It will be soon revealed if Kevin Durant’s shocking signing with the Golden State Warriors this past off-season ignites a return to championship glory for the second time in three years. However, history may have a problem sorting out how much the addition of KD in actuality changed the course of a franchise that had already gone to back-to-back NBA Finals, taken home a championship trophy, and set the all-time regular season won-loss record. Indeed, its hard not to wonder if the success would continue to be achieved with or without their new star.
There have been times, however, some very recently (file under James, LeBron… twice…) in which the free agent addition of a single player has clearly truly altered the direction of an organization, either for the better or for, unfortunately, the polar opposite. Sometimes they are very clearly moves of high impact at the moment (again, file that under LeBron), and sometimes the repercussions aren’t clear till many years, or even decades, in the future. Together they combine to form a single, fascinating list of signings by which you can, in a way, chart the larger history of the National Basketball Association.
With that in mind, here are… 15 Times An NBA Free Agent Changed The Course Of A Franchise.
15 Bryant Reeves - 1997
The NBA’s first player drafted by a Canadian franchise ironically came from “Middle America” and was nicknamed “Big Country.” Raised in Arkansas and a two-time Big Eight Player of the Year out of Oklahoma State University, 7-footer Bryant Reeves was taken sixth overall in the 1995 NBA Draft by the expansion Vancouver Grizzlies. In a league landscape that still featured star classic centers such as Shaquille O’Neal, David Robinson, and Hakeem Olajuwon, Reeves came out swinging in his rookie year, managing 13.3 points and 7.4 rebounds to give the new organization its own star in the making.
When the team added Shareef Abdur-Rahim via the draft the next year, the two averaged 18.7 points and 16.2 points per game respectively to give the Grizzlies their front court of the future. They awarded Reeves with a six-year, $61.8 million deal the following offseason. Following the 1998-99 lockout however, Reeves, already a giant of a man, showed up to camp with 40 extra pounds. He began to suffer from chronic back pain and missed half of the season, which resulted in a 8-42 record. The franchise began losing fans by the bucket-load and when they moved to Memphis in 2002, Reeves lasted a couple of pre-season games before calling it quits. The only player to have been on the team from the beginning to end of the franchise’s short-lived stay in Vancouver never made it on the court in their new, and current, home.
14 Jamaal Wilkes - 1977
Its easy to forget that prior to 1977, the Lakers had won a single title in 17 seasons in LA, seemingly always the Boston Celtics’ bridesmaids. While many point to Magic Johnson’s drafting in 1979 as the turning point, its just as easy to look two years earlier to see the planting of the seeds that led to the “Showtime Lakers” run of 5 championships in 9 years in the 1980s, often at the expense of Bird and Beantown.
Southern California raised but Northern California born, Wilkes’ NBA story was appropriately tied to both locales. He was a UCLA All-American, including playing a key role on two undefeated teams, and then won the Rookie of the Year on the 1975 champion Golden State Warriors. He made his first All-Star Team the next season before bolting the the Los Angeles Lakers after the following year. Instead of the Dubs rising to their time to assume the mantle of sustained NBA greatness, wouldn’t win another title for 40 years, while Wilkes poured in 37 in the same Game Six in which Magic famously filled in for Kareem in the NBA Finals and scored 42, and began a new legendary chapter in SoCal.
13 Gus Williams - 1977
1977 was a rough offseason for the Golden State Warriors, losing their third (see above) and fourth scoring options off a 46-36 team that made it one game from the Western Conference Finals. Nicknamed “The Wizard”, Gus Williams was a high-octane point guard in his second NBA season, another SoCal tied player, having starred at USC in college, playing in the Northwest. But Williams decided to stay in the area, signing with the Seattle SuperSonics instead, where he would go on to be a two time All-Star and led the franchise to the NBA Finals twice in his six seasons with them. The previously moribund franchise won it all in 1979, the only title the franchise has still ever achieved, and the only title the city saw in an major sport until the Seahawks won the Super Bowl in 2013. He was the leading scorer in the regular season and in the series, but elevated from an average of 19.2 over the year to 28.6 in the finals.
12 Hedo Turkoglu - 2009
You could subtitle this signing, “Chris Bosh then goes to Miami”, to underscore its significance. The Toronto Raptors had equaled the franchise’s best season since its 1995 establishment in 2006-07, as third-year star Bosh had led them to a 47-35 record. By 2008-09 however, they had collapsed to 33-49 despite Bosh’s continued great play, making his fourth straight All-Star team, and averaging 22.7 points. Their signing of Hedo Turkoglu that offseason therefore was a “huge coup” according to ESPN, giving the team a ball handler and beyond-the-arc threat, and a Turkish native they could promote to a large Turkish community in Toronto. Indeed, “Turk” was a winner too, a leader on an Orlando Magic team coming off a trip to the NBA Finals.
Unfortunately, his scoring declined by over five points a game with Toronto, and the overweight vet was a serious defensive liability. The effort to convince Bosh to have a reason to stay as a free agent the next offseason backfired as the team improved slightly but still missed the playoffs, and he left to go collect rings with LeBron in Miami. The Raptors would rebuild around then-rookie DeMar DeRozan however, and are now an annual contender in the Eastern Conference.
