The 1996 NBA free agency class was flooded with taken in the form of Shaquille O'Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Gary Payton, Juwan Howard, Dikembe Mutombo, Reggie Miller, Allan Houston, and Michael Jordan.
The only restriction was the salary cap as there was no maximum salary or luxury tax.
Chicago owned Jordan's Bird rights, which allowed teams to go over the $24.4 million cap to pay their own free agent. There was no limit to what the Bulls could pay Jordan compared to other teams.
The Knicks had a tremendous amount of cap space in 1996 after making a series of moves at the deadline.
Anthony Olivieri details the pursuit of Jordan by the Knicks in a oral history.
"The Knicks, historically, were just horrible about cap management," said Dave Checketts. "[But] we were going after Allan Houston first. He was our No. 1 target. And if Allan didn't sign with us, we're going next to Reggie Miller. But before we went off on the road to get everybody, my first call was to David Falk [about Jordan]."
The Knicks had lost Pat Riley to the Miami Heat in the previous offseason and had already hired and fired Don Nelson, leaving Jeff Van Gundy as head coach.
"I would have done anything I possibly could have put together that could have passed league muster to get [Jordan]," added Checketts.
Without a maximum contract to restrict an offer to Jordan, the Bulls could offer him anything.
"Do you think that LeBron James, when he signed with Miami, was worth the same as Chris Bosh?" said David Falk. "So, why did he get the same as Chris Bosh? The rules changed on maximum salaries. When Michael Jordan signed, they didn't have maximum salaries. His value, easily, could have been $100 million a year. ... [Jordan] told me he never wanted me to give Jerry Reinsdorf or the Bulls an indication of what I thought it would take to sign him. He just wanted to know, without being pushed or leveraged, what the Bulls felt he was worth. And so [when free agency started], he had instructed me not to make any offers to anyone. When the Bulls called and they asked what it would take to sign, I explained to Jerry Reinsdorf that Michael wanted the Bulls to make their best offer. And he would just simply say yes or no. It's like a sealed bid."
The Knicks offered Jordan "all of [their] cap room," which constituted just $9.45 million.
Nobody can know for sure how close Jordan to the Knicks came to happening, or whether it was simply a ploy by Falk to get the Bulls to increase their offer.
"My goal was to put him at a level that would stand the test of time and demonstrate that he was the greatest player of all time," said Falk. "The fact that it took 17 years for someone to catch up [Kobe Bryant surpassed Jordan's 1996-97 salary in 2013-14, when he made $30.5 million, and, at the time, trailed only Jordan's 1997-98 salary of $33.1 million] made me feel good that we did a good job."
The Knicks signed Allan Houston and Chris Childs, and traded for Larry Johnson, instead of giving all their money to Jordan. New York reached The Finals in 1999.