Who will come out on top in Los Angeles after the Clippers got Kawhi Leonard and Paul George and the Lakers added Anthony Davis? How will Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving play together after deciding to go to the Nets? What impact will their respective signings in the history books of the NBA?
Those are all important questions, and we’ll all find out the answers in the years to come. But, before we can get to the future, you have to look back at where we came from in the past. To do that, this Pick-Six dives in on the biggest NBA Free Agency signings of all-time.
Honorable mentions: Dennis Rodman to the Bulls, Chauncey Billups to the Pistons
Anytime you can throw Dennis Rodman onto a list, you basically have to do it, even if it is in the form of an honorable mention. Rodman’s signing proved to be incredibly important for the Bulls franchise, with the team winning three straight NBA titles in the three years he played with the team. An 100 percent success rate isn’t bad, huh?
Meanwhile, when you’re talking about titles, look no further than Chauncey Billups, who was instrumental in the Pistons’ success in the early 2000’s. The team brought gold home to Detroit in 2004, just a few years after Billups signed a six-year, $35 million deal back in 2002. Oh, and Billups added a Finals MVP to his resume in the process. To me, that’s worthy of an honorable mention for this list.
6. Moses Malone to the 76ers
How many teams can say they signed the reigning league MVP in free agency? Well, one of the other instances happens to be the top spot on this list, but we open things up in this Pick-Six with the one and only Moses Malone and his move to the Philadelphia 76ers.
We’ve seen sign-and-trade deals become more and more popular in the NBA this offseason, with many of the biggest names this year being sent to new cities through this technique for teams to get more bang for their buck. In this case, Malone signed an offer sheet with the Sixers in 1982, and his former squad, the Rockets, decided to match the offer to try and keep the MVP around.
After the two sides worked out a deal that eventually sent Malone to Philadelphia, the rewards were immediately reaped by the Sixers, with Malone running it back as league MVP and leading the team to an NBA title in the process.
In a crazy statistic for fans to enjoy in a world where players are getting close to $200 million for some of their deals, Malone’s contract was worth $15 million. For how long you may ask? A mere six years, with an average value of $2.5 million.
5. LeBron James to the Cavaliers
You obviously expected LeBron James on this list, but maybe you thought you’d see him because of his decision to leave the Cavaliers for another team.
However, while the first free agency move of his career is much, much larger in impact, the second made just as much of a splash in the NBA history books, and warrants some attention when it comes to the biggest free agency signings of all time.
James made the tough decision to head back home to Ohio and rejoin the Cavaliers in 2014 on a two-year, $42 million deal after ditching the squad that drafted him, and came back better than ever with big goals in mind.
However, he didn’t come alone, with Kevin Love joining him and Kyrie Irving to form a mini-version of James’ former super-team with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, and the new trio instantly took over the Eastern Conference.
James took his Cavaliers to four straight NBA Finals, winning one in 2016 to finally bring a championship to the city of Cleveland. Throughout the stretch, he averaged right around 25 points per game during the regular season, and averaged 30.1, 26.3, 32.8 and 34 points per game in each of the team’s four playoff runs to the NBA Finals.
He did eventually leave Cleveland again to pursue new endeavors in Los Angeles with the Lakers, but if you just focus on the four years he was back with the Cavaliers, he was able to bring new hope back to the Cavaliers franchise, and put a dent in the history books by taking down the Warriors en route to a title.
4. Steve Nash to the Suns
It wasn’t a big move when it comes to travel, but Steve Nash heading back to the team that drafted him in Phoenix proved to be one of the best moves the Suns have ever made, and altered the Western Conference for much of the mid-2000’s.
Nash signed a six-year, $63 million deal with the Suns in 2004, sticking it to Mark Cuban and the Mavericks after his former home offered him a four-year deal in the offseason with no promises made for a fifth.
The rest, as they say, is history, as Nash went on to win league MVP honors in both 2005 and 2006, and keeping the Suns as a contender in the West with Amar’e Stoudemire and Shawn Marion by his side.
Nash would play eight seasons for the Suns before heading to his former rival, the Lakers, to finish out his career in lackluster fashion. But, he made his money (and impact) in Phoenix, and earned himself in NBA history with the move.
3. Kevin Durant to the Warriors
People will surely cry “recency bias” for this pick, but Kevin Durant heading to the Warriors a few years ago changed the landscape in the NBA for the duration of his tenure with the team, earning him the third spot on this list.
Of course, you can argue the Warriors didn’t need Durant to win, evident by their 73-9 campaign in the season right before the former league MVP joined the team on a two-year, $61.5 million contract. However, you can’t argue against the positive influence he had on an already-historic lineup, evident by his two NBA Finals MVPs against the Cavaliers in 2017 and 2018.
It’s also very clear that the Warriors were crushed when they lost Durant to injury in the 2019 NBA Playoffs, and the wind was completely taken out of their sails when he tried to fight back to finish things out in the NBA Finals against the Raptors and tore his Achilles.
You can call it “cowardly,” or you can label Durant a “snake” for the move, but it was one of the biggest signings of the last decade, and you may be able to add him to this list again in a few years if he can lead the Nets to greatness when he returns to the court.
2. Shaquille O’Neal to the Lakers
It’s impossible to talk about big signings without one of the largest men you’ll ever see down in the paint. That’s what you have here with Shaquille O’Neal and his decision to head to Hollywood to join Kobe Bryant and the Lakers on a seven-year, $121 million deal.
O’Neal’s impact on the Lakers is undeniable, spending eight years with the team and winning three NBA Finals with one league MVP trophy and three NBA Finals MVP trophies to add to his collection, as well.
Who knows what could’ve been if the drama with Bryant hadn’t escalated to what it did, or if it hadn’t existed at all? O’Neal went on to win a title with the Heat two years after his departure from the Lakers, and Bryant continued with his winning ways in Los Angeles until he retired.
It’s one of the great “What if?” debates in league history, but doesn’t lessen O’Neal’s impact on the team after his signing in free agency back in 1996.
1. LeBron James to the Heat
Of course, LeBron James taking his talents to South Beach had to take the top spot on this list, but there’s a multitude of reasons for this signing beating out the rest when it comes to the biggest free agency signings of all-time.
For starters, James was obviously the biggest name in the 2010 free agency class, and arguably the biggest name to ever enter free agency at that point in the league’s history. He was the golden child of the NBA, and after six seasons with the Cavaliers, the superstar decided it was time for a change of scenery after some disappointing playoff runs.
James joined Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh down in Florida on a six-year, $110 million deal, and turned the Heat into a dominant force in the Eastern Conference for years to come. Sure, the trio didn’t bring the amount of championships James originally promised, but two titles in four seasons together with four NBA Finals appearances isn’t too shabby.
But, James’s signing wasn’t just big because of the talent level he possesses, or how he created a super-team with his signing. It was a huge deal because he made it a huge deal, with an announcement special on ESPN to top it all off.
The way James delivered the news stopped the world for a few minutes, all in an age where Twitter hadn’t taken over people’s lives and there weren’t many ways to break big news like the future Hall of Famer had. It turned the NBA Free Agency period into a phenomenon, and for that, it’s the biggest signing in the league’s history.
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