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Ball Don't Lie

Paying tribute to the NBA's 1996 offseason, the wackiest one by miles

Kelly Dwyer
Ball Don't Lie
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Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, and Shaquille O'Neal (among many others) all got paid in 1996. (Getty Images)

This has been one crazy offseason!

(I suppose. Kind of.)

We’re a week into things, and with precious little to show. Kobe Bryant’s contract extension from last fall eliminated his name from the free-agent ranks, Dirk Nowitzki’s long-expected paycut took another big name out of things, and the (very much understandable) patience that LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade are working with as they decide the most important contracts of their careers have kept actual basketball news to a minimum. And we kind of like actual basketball news, and less agent- and executive-driven speculation.

One thing is for sure, though. With the ever-expanding world of social media, paired with long-held traditions of overextending oneself while talking about potential moves on the Internet, radio or TV, quite a lot has been said about things that currently hold very little of substance so far, leading many to presume that this is the nuttiest offseason on NBA record.

It isn’t. And, no, 2010’s turn also pales in comparison to what we saw in the summer of 1996, when a series of league-altering moves were made in a just a few weeks’ time, with future Hall of Famers and team-shifters dancing about while one move led to another. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent, franchises and careers were restructured, and the aftereffects can be felt to this day – as Phil Jackson and Pat Riley currently attempt to win with a franchise player making a cap-teetering salary all over again.

With thanks to the minds at Pro Basketball Transaction Archive, we decided to list some of the more notable moves of that summer, in chronological order.

4-29-96: John Gabriel promoted to Orlando Magic general manager.

No more was the affable Pat Williams, he of those good luck charms and lottery wins, going to be the last voice in charge. Gabriel, the slicked-back power broker who helped put the Magic’s 1995 Eastern winner together, would be asked to run the show in full as the team anticipated the most important summer of the franchise’s young lifetime.

5-01-96: Pat Croce takes over as both Philadelphia 76ers owner and president.

Croce’s whirlwind turn lasted just four years, but during that time he was able to draft Allen Iverson, convince Larry Brown to take over as coach, while showing the necessary patience needed to work behind his two combatants in Brown and Iverson and make the 2001 NBA Finals.

5-01-96: Ross Perot Jr. takes over as Dallas Mavericks owner.

Perot Jr. replaced the beloved Donald Carter, who helped established some great Mavericks teams of the 1980s, and some of the worst teams in NBA history in the early 1990s. Perot Jr. was nearly as bad, and the city of Dallas had just about had it with their flailing Mavs by the time Mark Cuban took over in early 2001.

5-13-96: Tom Thibodeau and Ron Adams fired as Philadelphia 76ers assistant coaches.

Just two of the more respected basketball minds in modern NBA history, cleaning their lockers …

5-14-96: Magic Johnson retires.

Magic Johnson’s 1996 stint with the Lakers has been taken to task, he was criticized for being both out of shape and for possibly trying to grab some of the limelight that Michael Jordan’s return to basketball was standing under. He was also damn good as a Laker in his brief run, though, and for one of the greatest players in NBA history to announce his retirement, almost anonymously, in this offseason? Speaks to its depth.

5-23-96: Jeff Van Gundy promoted from interim to head coach as New York Knicks.

In the years since Van Gundy helped save a Knicks franchise that was in the midst of an identity crisis, his work has taken on the life of the gold standard for dogged assistants who get a midseason chance as the top dog, and help turn things around. The Knicks have flailed away since Van Gundy left the team in early 2001-02.

6-6-96: Danny Ainge hired as Phoenix Suns assistant coach.

Ainge had nearly the same success as Van Gundy when he took over for Cotton Fitzsimmons eight games into the 1996-97 season. Inheriting a winless team, Ainge went ridiculously (as in, “Wesley Person as power forward”) small, finishing 40-34 with one of the more entertaining rosters we can recall.

6-6-96: John Calipari hired as New Jersey Nets head coach and president.

John Calipari signed for five years and $15 million. Technically, he was allowed to make more money than any other coach in the NBA because he held final say on all personnel decisions (even though GM John Nash did the in-between work). The former University of Massachusetts coach went 72-112 in 2 1/2 years as Nets coach.

6-13-96: Mark Jackson, Ricky Pierce and a first-round pick traded from Indiana to Denver for Jalen Rose, Reggie Williams and a pick that turned into Erick Dampier.

Jalen Rose is still complaining about his first year in Indiana, and for good reason.

6-14-96: Pete Carril hired as Sacramento Kings assistant coach.

Hired by Princeton product Geoff Petrie to help young head coach Eddie Jordan, Carril would be a major part of the Chris Webber-led squads that made the NBA’s fans so darn happy between 1999 and 2005.

