Free-agent signings have the potential to alter the NBA
landscape. They can swing the balance of power dramatically in one
direction or another, and there isn’t much that other teams can do
to stop it.
To the victors go the spoils. To that point, free-agency
signings can reshape the trajectory of a team or a player’s career.
However, some signings were so monumental that they became folklore
– causing rule changes, influencing generations, turning friends to
enemies and so on.
Let’s explore five signings that reshaped the free-agency
process and the entire league.
1. LeBron James to the Miami Heat, 2010
The summer of 2010 featured what was undoubtedly the most
anticipated free-agency period of all-time. James was the prize of
the 2010 class, and a new rumor seemed to surface every day,
connecting him to the Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Lakers, Los
Angeles Clippers, New York Knicks or Cleveland Cavaliers. But it
was the Miami Heat who swooped in, signing James away from the Cavs
and Northeast Ohio. The Heat also added Chris Bosh and re-signed
Dwyane Wade, ushering in a new era of super-teams. However, James
didn’t announce his signing through a press release or a tweet.
Instead, he opted for "The Decision," a live event that was
televised from the Boys & Girls Club in Greenwich, Connecticut. The
totality of the move set James and the Heat up to be the villains
of the NBA for some time.
James led Miami to two straight championships, and he also won
his first two NBA Finals MVP awards. James would later describe his
stint with the Heat as his college years. "Miami, for me, has been
almost like college for other kids. These past four years helped
raise me into who I am,” James wrote in Sports Illustrated when
he returned to Cleveland. “I became a better player and a better
man. I learned from a franchise that had been where I wanted to go…
Without the experiences I had there, I wouldn’t be able to do what
I’m doing today."
2. Kevin Durant to the Golden State Warriors,
If signing with the Heat made LeBron James a villain, signing
with the Golden State Warriors made Durant peak-MCU Thanos. In
2015-16, Durant averaged 28.2 points, 8.2 rebounds and 5.0 assists
per game for the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Warriors were fresh off
a 73-win season and a trip to the NBA Finals. Still, when Draymond
Green called to recruit Durant, it had enough of an impact to open
the door for a meeting. The Warriors ultimately wooed him in the
Hamptons over the Fourth of July weekend in 2016, and Durant
decided to sign with Golden State.
This move infuriated fans even more than LeBron-to-Miami. Fans
and analysts questioned Durant’s competitive instinct. The fact
that close friends James and Wade wanted to play together was
understandable. But the thought of Durant joining forces with
Stephen Curry and the loaded Warriors – the team that had
just defeated Durant and the Thunder in Game 7 of the
Western Conference Finals a few weeks earlier – didn’t sit well
with many spectators. It made Durant seem like a mercenary, hunting
for a championship. But love it or hate it, this was a major move
in terms of player freedom. Durant signing with the Warriors was
the clearest sign yet that basketball is a business, and it also
showed the consequences of rings culture and constant discussions
about an active player’s legacy.
Without this signing, Durant doesn’t win back-to-back
championships, and he’s short two Finals MVPs too. Had he re-signed
with Oklahoma City, the Thunder likely would have struggled to win
a championship given the high-degree of competition in the Western
Conference in the mid-2010s, so who knows when (or if) Durant wins
his first championship.
3. Shaquille O’Neal to the Los Angeles
In the 1990s, max contract extensions stretched for as long as
seven years and players rarely made trade demands. As a result,
player movement via free agency was limited. And that brings us to
the Los Angeles Lakers and Shaquille O’Neal.
O’Neal was drafted first overall by the Orlando Magic in 1992.
Alongside co-star Penny Hardaway, the Magic advanced to their first
NBA Finals berth in 1995. O’Neal hit free agency in 1996, at which
point the league’s salary cap was $24.3 million, but there was no
luxury tax or max salary. It appeared that O’Neal would re-sign
with the Magic, but Orlando made the fatal decision of opening
negotiations with a four-year, $54 million offer – significantly
less than the seven-year, $112 million deal that Alonzo Mourning
(the No. 2 overall pick in 1992) had just received. The Magic
further hurt their credibility by continuing to low-ball O’Neal,
and a poll released by The Orlando Sentinel showed that 90% of
local fans felt O’Neal was not worth $115 million hurt too. O’Neal
was essentially driven into the arms of Jerry West and the Los
Angeles Lakers, who signed him to a seven-year, $120 million
Without this signing, the Lakers don’t win three-consecutive
championships. Conversely, the Magic may have won a championship or
two, and who knows what happens with Kobe Bryant’s career. Either
way though, Shaq’s legacy is probably the same.
