one-year opt-out. The NBA smelled a rat and challenged the deal. This time, Judge Debevoise ruled against the one-year opt-outs. Faced with either returning to the Bulls or going to Orlando for even less money than originally thought, Grant took less money.
“’I said, ‘Horace, if you want to go back to Chicago, just tell me,’ ” Grant’s agent Jimmy Sexton told the Orlando Sentinel in September. “He told me, ‘No, I’ll never go back to Chicago.’ I think they underestimated his resolve to play here.”
Instead of returning to the Bulls, Grant signed with the Magic for $17 million over five years, or $3.4 million per year. (Of course the deal came with an escape clause after two years, after which Orlando re-signed Grant for $10 million per year.) Krause considered Grant the first Bulls free agent the team wanted to re-sign and couldn’t.
Once the Bulls realized Grant was gone, the team made its move on Clippers guard Ron Harper, a high-priced free agent coming off a 20-point season. The Knicks were going hard after Harper too, but could only offer $1.25 million. Harper earned $4 million in 1994 with the Clippers, so as much as he wanted out of L.A. he was unlikely to accept less than half his current salary.
That is, unless the deal came with a one-year opt-out. But Harper was one year too late for that, as Grant found out, and both men had Chris Dudley to thank. Not wishing to take less money with the Knicks or stay with the Clippers, Harper signed with the Bulls, the team he’d wanted from the beginning.
So now because of the chuzpah of the Blazers-Dudley ‘93 deal, the Bulls had Wennington and Harper and were on the road to having an opening for Rodman, who was better suited for this particular Bulls team than Grant.
Rodman, meanwhile, was a stroke of another kind of luck, having fallen so out of balance with the Spurs that they were willing to trade the four-time defending rebounding champ and a future Hall of Famer for a career backup.
And there you have it: three of the ‘96 team’s top eight postseason performers arriving from a seed that starts with Chris Dudley and centers on one of the worst free agent debacles in Bulls history.