The 50 Smartest NBA Free Agency Signings Ever

Roy Burton@thebslineContributor IJuly 6, 2012

The 50 Smartest NBA Free Agency Signings Ever

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    Not all of the players sign during this summer's NBA free-agency period will perform to the level of their contracts, but there will be more than a few teams who strike gold over the next couple of months.

    That said, it'll be hard for many in this current crop of free agents to perform to the levels of the best offseason acquisitions in past years (although their respective agents would tend to disagree).

    As the NBA hot stove continues to heat up, let's take a look back at the 50 smartest free-agent signings off all time.

50. Allen Iverson, 2009: Philadelphia 76ers

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    In the fall of 2009, there was absolutely zero buzz surrounding the Philadelphia 76ers. That all changed on December 2 when the team announced the return of Allen Iverson, one of the greatest players in franchise history.

    Two weeks prior, Iverson was a member of the Memphis Grizzlies, but he was waived after a falling out with head coach Lionel Hollins.

    Iverson's brief return to Philadelphia (25 games) wasn't extraordinarily memorable, but it did temporarily breathe life into an otherwise moribund team.

49. Jose Calderon, 2005: Toronto Raptors

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    While his defense is somewhat lacking, Jose Calderon is one of the most underrated point guards in the game today.

    Calderon is an above-average shooter (48.2 percent from the field for his career) who is almost automatic from the free-throw line, and he has a career assist-to-turnover ratio that's better than 4-to-1.

    Not bad for a player who was virtually unknown in the United States until the Raptors signed him in the summer of 2005.

48. Jeremy Lin, 2011: New York Knicks

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    The phenomenon known as "Linsanity" would have never happened if the Knicks hadn't taken a flyer on a little-known free agent named Lin last December.

    Point guard Jeremy Lin electrified crowds both on the road and at Madison Square Garden last season, and he gave the NBA a much-needed jolt of energy after a long and arduous lockout. Lin's story is just beginning, however, and it'll be interesting to see just how long the "Linsanity" lasts.

47. Kurt Rambis, 1981: Los Angeles Lakers

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    It's hard to envision the "Showtime" Lakers teams without Kurt Rambis, signature glasses and all. And unlike the eyewear currently sported by many NBA superstars, Rambis' frames had lenses in them.

    On a team full of future Hall of Famers, Rambis gladly did all of the little things so that Magic Johnson and others could shine. He earned four titles in all with the Lakers and remains one of the most beloved figures in team history.

46. Ron Artest, 2009: Los Angeles Lakers

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    Back when he signed with the Lakers in 2009, Metta World Peace was still known as Ron Artest. Regardless of what he called himself in those days, he was (and is) a relentless competitor both on (and off) the basketball court.

    While he isn't the lockdown defender that he once was, World Peace continues to have a penchant for the dramatic. In his first postseason in L.A., he hit two game-winning shots for the Lakers, most notably his three-pointer that clinched the 2010 NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics.

45. David Wesley, 1997: Charlotte Hornets

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    David Wesley had stints with the New Jersey Nets and the Boston Celtics before he found a home with the Charlotte Hornets, a team that he would help lead to a number of playoff appearances.

    More of a scorer than a pure shooter, Wesley averaged more than 13 points per game in each of his seven-plus seasons with the Hornets franchise. Wesley currently ranks among the top 100 players in NBA history in three-pointers (49th), steals (65th) and assists (92nd).

44. Darrell Armstrong, 1994: Orlando Magic

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    13 seasons after the Orlando Magic signed him in the spring of 1995, undrafted point guard Darrell Armstrong was still plying his trade in the Association, a testament to his staying power.

    Armstrong bounced around from the GBA to the USBL to Europe before he got his first crack at the NBA. He would reward the Magic's faith in him by becoming one of the league's most solid point guards during the late '90s/early 2000s.

    In this midst of his 14-year career, Armstrong captured both the NBA's Most Improved Player and Sixth Man of the Year awards following the 1998-99 season.

