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.