Free agency can be a serious risk in sports. So many times, a guy seems absolutely fantastic, all the skills and promise you need, then a team shell out huge bucks for him…and he turns into a total disaster. Just about every team has been burned at one time or another betting on a talent who never lived up to their potential. It’s pretty much a joke of “free” agent as these contracts are big money and too many teams have suffered betting on the wrong horse. However, others have thrived as a good free agent signing means a team can shine to championship status.
As with so much else in sports, the NBA has seen plenty of such signings go both ways. There have been ones that sunk a franchise badly and put them in a bad slump. But others have turned a so-so team into champions and elevated entire careers. Here are 15 of the most notable free agent signings in NBA history that turned a franchise’s fortunes around…for better or for worse.
15 David Robinson - San Antonio Spurs
On paper, this was a draft but it’s a tad more complex. Robinson had established himself as the greatest player in Naval Academy basketball history, fantastic as his seven-foot height helped push him to high scoring and rebounds. In the 1987 Draft, he was selected by the Spurs but couldn’t play for two years because of his mandatory military service upon graduation. The NBA said that if he wanted to, Robinson could re-enter the 1989 draft and he was cited as a free agent with serious speculation that he would go somewhere else. In the end, Robinson decided to honor the commitment and signed for San Antonio.
In their very first year with Robinson, the Spurs achieved the greatest turnaround in NBA history of the time, going from 21-61 to 56-26 and the playoffs. From there, Robinson was the star of the team, a 10-time All-Star who would win two championships and become a major media presence. Retiring after winning his second title in 2003, Robinson is still regarded as one of the most beloved players in Spurs history and San Antonio is forever happy for his signing.
14 Chris Bosh - Miami Heat
Part of the same rookie class as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, Bosh was selected by Toronto and soon showcasing his terrific work that boosted the team up quite nicely. He led them to good runs for the playoffs but his last few years saw the team falter. He held out for a bigger contract before finally deciding to go to free agency in 2010. Bosh had a film crew follow him for meetings before finally deciding to sign with Miami as part of a “sign and trade” deal that had him joining Wade and another free agent to be named later on this list.
Together, “The Big Three” revitalized the Heat into a team that won back to back titles and established themselves as one of the most powerful groups in the NBA. While The King would head to the Cavs and Wade has since left for Chicago, the signing of Bosh helped forge one of the biggest championship teams in recent memory while leaving the Raptors hanging.
13 Robert Horry - San Antonio Spurs
While a great player who won championships with the Rockets, Horry wasn’t exactly known for his even temper, including an on-court fight with his own coach. Traded to the Lakers, Horry became a key component to them winning three straight NBA titles while still known for ego. In 2003, the Lakers lost the semifinals when Horry failed to get good shooting in. Left to go to free agency, Horry signed with the Spurs with most feeling he’d close his career out quietly. Instead, Horry became a key component to the Spurs’ fantastic success, the hero of Game 5 of the 2005 Finals, the first of two he would win in San Antonio.
He got in trouble for a pair of flagrant fouls the 2007 Finals that forced him to sit out the last games of San Antonio’s win. While his ego and temper could be rough, Horry proved himself a great reason the Spurs saw such fantastic success in the 2000s and retiring with seven rings to prove his talent.
12 Rashard Lewis - Orlando Magic
Still hurting from losing Shaq to the Lakers, the Orlando Magic wanted to rebuild majorly and thought Lewis was the guy for it. A two-time All-Star, Lewis held the record for three-pointers for Seattle and seemed like a great talent. Still, shelling out $118 million over six years seemed a bit much and this would end up biting the Magic badly. While he did well at first, leading the Magic to the Finals, Lewis suffered in 2008 with lower numbers. Worse was how he was suspended in 2009 for testing positive for drugs and his overall poor attitude.
The massive contract meant Orlando had to eat it majorly when they decided to trade Lewis to Washington for Gilbert Arenas. Having to pay that much money kept Orlando from getting their hands on cheaper players who could have been more dependable. Lewis would later sign a deal with the Heat to become part of their 2013 championship team yet that earlier signing cost the Magic cash that could have been better used.