6-16-96: Johnny Davis hired as Philadelphia 76ers coach.

In the immortal words of one ESPN scribe whose name I cannot remember, “Allen Iverson wasn’t going to slow down for John Thompson, you think he’s going to slow down for Johnny Davis?”

Davis would last one year.

6-20-96: Phil Jackson signs a one-year, $2.5 million deal with the Chicago Bulls.

When Jackson asked for money comparable to what Calipari was making, Bulls GM Jerry Krause sniffed that Calipari actually held two jobs, and that Jackson was due for only one. Jackson would go onto make half of what Calipari would the next year while winning 69 games. This really happened.

6-21-96: Dallas deals the sixth pick in the 1996 draft (Antoine Walker) and a 1997 overall pick (Ron Mercer) to Boston for the ninth pick (Samaki Walker) and Eric Montross.

Dallas, working with a new owner in Ross Perot Jr. and new coach in Jim Cleamons, actually dealt down in one of the greatest drafts in NBA history and gave up a first-round pick for 1997 in order to grab Samaki Walker and the next 10 years (!) and $18 million of Eric Montross’ contract.

6-26-96: 1996 NBA draft.

Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Jermaine O’Neal, Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, Peja Stojakovic, Stephon Marbury, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Marcus Camby, Kerry Kittles, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Erick Dampier, Shandon Anderson, Tony Delk, Derek Fisher, Malik Rose. Solid night out.

7-4-96: New York Knicks sign Allan Houston to seven-year, $56 million deal.

After making overtures at free agents Michael Jordan and Reggie Miller, the Knicks “settled” on the less-heralded Houston. Houston opted out after five years and re-upped for a six-year, $100 million contract because Knicks, that’s why.

7-11-96: Los Angeles Lakers deal Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets for Kobe Bryant.

Just your typical deal sending a borderline All-Star center in the prime of his career to a team for an 18-year-old shooting guard who was cautioned by many that his first few years in the NBA would turn out nothing like Kevin Garnett’s relatively steady rookie year from months prior. This move also opened up over $4.7 million in cap space for the Lakers, to potentially be used later on frontcourt help.

7-12-96: Chicago Bulls sign Michael Jordan to a one-year, $30.4 million contract.

Just the greatest player ever, signing for what was then the largest one-year take in NBA history, only to be topped next summer by Jordan’s next one-year take of more than $31 million. If Carmelo Anthony signs a maximum contract extension with the New York Knicks this summer, during the final year of the deal he will approximate what Jordan made with this contract, while working at two years older than M.J., and without the benefit of Scottie Pippen’s tiny (ranked 122nd in the NBA that year) deal. You can understand Phil Jackson’s hesitation.

7-14-96: Miami Heat sign Alonzo Mourning to a seven-year, $105 million contract.

The NBA, with this deal, finally had its first $100 million player.

7-14-96: New York Knicks trade Anthony Mason to Charlotte for Larry Johnson.

Johnson, whose 12-year, $84 million contract was the reason that Charlotte had to deal Mourning to Miami the previous fall, had declined badly the previous season. With Don Nelson out in New York, though, Anthony Mason was looked on as someone who wouldn’t be ready to once again cling to a Patrick Ewing-heavy offense, so the two teams traded headaches in a deal that sort of worked out for both sides.

7-14-96: Indiana Pacers re-sign Anthony Davis and Dale Davis to seven-years and $80 million, combined.

Anthony made a bit less, Dale a bit more, and, in all, incredible value for each player.

7-14-96: Houston Rockets re-sign Hakeem Olajuwon to a five-year, $60 million contract.

Just one of the greatest players in NBA history, plopped down in the postseason, signing the final massive contract of his career.

7-14-96: Miami Heat sign Juwan Howard to a seven-year, $98 million deal.

Howard was coming off the only All-Star appearance of his career, something nobody in their right mind would anticipate in 1996. He could now pair with Alonzo Mourning in what was assumed to be a fearsome future frontline.

7-14-96: Washington Bullets send Rasheed Wallace and Mitchell Butler to Portland Trail Blazers for Rod Strickland and Harvey Grant.

With both Mark and Brent Price failing as Bullets point guards in the season prior, Washington dealt what was seemingly a superfluous player in Wallace (with Chris Webber and Most Improved Player Gheorghe Muresan around) for one of the league’s best playmakers.

7-15-96: Atlanta Hawks sign Dikembe Mutombo to a five-year, $50 million deal.

