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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
5 Steve Kerr - Chicago Bulls
4 Chauncey Billups - Detroit Pistons
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.
2 Shaquille O’Neal - Los Angeles Lakers
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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