11 Gilbert Arenas - Washington Wizards
When you have a rule named after you, a contract signing is a big deal. After just two years in the league, Arenas marked himself an improving player with Golden State, with averages of 18.3 points and 6.3 assists in 2002-03. His contract coming up fast, Arenas literally flipped a coin to pick the Washington Wizards who offered a six-year, $60 million offer sheet. Under league rules of the time, teams over the salary cap couldn’t match offers for former second-round picks, so Golden State had to let Arenas go.
The man soon nicknamed "Agent Zero" averaged more than 25 points in three seasons for the Wizards and later inked a massive deal that blew up in Washington’s face when Arenas was suspended for bringing a firearm to an arena. The biggest effect is the creation of the "Gilbert Arenas Rule," which would have allowed the Warriors to re-sign him. His impact was bigger for shifting the NBA free agent rules than any of his playing impact.
10 Jamaal Wilkes - Los Angeles Lakers
Wilkes was already a great player as a key member of UCLA’s championship dynasty, winning two NCAA titles. After three solid years with the Warriors, which include two nods to the All-NBA Defensive second team, Wilkes had earned an NBA championship but seemed to not get the respect he felt was due as the team’s key star. His old friend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar talked Wilkes into signing to join him in Los Angeles. It was among the bigger contracts of its time but it ended up being worth it. Wilkes became a major part of “Showtime” and helped the Lakers to three titles in eight years and averaged at least 20 points in three seasons.
Magic Johnson credited Wilkes with being a great part of the team that helped them, especially in the 1980 Finals victory and the Lakers would retire his jersey. By giving up Wilkes, the Warriors took a major fall while handing over a major part of the Lakers dynasty.
9 Lamar Odom - Miami Heat & Los Angeles Lakers
This is a signing that would go on to have major effects for several teams. Odom had some good skills with the Clippers but he just didn’t seem a guy to hang a franchise around. His arrest and suspension for drug use seemed to curtail any plans the Clippers had to push him as a major star. However, Pat Riley saw real potential in Odom and extended a six-year, $63 million offer sheet. Odom would have his best season in Miami, averaging 17.1 points, 9.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists while playing alongside rookie Dwyane Wade. This pushed the Lakers to trade Shaquille O’Neal to the Heat in exchange for Odom.
Shaq would go on to help Miami finally win the NBA title while Odom struggled at first before winning back to back championships with the Lakers. Thus, the Clippers saw yet another possible building block for the championship let go while Miami and the Lakers reaped the multiple benefits of Odom’s signing.
8 Steve Nash - Phoenix Suns
While he had good numbers in Dallas, Nash just didn’t seem to be an elite player (despite getting on the All-Star team). His scoring attributes dipped even as the Mavericks pushed themselves into contention and his requests for more money fell on deaf ears. When Phoenix offered him $63 million, Nash asked Mark Cuban if he could match it and Cuban said no. Nash thus left for Phoenix and enjoyed the best part of his career there. Having gone 29-53 in 2004, the Suns instantly turned it around with Nash for a 62-10 season and Nash becoming the first Canadian to be named MVP. He added another MVP trophy the next season as the Suns went deep into the playoffs and while never making it to the Finals, Nash still was seen as key to the team’s success.
He finished his career with the Lakers but Nash is regarded as one of the best players Phoenix ever saw. He also inspired Cuban’s famous complaint “why couldn’t he have played that well for me?”
7 Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva - Detroit Pistons
The decision to sign these two might be the worst move of Joe Dumars’ tenure as Pistons GM (which is saying something). While he had good numbers with the Bulls, Gordon was known for poor pacing and conditioning that made him a risk. Villanueva had solid numbers but infamously got into a fight with his coach about posting to Twitter from the bench. Despite that, Dumars figured these two could help the Pistons out Gordon was signed for five years and $50 million while Villanueva got $40 million.
Gordon’s numbers were bad while Villanueva basically sat out a few seasons, both wasting $90 million the Pistons could have used for a real player. Both would be traded as the Pistons suffered several terrible seasons and showing how Dumars’ tenure was one Detroit fans do not speak of proudly.
6 Josh Smith - Detroit Pistons
In Oklahoma City, Smith was known for okay numbers but better rebounding, the youngest player ever to reach 1,000 blocked shots. Naturally, Detroit assumed they’d be getting a great defensive player who could keep them in contention and signed him for $54 million. Sadly, Smith was under the impression the Pistons wanted him to be “the best shooter in the league” and didn’t let the tiny detail he couldn’t shoot stop him. Instead of concentrating on rebounding, Smith took one brick layup after another, shooting 39% from the field, a horrific 23% from the three-point line and averaging only 15 points a game in his Detroit tenure.