Mutombo had been unhappy in his final year with Denver, reportedly complaining to Nuggets coach Bernie Bickerstaff that his offensive gifts were being wasted in Colorado. The Hawks dutifully cleared cap space and signed Mutombo for less than half of what former Georgetown teammate Alonzo Mourning signed for earlier in the summer.

While so many other teams were renouncing rights to free agents in order to clear up cap space, the Hawks seemed a little ahead of their time in 1996. They were one of the few teams to take the modern approach of trading serviceable players (in this case, Stacey Augmon and Grant Long, both just a little past their primes) to another team for conditional draft picks – to Detroit, in this instance.

Augmon and Long would go on to clash with Pistons coach Doug Collins, and the Hawks weren’t able to do anything with those picks, so it didn’t really move the needle much despite their forward-thinking approach.

7-15-96: Portland Trail Blazers sign Kenny Anderson to a seven-year, $50 million deal.

Have fun with his somewhat wasted potential all you want, but Kenny Anderson was a former All-Star available to sign as a free agent in 1996, which is something you’re not seeing in 2014 (though Kyle Lowry certainly should have been an All-Star last winter).

7-16-96: Orlando Magic re-signs Horace Grant to a five-year, $50 million deal.

We discussed this at greater length here, but the bottom line is the Magic were paying through the teeth for what was likely an under-the-table deal for Grant that it struck when it needed to hire Horace on the cheap the previous summer. Shaquille O’Neal, seeing that his veteran teammate was now making eight figures, took note.

7-16-96: Los Angeles Lakers trade Anthony Peeler and George Lynch to Vancouver, along with two second-round draft picks, for two future second-round draft picks.

Seems kind of weird, considering that Peeler and Lynch were big parts of Del Harris’ rotation the previous season. Maybe Jerry West has lost it.

7-16-96: Atlanta Hawks re-sign Steve Smith to a seven-year, $50.4 million deal.

As Mutombo made half as much as Mourning, the Hawks would be able to re-sign the team’s swingman without raising David Stern’s eyebrows.

7-16-96: Seattle SuperSonics re-sign Gary Payton to a seven-year, $85 million contract.

Payton heard overtures from Pat Riley in Miami prior to re-signing, and this is yet another example of an All-Star and Hall of Famer available to be plucked off of the free-agent pile, no static at all.

7-18-96: Miami Heat sign P.J. Brown to a seven-year, $36 million contract.

Solid value.

7-18-96: Miami Heat re-sign Tim Hardaway to a four-year, $17.7 million contract.

UNBELIEVABLE VALUE.

7-18-96: Los Angeles Lakers sign Shaquille O’Neal to a seven-year, $120 million contract.

With the Lakers renouncing free agents and lopping off over $7 million in 1996-97 cap space by trading Divac, Lynch and Peeler, the team was able to sign an absolute whopper in the 24-year-old O’Neal. Shaq signed for more than $40 million of what Orlando decided to initially offer, smarting at both that offer and local criticism for having been swept out of the playoffs (first round, NBA Finals and East finals) in his previous three seasons.

The Magic had the East’s best record in 1999 and made the Finals in 2009, but the franchise has never been the same. Meanwhile, O’Neal went on to win three titles with the Lakers and one with the Miami Heat. All because Jerry West had the foresight to take advantage of a brand new collective bargaining agreement, and zone in on one free-agent buy.

And, Kobe Bryant also. Dude got Kobe and Shaq in less than two weeks.

7-22-96: Seattle SuperSonics sign Jim McIlvaine to a seven-year, $35 million contract.

The chase for Jim McIlvaine wasn’t the height of absurdity. The man averaged five blocks per 36 minutes in his final year in Washington and was a reliable low-post center off the Bullets’ bench that season. In the three games that I saw, at least.

The market for him was the silly part. Various cap-rich outfits were looking to sign McIlvaine to either take over their starting center slot, or to even pay him big money to act as a reserve all over again. The problem was that Jim couldn’t rebound, he couldn’t score, he turned the ball over too much … and the NBA did away with renegotiating contracts in the 1995 CBA.

This irked Shawn Kemp, who had his previous contract restructured twice under the rules of the former collective bargaining agreement. Seemingly unaware the SuperSonics could not re-do his deal (Shawn made just $3 million the year before) for more money up front, he sulked through the season and was eventually traded in the weeks prior to the 1997-98 season’s start.

Kemp eventually signed yet another extension (different from a re-negotiation) with Cleveland, and finished his career with more than $91 million in earnings.

7-23-96: Minnesota Timberwolves trade J.R. Rider to Portland for James Robinson, a first-round pick of the Blazers’ choosing, and Bill Curley.