43. Udonis Haslem, 2003: Miami Heat

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    Every contender needs a player who is willing to do the dirty work, and Udonis Haslem has been that guy ever since he got to South Beach.

    Haslem was a key player in both of the Heat's championships, and the lunchpail approach that he brings to the arena is a perfect complement to the superstars that he's played with over the past nine years.

    Haslem's numbers won't wow you (he does have career marks of 9.5 PPG and 8.0 RPG), but without his contributions, Miami might still be looking for its first NBA title.

42. Raja Bell, 2005: Phoenix Suns

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    After moderate success with Philadelphia, Dallas and Utah, Raja Bell signed with the Phoenix Suns in the summer of 2005.

    In his three-plus seasons in Phoenix, Bell made two NBA All-Defensive teams, and he finished among the top 10 in three-pointers made three years in a row. The Suns would win 54 games or more in each of those years, thanks in large part to Bell's contributions on both ends of the court.

41. Michael Jordan, 2001: Washington Wizards

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    What do you do when you are one of the greatest players in NBA history, you own a team that desperately needs a scoring punch, and you're still in game shape?

    You sign yourself.

    Many would like to forget Michael Jordan's two years with the Wizards, but from a basketball perspective, it was a fairly shrewd maneuver. After all, it's impossible to sign a 20-point scorer for $1 million, but that's what Jordan did when he moved out of the front office and onto the court.

    The Wizards didn't make the playoffs in either year, but they were able to nab the biggest bargain in NBA history.

40. Karl Malone, 2003: Los Angeles Lakers

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    Karl Malone will always be criticized for "chasing a title," but the NBA Hall of Famer almost added a ring to his resume when he helped the Lakers reach the 2004 NBA Finals.

    The Larry O'Brien trophy would go to Detroit that year, but Malone put up decent numbers in the playoffs (11.5 PPG, 8.8 RPG) after an injury-plagued regular season. However you slice it, it was an impressive effort by a 40-year-old who was routinely forced to guard players nearly half of his age.

39. Amar'e Stoudemire, 2010: New York Knicks

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    The Amar'e Stoudemire/Carmelo Anthony experiment in New York has yet to pay dividends (and may not ever), but it's hard to fault the Knicks for landing one of the league's premier talents.

    Stoudemire was a man on fire in the Big Apple before Anthony's arrival, and the two are still learning the nuances of playing together. If and when they ever develop the right chemistry, the Stoudemire signing could eventually be considered one of the best in league history.

38. Spud Webb, 1985: Atlanta Hawks

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    At 5'6" and 133 pounds, Spud Webb may have been the most unlikely star in the history of the NBA.

    Webb captured the hearts of fans with his 1986 Slam Dunk Contest victory, but he was also a very capable point guard for the Atlanta Hawks. As a full-time starter in 1990-91, he averaged 13.4 points and 5.6 assists per game.

37. Ron Harper, 1994: Chicago Bulls

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    Ron Harper has five NBA championships to his credit—three of which came as the starting point guard on the Chicago Bulls in the late 1990s.

    Earlier in his career, Harper was a prolific scorer with both the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Los Angeles Clippers. However, the second act of his NBA journey came when he joined the Bulls as a free agent in 1994.

    No longer required to score, Harper became the steadying hand that allowed Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen to operate without the burden of constantly handling the ball.

36. Steve Kerr, 1993: Chicago Bulls

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    Steve Kerr is the most accurate three-point shooter in the history of the NBA and one of the reasons why Chicago ripped off three consecutive titles from 1996 through 1998. Kerr was traded by the Bulls in January 1999 to the San Antonio Spurs, and he promptly helped them win a championship as well.

    In the 1997 NBA Finals, Kerr (who shot 45.4 percent from beyond the arc for his career) hit the game-winning basket in Game 6 to clinch the Bulls' second straight title. 

