2010 NBA Free Agency: Best Free Agent Classes of the Past Two Decades
Without question, the NBA's free agent class of 2010 is the most hyped free agency period in NBA history.
Granted, seeing as some teams (New York) have been setting themselves up for this summer for years, this free agent crop (including LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh) probably deserves some hype.
But does this year's free agency class match up with some of the NBA's finest? Let's answer the question of whether or not you can call the Summer of 2010 "the greatest free agency period in NBA history."
One note: This considers the free agency periods between 1996 and 2010. Why, you may ask? Well, go Google "NBA free agent 1995"...and really, substitute any year pre-'95 in there.
Done yet? Couldn't find anything? Yeah. Me neither. Hence, it cuts off at '96.
And to any entrepreneurial bloggers out there who are looking for a massive undertaking that would benefit the sports world? Go compile an archive of the earlier years of NBA free agency.
With that said...where does the Summer of LeBron rank? Check out the Top Six since '96 and find out.
No. 6: Class of 2008
Leading off, the Class of 2008 features no franchise-altering superstar like the higher ranked classes do, but the number of former All-Stars and quality players that became available in 2008 does deserve some recognition.
The battle between Josh Smith and Elton Brand as the class' best big man highlighted the free agency madness that went down back in '08.
Baron Davis leaves Golden State for the Clippers, seemingly to team with movie-making buddy Brand to form a formidable PG-PF combo for the next five years. Instead, Elton bounces to Philly to the tune of five years and $80 million (a dark, dark day that Philly fans have rued ever since).
Seaking of franchise-crushing contracts...Gilbert Arenas signed his six-year, $111 million extension in the summer of '08 (at least he didn't take the $127 million that the Wiz originally offered).
Fresh off winning the '08 NBA championship, James Posey bounced from the Celtics to the Hornets, and the C's desperately missed Posey's clutch bench play in their attempt to repeat in '08-'09. Corey Magette made up for Davis' defection by ditching the Clippers for the Warriors; two years later, he's on the most fun team to watch in the NBA.
And this class featured some key free agents that ended up re-signing with their franchises, including Ben Gordon (Chicago), Emeka Okafor (Charlotte), Monta Ellis (Golden State), Luol Deng (Chicago), and J.R. Smith (Denver).
The summer of '08 lacks the superstar quality of the best free agencies ever, but it did feature enough number of 20-point scorers and $10-million-plus men to earn the bottom spot on this list.
No. 5: Class of 2004
This is the kind of superstar power that the rest of these classes feature.
In 2004, fresh off a surprising loss to the Pistons in the NBA Finals, Kobe Bryant opted out of his contract with the Lakers and hit free agency, where he started flirting with the cross-town Clippers.
In the end, a day after the Lakers traded Shaquille O'Neal to the Heat, Kobe signed a seven-year deal with the Lakeshow.
The Mavericks weren't so lucky. After billionaire owner Mark Cuban offered point-man Steve Nash $51 million reasons to stay in Dallas for five years...Nash chose the six-year deal that Phoenix offered, worth over $65 million. Nash only went on to win back-to-back MVPs in his first two seasons with Phoenix.
2004 also happens to be the year that I'd be afraid to bring up around Cleveland fans—the year where Carlos Boozer asked to be released from his contract, only to bail on the Cavs for Utah. For a team that's been desperate to add firepower around LeBron James for years...can you imagine what would have happened had 'Bron and Boozer been playing together for the past half-decade?
Kobe wasn't the only key player to re-sign with his former franchise in '04; Manu Ginobili, Robert Horry, and Bruce Bowen (San Antonio), Rasheed Wallace (Detroit), and Marcus Camby (Denver) all opted to stay with their current teams despite hitting the free agent market.
The summer of 2004 paved the way for a Western Conference elite for years to come, as teams like the Jazz, the Spurs, and the Suns all established themselves as power players with big moves in free agency.
No. 4: Class of 2003
While Gilbert Arenas' 2008 contract extension may haunt Wizards fans for years to come, his six-year, $65 million deal back in the summer of 2003 brought serious hope to Washington once they saw what Agent Zero was capable of.
The Nets were the big winners of free agency in 2003, first by re-signing Jason Kidd to a six-year deal worth nearly $100 million; then by signing free agent Alonzo Mourning to a four-year deal. Mourning was lured to the Nets by Kidd's presence and their back-to-back appearances in the NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003.
This year, more than most, a number of big names left their teams in free agency. Stephen Jackson jumped to the next level when he left the Spurs for the Hawks; Gary Payton and Karl Malone both signed with the Lakers to give the Kobe-Shaq era one more shot at a championship; and Robert Horry left the Lakers for the Spurs, where he would win three more championships.
Lamar Odom, Juwan Howard, and Rafer Alston were other notable names who relocated back in '03.
But, just like every year, there are always those players who stick with the teams who brung 'em. In 2003, Reggie Miller stayed with the Pacers, Tim Duncan re-inked with the Spurs after winning his second championship in five years, Corey Magette re-signed with the Clippers and Jermaine O'Neal went back to the Pacers.