The second in new president Kevin McHale’s attempts to rid the Wolves of poor locker room influences (the first being Christian Laettner’s trade five months earlier) on Kevin Garnett. Later in 1996, Rider would be arrested after he was allegedly caught smoking pot out of a Coke can.

7-31-96: NBA voids Miami’s contract with Juwan Howard, citing alleged circumvention of the salary cap.

At the time, to many, this looked like the NBA playing sides when it came to the new-money Heat (led by a guy in Pat Riley who was less than a year removed from quitting the Knicks via fax) and longtime Washington owner Abe Pollin. Pollin would introduce a new team name and new arena for Washington in 1997, and seeing Howard leave as a free agent for no compensation was just a little too much to work through.

Stern has looked the other way from time to time, but he did have the truth on his side in this one. Riley used Tim Hardaway’s Larry Bird rights to go over the cap to sign Tim, but only after the Heat had returned Alonzo Mourning for his massive contract, while signing Howard and P.J. Brown outright. Proving that Riley had a deal in place with Hardaway prior to the Howard and Brown signings was just about impossible, so he had to get into the incentives list in Hardaway’s (who struggled with weight issues in the past) contract.

Riley’s indignation was easy for writers at the time to lap up. The Washington Bullets are allowed to go over the salary cap to re-sign Juwan Howard, but the Heat aren’t allowed to? Isn’t that playing favorites?

Well, no. And that’s why Riley failed to list all the performance bonuses potentially available for Brown and (especially) Hardaway as he sent in the paperwork for review. Because Brown’s deal didn’t take Miami over the cap and because Hardaway and Alonzo Mourning were members of the Heat who could utilize their Bird Rights, it was Howard that had to watch his contract fizzle.

Riley, ever the “world’s-out-to-get-me-man”-type, even while working in flashy towns while handing out giant contracts, was absolutely livid.

8-5-96: Washington Bullets sign Juwan Howard to a seven-year, $105 million deal.

In time, though, the Howard non-deal was looked upon as an eventual favor of sorts. Brown was the better fit alongside Mourning, and in 2000, the Heat looked to be ready to re-tool as potential championship hopefuls after adding All-Star Eddie Jones and eventual Heat All-Star Anthony Mason in the offseason, while re-signing Hardaway to a more appropriate $12 million contract. Had Howard’s contract been on the books that year, those two All-Star signees never would have become members of the Heat.

8-5-96: Chicago Bulls re-sign Dennis Rodman to one-year, $9 million deal.

Rodman at his peak in Chicago, taking advantage of a relatively drama-free year with the championship team. Add the greatest rebounder in NBA history to the list of 1996 transactions.

8-7-96: Detroit Pistons re-sign Otis Thorpe to three-year, $15 million deal.

Thorpe had worked well with Detroit Pistons coach Doug Collins the year before, but he and the coach would clash the following year, which led to Detroit dealing O.T. to Vancouver in the summer of 1997.

Why Grizzlies GM Stu Jackson wanted the moody 35-year-old Thorpe for his rebuilding team is anyone’s guess. And he gave up a top pick that would eventually turn into a top-three selection in the fabled 2003 draft, something that is to Memphis’ vexation to this day.

8-19-96: Phoenix Suns trade Charles Barkley and a second-round pick for Sam Cassell, Robert Horry, Chucky Brown and Mark Bryant.

Perhaps the biggest personality in NBA history – to say nothing of his Hall of Fame playing skills – being dealt not too long after the prime of his career for a package (Cassell would later be dealt for Jason Kidd) that would re-invigorate both teams. One of the NBA's most forgotten blockbusters.

9-17-96: Utah Jazz re-sign John Stockton to a three-year, $15 million deal.

Just another Hall of Famer, signing in September.

9-30-96: Indiana Pacers re-sign Reggie Miller to a four-year, $36 million contract.

After declining with the Knicks, Miller sets in after a frustrating end to 1995-96 to take on a deal through the prime of his career.

THAT’S an offseason, with teams in Los Angeles, Houston, Miami, New York, Seattle and Atlanta effectively re-tooling to take on the 72-win Bulls. Even the Pacers, who disappointed the following year, would go on to take Chicago to seven games in the 1998 Eastern Conference final.

The team that eventually bested all but Chicago in 1996-97, following that vaunted offseason? The Utah Jazz, who merely re-signed a series of helpers (the great Adam Keefe, Howard Eisley, Greg Foster) and added a second-round pick in Shandon Anderson on their way to the franchise’s first NBA Finals.

Sometimes it’s all about the internal development. You realize as much when Adam Keefe plays longer into an NBA season than Shaquille O’Neal.

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Kelly Dwyer is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at KDonhoops@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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