35. Tom Chambers, 1988: Phoenix Suns

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    After a long and impressive stint with the Seattle Supersonics, Tom Chambers became one of the NBA's most potent scorers when he joined the Phoenix Suns as a free agent in 1988.

    As a member of the Suns, Chambers earned All-NBA honors twice, and was named to three Western Conference All-Star teams. In 1999, the 6'10" forward was named to the Phoenix Suns Ring of Honor.

34. Bernard King, 1987: Washington Bullets

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    Bernard King was never the same player after he tore his ACL in the spring of 1985, but he experienced a career resurgence of sorts after he linked up with the Washington Bullets in 1987.

    The pinnacle of King's time in Washington came in 1991 when he was named to the All-Star team less than six years after his career-threatening knee injury. King's career scoring average of 22.5 PPG is currently 27th-best in league history.

33. George McGinnis, 1975: Philadelphia 76ers

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    Two years after the Philadelphia 76ers originally drafted him, forward George McGinnis finally arrived in the City of Brotherly Love.

    He had spent the four years prior to joining the Sixers tearing up the ABA. Once he arrived in Philly, he was a consistent 20-and-10 machine and teamed up with Julius Erving to lead the 76ers to the 1977 NBA Finals.

    With both players needing to dominate the ball, McGinnis was eventually dealt to Denver, but he had already left an indelible mark on the Sixers' history books.

32. Lamar Odom, 2009: Los Angeles Lakers

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    Los Angeles is where Lamar Odom's heart is, so after he helped the Lakers win the 2009 NBA title as the team's sixth man, he re-upped with the team for four years and $33 million.

    Odom was fantastic as both a starter and a bench player in 2009-10. He won the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year award as the team won its second straight championship.

31. John Starks, 1990: New York Knicks

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    John Starks was one of those players who you loved if he was on your team and hated if your team played against him.

    Starks was the engine that made the New York Knicks teams of the 1990s go, and his play was rewarded with an All-Star nod during the 1994 season.

    He'll mostly be remembered for one of the greatest dunks in NBA history, but the 6'3" Starks had plenty of stand-out moments during his 14-year career.

30. Ray Allen, 2010: Boston Celtics

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    No one in the history of the NBA has made more three-pointers than Ray Allen, and his consistency from downtown has helped the Boston Celtics remain relevant long after "experts" forecasted the demise of the "Big 3."

    Allen helped lead the team to the 2008 title. He has been an integral part of their success these past two seasons. An All-Star nod in 2011 is only testament to his value, and even after 16 years in the NBA, the shooting guard still has plenty of game left in his legs.

29. Luol Deng, 2008: Chicago Bulls

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    Small forward Luol Deng appeared to be headed to a new team in the summer of 2008, but the Bulls gave him a six-year contract extension, and he responded by becoming one of the league's better wing players.

    While the 6'8" swingman has always been a decent player, this past season was Deng's finest with Chicago: He was named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team, and he also earned All-Defensive honors at year's end.

28. Malik Rose, 1997: San Antonio Spurs

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    Drexel product Malik Rose only started 85 games in his 13-year NBA career, but he was a vital contributor to two San Antonio Spurs championship teams.

    During his early years in San Antonio, Rose served as the first big off of the bench for the Spurs, spelling David Robinson and Tim Duncan. Rose was a hard-nosed, high-energy player who gave maximum effort every time that he stepped onto the floor.

27. Michael Finley, 2005: San Antonio Spurs

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    Serving primarily as the backup to Manu Ginobili, Michael Finley's long-range marksmanship helped the San Antonio Spurs with the 2007 NBA title. After the deciding game, the team honored Finley by giving him the game ball.

    Early in his career, the 6'7" Finley was a ferocious dunker and a frequent staple on weekly NBA highlight shows. Later on with the Spurs, he became more of a perimeter player, stretching the court so that Tim Duncan had more freedom to operate in the post.