Realizing how terrible this was, the Pistons let him go less than two years into his contract. Smith showed better work with San Antonio but his signing still helped turn Detroit from a good team to a total mess.
5 Steve Kerr - Chicago Bulls
Picked by the Phoenix Suns in 1988, Kerr was traded to Cleveland and then Orlando, a good but not spectacular player. In 1993, he was signed by the Chicago Bulls as they had just suffered the loss of Michael Jordan to retirement. Kerr’s good play was a key to the team remaining strong in Jordan’s absence, backing Scottie Pippen up and keeping the Bulls in playoff contention. Averaging 23 points a game, Kerr was a great element to the bigger faces of the team and even when Jordan returned, he was shown as a main teammate. The big moment was in 1997 as Kerr hit the game-winning shot in Game 6 to win Chicago’s fifth championship. The next year, Kerr helped set up Jordan’s now famed shot to win the sixth title. Later playing to San Antonio and helping the Spurs win another title, Kerr proved himself a great talent to keep the Bulls’ second three-peat going.
4 Chauncey Billups - Detroit Pistons
Minnesota fans are still ticked over this one. After bouncing around various teams like Toronto and Orlando, Billups suddenly erupted into a fantastic player, averaging 22 points a game as the Timberwolves won 50 games that year. As luck would have it, Billups became a free agent and naturally wanted a big salary that Minnesota refused to pay. Detroit was and Billups instantly helped bring the Pistons back into winning form. It paid off as Detroit won the NBA Championship in 2004 with Billups named MVP. Despite a few rough years, Billups remained strong for Detroit before being traded to the Nuggets in 2008. He bounced between a few other teams but ended up finishing his career in Detroit and his jersey was retired as the Pistons are more than happy to have taken a chance on a guy who turned them back into champions.
3 Moses Malone - Philadelphia 76ers
For years, the 76ers were a good team under Julius Erving but could never quite get over the hump. But they caught a break when Moses Malone left the Houston Rockets for free agency. Already a two-time MVP, Malone was regarded as the best rebounder in the league and a major catch. Shelling out $13 million, Philadelphia signed Malone in 1982 and the results were fantastic. Thanks to his incredible rebound numbers, Malone became the only man in NBA history to win back-to-back MVP awards. The 76ers stomped over the rest of the league with a 65-17 record which would stand as the best in the NBA for over a decade.
When it came to the playoffs, Malone predicted “fo, fo, fo.” He was off by just one as the 76ers swept the Lakers in the Finals. They never got to that level again but thanks to Malone, Dr. J could finally be a champion and Philadelphia enjoyed its best season ever.
2 Shaquille O’Neal - Los Angeles Lakers
From his rookie year, folks thought Shaq was only natural to become an NBA champion. Not only was he incredibly tall and strong but also brought a good skill and seemed open to learning, a great face the NBA needed to push. But while he was able to use his fame for everything from movies to a rap album and even video game, Shaq just couldn’t get that elusive title despite back to back Finals. With the Magic seemingly held back, Shaq became a free agent in 1996 and soon signing with the Lakers. There, he revived Los Angeles to their championship status, winning three straight titles. Orlando was never the same without him, sinking fast and never getting back to title contention. Shaq would later lead the Heat to another championship and retire finally the star most expected him to be. His free agent signing helped lead the Lakers back to the top while also crushing the Magic badly.
1 LeBron James - Miami Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers
After several seasons boosting Cleveland to more success than they’d ever seen, James was still held back by his lack of a championship. As soon as he hit free agent status in 2010, numerous teams were courting him although the Cavs were still offering big bucks for him to stay. Only LeBron could turn this into a media event that required a live ESPN special to announce he was signing with Miami. The Cleveland fandom did not react well, burning his jersey and railing against him as a traitor. It did lead to success with James winning two championships with the Heat to finally be counted among the best in the NBA.
In 2014, James repeated the feat by opting out of his contract with Miami early to become a free agent again. He returned to Cleveland and this year, finally snapped the city’s drought by leading the Cavs to a fantastic NBA championship victory. While he can be criticized for his back and forth jumping, James still showcased his skills nicely to be counted among the greatest and helping two cities to championship glory.
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