In the end, this free agency class re-shaped the NBA for years to come, but without a Kobe/LeBron/Shaq-type player, it had to fall outside of the top three.
No. 3: Class of 2000
As hard as it might be to imagine now...back in the summer of 2000, Tim Duncan came as close as ever to leaving his lifetime monogamy with the Spurs.
Duncan, who was drafted No. 1 by the Spurs in 1997, partnered alongside David Robinson to lead the Spurs to an NBA championship in 1999, but the Orlando Magic were coming calling with a reported six-year, $67.5 million deal. Instead, Duncan re-signed with the Spurs on a three-year, $32.6 million deal (with a fourth-year option worth $13.6 million).
When the Magic struck out on Duncan, they went with Plan B: Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady. Hill, who averaged 25.8 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 5.2 assists in 1999-00 with Detroit, was traded to Orlando for Ben Wallace; McGrady signed with the Magic as a free agent and emerged into a superstar for the first half of the decade, despite his inability to guide his team to a playoff series win.
For re-signings beyond Duncan, you've got your pick of Rashard Lewis (Seattle), Reggie Miller (Indiana), Muggsy Bogues (Toronto), Tim Thomas (Milwaukee) and Jalen Rose (Indiana).
But the Spurs' ability to re-sign Duncan and keep him away from the Magic's money singlehandedly shape this as a top-three free agent class. With Duncan, the Spurs won three NBA championships in the 2000s and challenged the Lakers for the right to be the NBA's team of the decade.
You think NBA history might be a little different if Tim Duncan had been a member of the Magic for the early 2000s (Dwight Howard would certainly be looking for a new team)?
No. 2: Class of 2010
What more do you need to say than LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh?
Three Olympic gold medalists hit the free agent market at 12 a.m. on July 1 this year, and the free agent feeding frenzy will begin on the dot.
Beyond those three, All-Stars like Amar’e Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer, Joe Johnson, and David Lee all reach the end of their contracts (or they’re guaranteed to opt out). With so many teams in the NBA clearing cap space for a chance at ‘Bron, the ones who strike out will likely end up over-paying one of these four (here’s looking at you, New York!).
That's not even to mention guys like Manu Ginobili, Rudy Gay, Shaquille O'Neal, Ray Allen, Mike Miller, Marcus Camby, or Tracy McGrady—all players who couldn't carry a team by themselves, but guys who could serve as a vital cog in a championship contender.
Yes, this year's offseason deserves as much hype as it's getting. But without knowing how all the pieces fall into place, I can't call this the best class ever...yet.
If 'Bron, Wade, or Bosh leaves, and their move shakes up the NBA landscape for years to come, it's entirely realistic to think that the Summer of 2010 goes down as the most pivotal free agent class in NBA history.
Until then? Second place will just have to do, thanks to two big names from 15 years ago.
No. 1: Class of 1996
At the time, Sports Illustrated didn't hesitate to call the free agent class of '96 "the most talented crop of players in league history".
With Shaquille O'Neal, Gary Payton, Alonzo Mourning, and Michael Jordan all seeking new contracts, that wasn't an exaggeration in the slightest.
Jordan, Payton, and Mourning all opted to return to their teams (Chicago, Seattle, and Miami, respectively), which took away some of the excitement from the best free agent crop ever. Jordan's one-year, $30.1 million contract that he signed—the richest one-year deal in NBA history at the time—re-invigorated the free agency process.
And oh, did Shaq-Daddy take advantage. Shaq ditched Orlando for the Lakers in the summer of '96, in one of the biggest NBA free agent moves in league history. Shaq, who signed a seven-year, $120 million contract, earned every penny from the Lakers with back-to-back-to-back NBA championships and Finals MVP awards from 2000 to 2002.
The list of other big names to stick with their teams in '96 included Reggie Miller (Indiana), Latrell Sprewell (Golden State), Dennis Rodman (Chicago), Horace Grant (Orlando), and Tim Hardaway (Miami).
And let's not forget some of the other guys who switched teams in '96. Dikembe Mutumbo, one of the NBA's all-time best shot blockers, jumped from Denver to Atlanta; Allan Houston went from Detroit to New York; and Kenny Anderson, who chose Portland over Charlotte.
Shaq wasn't even the first $100 million man in the NBA—that honor belongs to Juwan Howard, who signed a $101 million contract with the Heat in '96. The NBA invalidated the deal, saying that the Heat were violating salary cap rules; Howard simply returned to the then-Washington Bullets for a seven-year, $105 million deal.
Without question, the free agent summer of 1996 set the stage for free agency hoopla for years and years to come. Howard and Shaq's record-shattering $100 million contracts led to bloated contracts for lesser players; 10 years later, guys like Rashard Lewis were commanding $100 million plus on the free agent market.
And now, with Kobe Bryant recently signing a three-year, $83 million extension with the Lakers with a final year worth over $30 million, Jordan's '96 contract has been referenced as the precedent for such a deal.
Despite the star-power of the Summer of 2010...the free agent class of '96 trumps all others in the conversation of best NBA free agent classes.