26. Danny Ainge, 1992: Phoenix Suns

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    It's almost impossible to describe Danny Ainge's playing career without using the word "pesky." If you weren't a Boston fan, he was annoyingly effective as a member of the great '80s Celtics teams, and that continued when he joined Phoenix in 1992.

    Charles Barkley was the team's major acquisition that offseason, but the Suns wouldn't have made the NBA Finals if it weren't for Ainge and his 11.8 PPG that year as a reserve. Ainge finished the 1992-93 season with 150 three-pointers—the third-highest total in the league.

25. Rasheed Wallace, 2004: Detroit Pistons

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    After leading the Detroit Pistons to the 2004 NBA title, Rasheed Wallace re-signed with the team and nearly led them to another championship the following year.

    While Detroit didn't reach the mountaintop again with Wallace, the 6'11" forward/center did make the NBA All-Star team in both 2006 and 2008.

24. Tracy McGrady, 2000: Orlando Magic

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    Tracy McGrady may never make it to the second round of the playoffs, but that doesn't change the fact that he used to be one of the most dominant scorers in the NBA.

    The 6'8" McGrady won back-to-back scoring titles for the Orlando Magic in 2003 and 2004, but injuries and other factors prevented him from replicating that regular-season success in the playoffs. At his peak, McGrady seemed destined for the Hall of Fame, but he has lost quite a bit of luster in recent years.

23. Horace Grant, 1994: Orlando Magic

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    Horace Grant parlayed his early '90s success with the Chicago Bulls into a free-agent deal with the Orlando Magic in the fall of 1994.

    Grant averaged 12.8 points and 9.7 rebounds per game in his first season in Orlando, as he helped the team reach the 1995 NBA Finals. And while he was solid offensively, the 6'11" Grant was invaluable on defense, making two NBA All-Defensive teams as a member of the Magic.

22. Rick Fox, 1997: Los Angeles Lakers

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    Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal got the glory, but Rick Fox also had a great deal to do with the Lakers' three championships at the turn of the millennium.

    Fox wasn't necessarily exceptional at any one aspect of his game, but he was a relatively inexpensive small forward who could rebound, defend and knock down an open jumper whenever needed. The 6'7" Fox was especially valuable during the last two Lakers' title runs, as he logged more than 34 minutes per night for Phil Jackson's championship teams.

21. Allan Houston, 1996: New York Knicks

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    In 1996, Allan Houston started the opener at shooting guard for the New York Knicks and would be a fixture in the team's lineup for most of the next eight years.

    The University of Tennessee product was a phenomenally gifted shooter, and if it weren't for a chronic knee injury, he could very well be considered one of the greatest players in Knicks history.

    Even with his knee injuries, he will always be remembered for hitting one of the most clutch shots in NBA history.

20. Bruce Bowen, 2001: San Antonio Spurs

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    Miami's Bruce Bowen had just earned Second-Team All-Defensive honors when he signed with the San Antonio Spurs in 2001, and the small forward would go on to establish himself as one of the best defenders of the decade.

    Bowen would earn All-Defense honors seven more times—he was named to the first team five times—and was an integral part in three of the Spurs' NBA title runs. Offensively, his career 39.3 percentage from beyond the arc is 48th best in league history.

19. Vlade Divac, 1998: Sacramento Kings

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    Vlade Divac's greatest contribution to the city of Sacramento might have been the now-defunct Tunel 21 nightclub (the Kings' No. 1 postgame after-party spot), but on the court, the Serbia-born center gave the Kings some much needed toughness and grit.

    While Sacramento could never put it all together to reach an NBA Finals (including an inexplicable collapse against the Lakers in 2001), it wasn't because of Divac, who could be counted on for 12 points and eight rebounds on a nightly basis.

18. Avery Johnson, 1994: San Antonio Spurs

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    The "Little General" will always be remembered for his Finals-clinching shot against the New York Knicks in 1999—the capper to the first of four championships the Spurs would win over the next decade.

