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Jack McCallum
September 17, 1990
Cleveland handed Hot Rod Williams $26.5 million, and the rest of the NBA felt the heat
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September 17, 1990

Pass Me The Bread

Cleveland handed Hot Rod Williams $26.5 million, and the rest of the NBA felt the heat

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First, Miami had to do something extraordinary—O.K., in the realm of the ridiculous—to have any chance of signing Williams, whose "restricted" free-agent status (he has been in the league less than five years) would return him to his original team if it matched the offer.

Second, although the Heat has been pursuing a cautious, build-with-youth approach since entering the NBA as an expansion team in 1988, it was becoming increasingly clear to management that a bold free-agent move had to be made, lest interest in the Heat fall somewhere behind jai alai, shuffleboard and greyhound racing.

Third, because of the mandates of the league's salary cap, Miami was—and still is—in the rare position of having to spend a considerable amount of money to reach the $9.6 million cap minimum. Finally, paying an outlandish salary to a player like Williams is not as likely to cause chemistry problems for a young expansion team on which no player has a very impressive résumé.

Why Cleveland matched Miami is a little harder to figure. Williams is the Cavs' fourth-or fifth-most-important player, behind Price, center Brad Daugherty, veteran forward Larry Nance and perhaps even rookie forward Danny Ferry. In the end, Williams remained with Cleveland because Wayne Embry, the general manager of the Cavaliers, wanted to send the message that another team couldn't steal his veteran players and because he was worried that Hot Rod might improve markedly and come back to haunt his old team. "It was not a difficult decision," said Embry.

At any rate, the deal is done. Now for the fallout.

It will be most immediate in Cleveland, of course. Indeed, before Embry made the Williams deal final, he knew he had to keep Price, his most prized asset, happy: Last Friday, the Cavs announced that Price's five-year, $5 million deal was extended by three years (at an estimated $2.5 million annually). The Cavs are a fairly mature, close-knit team, but they are sitting on a powder keg. Even Price, while not begrudging Williams his money, noted, "John is making almost five times as much as any of the veterans on the team." Furthermore, Ferry, an untested albeit much-ballyhooed rookie, will make about $3 million this season.

And what about Williams, who is aware that it was Miami's largess, not Cleveland's, that opened the vault? "I take my hat off to Miami," Williams said. "I didn't think Cleveland would match. They didn't think I was worth $11.8 million last November, so why should they think I'm worth this much now?"

The money paid to Williams puts the Cavs over this year's salary cap of $11,871,000—teams are allowed to go over the cap to re-sign a free agent. The Cavaliers' payroll is an estimated $14.5 million, reportedly the highest in the NBA, and now Cleveland's hands are tied for future deals.

Outside Cleveland, there will almost certainly be a couple of repercussions from Williams's contract. First, some teams will no doubt try to sign their key players to long-term deals—perhaps as long as 10 years—a course already being pursued by the Indiana Pacers. (Long-term deals, however, can't guarantee financial stability in this era of renegotiation.) Second, Williams's contract will up the salary ante for the NBA's superstars. If Hot Rod is worth $5 million this year, and an average of about $3.58 million over the next six years, then what in the name of Midas is Michael Jordan worth to the Chicago Bulls?

"How do you ever compensate the Birds, the Jordans and the Magics?" said George Andrews, another Chicago agent. "Should they become equity owners in their teams?"

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