4. Joe Smith to the Minnesota Timberwolves,
Smith was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1995 NBA Draft. After a
few above-average seasons, he turned down an $80 million extension
with the Golden State Warriors. He was then traded to Philadelphia,
hitting free agency the following season. He signed a one-year,
$1.75 million deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves after the 1998
lockout, which was well-below fair market value. He re-signed with
Minnesota after the season, signing another one-year deal worth
You may be wondering: Why is Smith on this list? He was a fine
player, but not as impactful as the other names featured. Under
normal circumstances, Smith wouldn’t be included here. However,
Smith qualifies for this list due to the fallout from the attempted
transaction with Minnesota. The deal was premeditated, and
Essentially, Minnesota asked Smith to sign these one-year deals
for three-consecutive seasons so they’d have additional cap space.
Then, after the three years, the Timberwolves would have his Bird
rights and could go over the cap to re-sign him (giving him a deal
worth roughly $86 million to pay him back). Ultimately, the NBA
found out. Minnesota was fined $3.5 million and had to forfeit its
first-round picks for five consecutive seasons (although the team's
2005 first-rounder was returned to them). Smith’s
contract was voided, Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor was suspended
and VP of Basketball Operations Kevin McHale took a leave of
This one set a precedent. If a team tries to circumvent the
salary cap, the league takes it very seriously. It’s very difficult
for the NBA to investigate and prove these kinds of arrangements
exist. So, how did they prove that Smith’s deal with Minnesota was
premeditated? Smith's agents had a messy split that prompted a
lawsuit and documents spelling out the illegal arrangement were
“There are 8-to-10 teams that do this all the time,” McHale
said. “They’re just good at it.
Had this signing not happened, the Timberwolves probably
could’ve done a better job surrounding Kevin Garnett with a
formidable supporting cast in the early 2000s. But more impactful,
this trade set a precedent for the NBA in its willingness to punish
teams over salary-cap circumvention.
5. LeBron James to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Los Angeles
Lakers – 2014, 2019
This probably feels like a cop out, especially since James also
holds the top spot in these rankings – but it’s not. James’
fingerprints are all over modern free agency, from ushering in
super-teams to popularizing players recruiting their peers. Each of
these signings is significant and unique. James going back to
Cleveland in 2014 was huge. It went a long way in repairing his
image, completing his return to NBA darling. It also resulted in
the city’s first sports championship in 50 years. James’ return
also resulted in the most impressive championship of his career,
one in which he led a comeback from a 3-1 series deficit over a
73-win Golden State ensemble – needless to say, James won his third
NBA Finals MVP award with Cleveland.
His signing with the Lakers was also monumental. It was
the culmination of a long history of James’ flirtations with major
markets. It, too, resulted in another championship and NBA Finals
MVP. And it should result in a major showdown of
super-teams, with James’ Lakers and Durant’s Nets on a collision
course for NBA supremacy as soon as this season.
Without these signings, James would be stuck with two
championships and two Finals MVP awards, 3-1 wouldn’t be a thing
and the Warriors might have won four-straight championships
(imagine?!). Further, the GOAT debate would be
dramatically different, and who knows where James would have played
in his prime years?
Fans are captivated by free-agent signings for a reason. They
regularly influence championships. But they obviously have the
potential to be even more impactful, shaping the league’s power
dynamic for a decade or more with a single stroke of a pen.
In recent years, the best players have been more prone to
signing extensions and demanding trades if their team fails to
build around them, meaning that these top-tier signings have been
happening less frequently. But fear not drama fans, there will
always be player movement. After all, there’s always someone who
wants out of their current situation.