    Johnson was nothing short of stellar as the Spurs' starting point guard during the latter half of the 1990s. While he didn't garner many individual accolades, he was a vital cog in the San Antonio machine that dominated the Western Conference for a number of years.

17. Tim Hardaway, 1996: Miami Heat

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    Tim Hardaway took his "skillz" and his "UTEP Two-Step" to South Beach in 1996, and over the course of six years, he became perhaps the best point guard in Heat history.

    Hardaway averaged 17.3 points and 7.8 assists per contest while wearing a Miami uniform. He also made two All-Star Games (1997 and 1998) and finished fourth in the MVP voting in 1997.

16. Gilbert Arenas, 2003: Washington Wizards

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    The infamous gun incident overshadows most of his career, but Gilbert Arenas was a fantastic scorer for the Washington Wizards in the prime of his career.

    "Agent Zero" never led the league in scoring, but he had three years in which he averaged more than 25 points per game. The man who calls himself "Hibachi" also made three All-Star teams while in Washington, and he had seemingly unlimited range whenever the game was on the line.

15. Dikembe Mutombo, 1996: Atlanta Hawks

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    Four All-Star nods and two Defensive Player of the Year awards in four-plus seasons in Atlanta isn't bad on any level. That's exactly what Dikembe Mutombo gave to the Hawks when he signed with them in 1996 for five years and $50 million.

    The 7'2" center was a defensive force at the start of his career with the Denver Nuggets, and little changed once he arrived in the Eastern Conference. The Hawks never got past the second round with Mutombo in the fold, but without him, they likely would have missed the postseason altogether.

14. Robert Horry, 2003: San Antonio Spurs

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    Robert Horry was clutch before he joined the Spurs, but in San Antonio, he solidified his reputation as "Big Shot Rob."

    Horry already had five championship rings to his credit in 2003. He would add two more in 2005 and 2007, making him the one of nine players in NBA history to win seven titles as a player. In the 2005 postseason, Horry shot a scorching 44.7 percent from beyond the arc.

13. Reggie Miller, 1996: Indiana Pacers

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    No free-agent class—not even 2010—could match the free-agent class of 1996. Shaquille O'Neal and Michael Jordan were the superstars who attracted the most interest, but All-Star shooting guard Reggie Miller also hit the open market that summer.

    Miller had just been named to the All-NBA team for the second season in a row and was a little more than a year removed from his otherworldly "eight points in nine seconds" outburst against the New York Knicks in the 1995 NBA playoffs.

    Miller was the face of the Indiana Pacers back in those days, and the team made sure that he would never wear another uniform.

12. Chris Bosh, 2010: Miami Heat

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    Champagne celebrations aside, Chris Bosh will always be "the other guy" on the current iteration of the Miami Heat. That said, that "other guy" is still a top-30 NBA player, a perennial All-Star and a world champion.

    Bosh has 20-and-10 talent, but has been more of an 18-and-eight player in South Beach. But as we learned while he was out with an abdominal strain this year, Miami might not have hoisted the Larry O'Brien trophy if it wasn't for its starting center.

11. Rick Barry, 1972: Golden State Warriors

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    Barry began his professional career with the San Francisco Warriors, had a brief four-year sojourn in the ABA and returned to the Warriors in 1972 as a free agent. Three years later, Golden State would knock off a powerhouse Washington Bullets team to win the only NBA title in Warriors' history.

    In that 1974-75 campaign, Barry would average 30.6 points per game, and he also led the league in steals with 2.9 per contest—not bad for a 6'7" forward with chronic knee problems.

10. Richard Hamilton, 2003: Detroit Pistons

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    Hamilton is mostly a one-dimensional scorer, but without his textbook jump shot, the Pistons would have had difficulty winning the 2004 NBA title, much less getting to six straight Eastern Conference finals.