11 Dikembe Mutombo - 1996
Dikembe Mutombo had wanted out of Denver during his final season with the Nuggets, feeling that his offensive skill set was being highly undervalued. Just a day following Alonzo Mourning receiving the NBA’s first $100 million contract with the Miami Heat, Mutombo inked with the Hawks for $50 million over five years. He would make All-Star games in four of those seasons and pull down three of his four NBA Defensive Player of the Year Awards, an amazing bargain for the club.
He would also propel the Hawks back into contention in the post “Dominique Wilkins” era, pulling them back to a highly successful 56-26 in his first season with the club. The team has been remarkably consistent in pulling off winning seasons ever since, including currently a run of making the playoffs in ten straight years. Mutombo’s signing also led to the Hawks trading him to the Philadelphia 76ers during his walk season, where he then helped Allen Iverson lead the team to the NBA Finals, cementing his legacy in two cities.
10 Vlade Divac - 1998
After six years playing professionally in Yugoslavia, Serbian native Vlade Divac made what was a relatively rare jump at the time - he went stateside and joined the NBA. In 1989-90, his first season with the LA Lakers, he made the 1989-90 All-Rookie team, and would play with the franchise for seven years before being traded to Charlotte for Kobe Bryant. The Lakers were, of course, set for two decades to come as a result, but in 1998 after two seasons with the Hornets, Divac signed his first free agent deal with the Sacramento Kings. He wasn’t the largest addition of that offseason for the club, that came in the form of a trade for star power forward Chris Webber, but Vlade quickly became the heart and soul of the franchise.
In their first year, the team made the playoffs for only the third time in fourteen seasons in Sacramento, and would have made the NBA Finals in 2001, if not for highly questionable and possibly game-throwing refereeing to succumb in seven to Kobe’s Lakers.
9 Lamar Odom - 2003
Speaking of men whose trade would come to define the Lakers, nearly a decade after Kobe came to the club for Vlade Divac, Lamar Odom would join him in exchange for a disgruntled teammate named Shaquille O’Neal. Shaq would go on to team with Dwyane Wade to pull in the Miami Heat’s first NBA title, and all thanks to a free agent signing by Miami in the 2003 offseason where they went all in on Lamar.
Taken fourth overall in the 1999 NBA Draft by the LA Clippers, he was part of a young core that helped build the doormat franchise to respectability in terms of record, but also ran into behavioral problems on and off the court. After signing with Pat Riley and the Heat, he put together the most prolific scoring season he would have in his career, going for 17.1 points per game, getting to the postseason for the first time himself and helping rookie Wade and co make it to the second round. The attractiveness of a package that included Caron Butler and Brian Grant brought “Big Aristotle” in return and Miami became an NBA destination, which you can directly tie to landing James and Bosh years later as well.
8 Chauncey Billups - 2002
Chauncey Billups recently revealed wonderful news for fans of the Detroit Pistons’ 2004 NBA Championship run. Speaking of fellow starters Richard “Rip” Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Ben Wallace, and Rasheed Wallace, he said “we (still) often talk on a group text and say things -- and we mean this when we say it -- that what we did will never happen again in the fashion that it happened. You’re talking about … a lot of throwaways that came together and played great basketball, loved each other, became brothers.”
The Pistons retired #1 last season, in honor of the 2002 free agent signing that would lead to the 2004 squad’s five-game trouncing of the highly favored Los Angeles Lakers. Billups had already played for four different clubs when he inked a deal with the team at age 26, and didn’t make an All-Star team until the fourth year of the six-year-contract. Still, he elevated his scoring from around 12 points to around 16 points per game, and most importantly, the club, which had floundered in the 1990s following their back-to-back titles at the top of the decade, found a new leader. They not only won it all, but made it to the NBA Finals three straight seasons, without a single superstar leading the way.
7 Steve Nash - 2004
Arguably the greatest point guard free agent signing in NBA history however, happened just two years following Chauncey’s union with the Pistons. When Steve Nash re-joined the franchise that had originally drafted him, the Phoenix Suns, in 2004, he was coming off back-to-back All-Star appearances. He was happy with his current club, the Dallas Mavericks, but Suns team president Bryan Colangelo brought nearly his entire front office to meet with the Canadian star, and the dream match began when he later inked a five year deal with the team.
Nash and coach Mike D’Antoni, also entering his first full season with the Suns, were made for each other in his high-octane, high-energy offensive schemes and he won back-to-back MVPs as he led the league in assists for the first time in his career. They had a remarkable 33 game improvement, going from 29-53 to 62-20. They would never make it to an NBA Finals with their star, but enjoyed a four year run of regular season dominance like the franchised had never before achieved with the pair running the show.
6 Joe Smith - 1999
In one of the biggest blockbuster trades in NBA History, the Boston Celtics acquired Kevin Garnett in a 2007 offseason deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves to complete the first “Big 3” of the contemporary era, along with the signing of Ray Allen to join Paul Pierce on a team that would go on to capture the historic franchise’s first championship in over two decades.
So what does this have to do with a power forward named Joe Smith nearly a decade earlier? The Timberwolves had secretly signed the solid young player to an illegal contract in 1999, a one year, $1.75 million deal that was well below market value. Team and player had made a discrete agreement that an $86 million deal would shortly follow, which, while rumored to not be the only such covert dealing of the era, was the only one where the club was stupid enough to get caught. As a result, they forfeited first round draft picks for a stretch of five years, a stretch in which Garnett was a perennial All Star and won his only Most Valuable Player award. The club, handicapped in its inability to add young talent, went from winning 50 games each season at the beginning of the stretch to losing 50. Eventually, the greatest star in franchise history wanted out.
5 Moses Malone - 1982
Before KD went to Golden State, before LeBron went to Miami, and before Shaq went to Los Angeles, there was Moses Malone. At 23 years old, playing for the Houston Rockets, he earned his first Most Valuable Player award. Two years later he was leading the club to their first ever NBA Finals. He won his second MVP the following season, 1981-82, scoring a career high 31.1 points per game. He was then offered six years, $13.2 million by the Philadelphia 76ers that offseason, which the Rockets matched opting instead for a sign-and-trade to Philly.
Malone would go back-to-back with league MVPs in his first year with the Sixers, and would finally get over the championship hump, winning a title that summer with his new club. The team had made it to the NBA Finals two of the previous three seasons, only to fall to Magic Johnson and the Lakers each time. With Malone, they swept LA, the only championship the franchise has earned in the last 50 years.
4 LeBron James - 2010
Not much more can be written about “The Decision,” which brought consensus best-player-alive LeBron James from his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, along with Toronto Raptors’ star Chris Bosh, to join friend Dwyane Wade to play for the Miami Heat. The trio won two titles together and easily could have won two more, bookending their championships with NBA Finals losses to the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs, respectively. James won two of his four MVPs so far in the title seasons, 2011-12 and 12-13, and probably should have won a third in 2010-11 over actual winner Derrick Rose.
The only reason he doesn’t crack the top three on this list is that the Heat had already broken through as a franchise with the teaming of D-Wade and Shaq a half-decade earlier. LeBron merely extended the run of dominance for them another four years.
3 Tim Duncan - 2000
As with so many of the entries here, Tim Duncan’s almost-signing with the Orlando Magic in 2000, but opting to return to the San Antonio Spurs instead, changed the course of not one, but two franchises. As CBS Sports put it when the legend retired at the end of last season, “Tim Duncan IS San Antonio Spurs basketball.” Recalling that offseason, Duncan said “I came close to leaving… real close.” His coach, Gregg Popovich concurred. “It was a nerve-wrecking time,” Pop said.
Duncan would have joined Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady, not only possibly bringing Orlando a title that season, but perhaps we would be talking now about an extended Magic dynasty, rather than extolling the genius of the Spurs of recent vintage. Listening to McGrady talk at the time is, in fact, reminiscent of recent “Big Three” groupings that led to titles for their new squads. “Once Grant and I get here, this will definitely be the city. The East is locked up,” he raved. “If Duncan comes here, it will be scary.” Sadly for him, the if never became a reality, and he ended his career without a ring to match the five worn by "The Big Fundamental."
2 Shaquille O’Neal - 1996
Just how did the Orlando Magic end up on this list twice in a row for blowing a chance at two of the most dominant big men in NBA history? Back in 1996, there was no maximum salary in the collective bargaining agreement. There was a total team cap, yes, but for an individual signing you could go as high as you wanted, and there was no luxury tax penalty yet either. In other words, the Magic were allowed to exceed the cap to re-sign its own player, and Shaquille O’Neal was just the kind of star that this preferential treatment for the hometown team was designed for. He was only 24, had been an All-Star in each of his four seasons in the league, and had already led his team to the NBA Finals.
Yet while Alonzo Mourning and Juwan Howard were busy becoming the NBA’s first $100 million players that offseason, Orlando offered Shaq… $54 million. Just about half. The Lakers would go on to sign him for $120 million over 7. He would, of course, then go on to bring them three championship trophies.
1 LeBron James - 2014
Once again, what more can we write about LeBron James second “decision,” this time to return home to his native Ohio to eventually lead his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to their first NBA Championship in 45 seasons in the league? It's not often that a squad signs a franchise changing player as a free agent who had already previously become their all-time leader in points scored, field goals made and attempted, and minutes played.
Well, he holds a lot more of the Cavs' records now, and has led a local sports renaissance that also has seen baseball’s Indians, with LeBron rooting them on, knocking on the door of ending their own three-quarters-century long losing streak. He has seemingly not only altered the course of an organization, but a city itself, which now believes it might not always be a place where the best of its athletic citizens want to run away as fast as they can, as happened with this same man only four years earlier.
If that’s not changing the course of a franchise, we don’t know what is.
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