    With all apologies to Ray Allen, Hamilton ran off screens during his prime better than perhaps any player in the NBA. Hamilton made three All-Star teams in the last decade and is one of the most fundamentally sound shooters the game has seen in recent years.

9. Manu Ginobili, 2004: San Antonio Spurs

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    After two decent years with the Spurs, Manu Ginobili re-signed with the team in 2004 and became the starting shooting guard on the 2005 championship team.

    The 6'5" Argentinian would make the Western Conference All-Star squad that year, and to this day, he remains an invaluable member of a long-lasting Spurs dynasty.

    At times, Ginobili has transferred from a starting spot to a reserve role with relative ease. He has even garnered a couple of All-NBA nods in the process.

8. Dennis Rodman, 1995: Chicago Bulls

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    Dennis Rodman led the league in rebounds per game in each of his three seasons in a Bulls uniform, and Chicago won the NBA title every single year.

    Despite his wild hairstyles and off-court antics, Rodman was one of the few players in NBA history that could completely control a game without scoring a single point.

7. Chauncey Billups, 2002: Detroit Pistons

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    In 2002, Chauncey Billups—who had bounced around the league quite a bit—signed a six-year deal with the Detroit Pistons. By the end of the contract, Billups was a perennial All-Star with an NBA Finals MVP to his credit.

    Billups nearly led the Pistons to a second title in 2005, and he landed on two All-NBA teams before he was traded to the Denver Nuggets in fall of 2008 for Allen Iverson.

6. Steve Nash, 2004: Phoenix Suns

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    It's hard to knock the Suns for giving $66 million to Steve Nash back in 2004: All he did was win two MVPs as he established himself as one of the best point guards in league history.

    Of course, it should also be noted that Nash led Phoenix to three Western Conference finals appearances and has kept the team relevant despite a mass exodus of talent in recent years.

5. Kobe Bryant, 2004: Los Angeles Lakers

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    After three championships and Shaquille O'Neal's departure, it seemed only logical that the Lakers would re-sign Kobe Bryant in the summer of 2004. And while he briefly flirted with the Clippers, Bryant agreed to a seven-year deal and will likely finish his career in purple and gold.

    Bryant would win two more rings and two scoring titles during that stretch. He is universally regarded as one of the 20 best players in NBA history.

4. Michael Jordan, 1996: Chicago Bulls

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    While some of it may have been for "services rendered," Michael Jordan signed a one-year, $30.14 million deal in 1996—the highest single-season contract in NBA history to that point (he would sign a one-year, $33.14 million deal the next year).

    The results justify the contract: In 1997, the Bulls would win their fifth title in the Jordan era and carve out their place among the NBA's all-time dynasties.

3. Tim Duncan, 2000: San Antonio Spurs

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    The Spurs only won one title during the length of Tim Duncan's second contract, but the four-year deal was a precursor for a seven-year deal that has kept Duncan in a San Antonio uniform for his entire career.

    More importantly, the reasonable length of the deal made Duncan's salary hit cap-friendly, allowing the Spurs to surround him with the talent which led to the team's 2003 championship.

2. Shaquille O'Neal, 1996: Los Angeles Lakers

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    When Shaquille O'Neal left the Magic Kingdom for Hollywood, the Lakers immediately became relevant again.

    One of the league's first dominant players to switch teams via free agency, O'Neal—who piled up a ridiculous number of individual accolades with the Lakers—would lead Los Angeles to three NBA titles (alongside Kobe Bryant) as he became an almost larger-than-life figure.

1. LeBron James, 2010: Miami Heat

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    The fallout from "The Decision" will linger with LeBron James for the rest of his life, but the fact remains that the Miami Heat made the smartest decision ever when the team signed him in the summer of 2010.

    Since taking his talents to South Beach two years ago, all James has done is win regular-season and NBA Finals MVP awards, lead his team to two NBA Finals and capture the Larry O'Brien trophy this past June.

    And despite the objections of many, it doesn't look like the party is over quite yet.

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