Remembering NBA's Most Monumental Free-Agent Signings

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJune 22, 2019

Remembering NBA's Most Monumental Free-Agent Signings

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    As free-agency rumors evolve, changing shape and reversing course in a flurry of leaks and breathless reports, it's easy to get impatient.

    Is Kyrie Irving to the Brooklyn Nets a done deal or not? Is there suddenly a chance Kevin Durant might stick with the Golden State Warriors after a full year of certainty he'd join the New York Knicks? What's really up with Kemba Walker? Wait a minute, Al Horford is leaving the Boston Celtics too?

    The closer we get to July 1, the more it feels like the room is spinning.

    If history is any guide, though, the frustration and confusion are all worth it. Because when the right player signs with the right team, it can change everything.

    Over the last several years, we've seen landscapes shift and champions forged through free agency. In some cases, signings have altered the very nature of the sport. We've rounded up several (relatively) recent examples to keep you grounded as the present-day rumor mill whirls on.

1988: Tom Chambers Signs with the Phoenix Suns

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    In one important respect, the NBA as we know it today didn't exist until 1988. That's when Tom Chambers became the first unrestricted free agent, jumping from the Seattle SuperSonics to the Phoenix Suns.

    Just as Chambers' deal with the SuperSonics came to an end, the league introduced a rule by which players with at least seven years of experience and two completed NBA contracts could sign with any team. Before that change, the only way for a player to leave the team that drafted him was via trade. Archaic, right?

    We live in the era of player empowerment now, and unrestricted free agency shifts the league landscape on a yearly basis. But when Chambers hit the market, it was a completely novel idea for Team X to simply sign a player after his contract with Team Y was over.

    "It was cutting-edge stuff," Chambers told Matt Peterson of Suns.com in 2014. "You could get a player and not have to give up anything for him except for money? That's where it went kind of crazy after that."

    All the hoopla started with Chambers. Considering the role free agency plays in the way teams are formed and championships are won, you'd be hard pressed to find a more significant signing than the one that kicked off the modern era of player movement.

1996: Shaquille O'Neal Signs with the Los Angeles Lakers

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    Just try to imagine the NBA of the last 20-plus years if Shaquille O'Neal hadn't signed with the Los Angeles Lakers as a 24-year-old in 1996.

    Kobe Bryant might never have been a Laker, as the trade that sent Vlade Divac to the Charlotte Hornets for Bryant was at least partially motivated by a desire to clear the cap space L.A. needed to make its $120 million offer to Shaq.

    Those three championships the Lakers won from 1999-00 to 2001-02 probably never happen. Meanwhile, it's entirely possible the Orlando Magic, if they'd kept O'Neal, could have disrupted Michael Jordan's second three-peat with the Chicago Bulls. The Magic had, after all, reached the Finals in 1995 and the conference finals in 1996 with a roster that figured to continue improving.

    Without O'Neal, does Phil Jackson even consider taking the Lakers job? And remember, we're still operating in a scenario where Los Angeles might not have had Bryant, either. Viewed that way, the two titles the Lakers won in 2009 and 2010 could be lost to the ether.

    Perhaps most consequentially, the very rules governing free agency might never have become what they are. During a three-year window between lockouts in 1995 and 1998, restricted free agency disappeared. As a result, the Magic couldn't match the Lakers' offer to O'Neal. Had his free agency come before 1996 or after 1998, Orlando would have retained matching rights (and, ultimately, total control) over its four-year veteran center.

    If O'Neal hadn't left the Magic, would the return of restricted free agency in 1998 have ever happened? What other marquee free agents might have left their incumbent teams after their rookie deals as a result of the inability to match salary?

    The Shaq-to-L.A. fallout is overwhelming, affecting the formation and dissolution of dynasties, the careers of several other superstars and the rules controlling the league.

    It'll be a while before we see another signing with an impact like that. 

2004: Steve Nash Signs with the Phoenix Suns

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    When the Phoenix Suns signed a 30-year-old Steve Nash to a six-year, $65 million deal in 2004, they couldn't possibly have known they were about to change the way offenses operated forever.

    Phoenix's extreme emphasis on pace and space wasn't driven entirely by its point guard. Head coach Mike D'Antoni empowered Nash to run the show and implemented the pick-and-roll principles that produced a transformative attack. But Nash was at the controls as Phoenix led the league in scoring efficiency in five of the ensuing six years, missing a six-season sweep by one-tenth of a point per 100 possessions in 2007-08.

    The Suns never won a ring in Nash's eight years with the team (second stint), and the Dallas Mavericks, who let Nash walk after reportedly offering about $20 million less than Phoenix, made the Finals without him in 2006 and won a championship in 2011. But a free-agent signing can still matter on a grand scale, even if it doesn't result in titles.

    It's not unreasonable to trace virtually every aspect of modern offense to those Nash-led Phoenix teams. Everything from the prevalence of the pick-and-roll, to floor-spacing bigs, to the league-wide obsession with three-point shooting ties back to those mid-aughts Suns.

    Nash is one of three players in NBA history to hit 42 percent of his threes on at least 3,500 career attempts, and he's the only player to ever display that kind of deadly accuracy as an on-ball player also tasked with running the offense. There have been five seasons in which a player made at least 100 threes at a 40 percent clip while also averaging 10 assists.

    Nash had four of them with the Suns.

    Without him paving the way for playmaking pick-and-roll point guards who also punished defenses from deep, do we see the proliferation of that player type today? Is Stephen Curry the same force? Is Damian Lillard?

    What Nash did in Phoenix was remarkable, and the two MVPs he won in the process are almost footnotes to the larger impact he made. The league had never seen a point guard play quite like him. Now, the skills he showcased are practically prerequisites for the position.

LeBron James Signs...Anywhere

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    NBA free agency probably wouldn't be the melodramatic, ceaselessly scrutinized spectacle it's become if LeBron James hadn't literally turned it into a televised event.

    And let's not overlook the fact that James has forever linked gingham shirts with ill-advised PR moves. The pattern may never recover.

    "The Decision" made him a villain in 2010, when he took his talents to South Beach and signed with the Miami Heat. Though the Boston Celtics (who added Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to a core that already included Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce in 2007) might be Patient Zero in the modern superteam epidemic*, the trio James formed with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh spread the contagion like never before.

    Suddenly, it seemed like winning a title required a constellation of stars—even if the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks knocked off James' Heat without taking that approach.

    Cut to 2014, and James upended the league again by returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers team he'd left four years earlier. Call it a free-agency full circle. Cleveland fans re-embraced James like he'd never left, driving their welcome wagons over the ashes of the jerseys they'd burned four years prior.

    That homecoming added four more consecutive Finals trips to the four James made with Miami, effectively creating a decade in which the road to a ring went through one man.

    And then, in 2018, James dominated the news cycle again by signing with the Lakers. His first year with the team was a disaster, but now that Anthony Davis is in the fold, there's every chance James returns to his familiar status as the most prominent figure in the championship conversation.

    By popularizing a form of roster construction, controlling the title discussion for eight consecutive years and now potentially restoring the Lakers to glory, James' decisions in free agency have had an undeniable effect on the narratives driving the league.

    Oh, and also on the court. At this time of year it's easy to forget the games still matter.

           

    *The panic about superteams has always been a little silly. Winning titles takes lots of good players, and smart teams collect as many of them as possible. This never should have been controversial.

2016: Kevin Durant Signs with the Golden State Warriors

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    When Kevin Durant agreed to join the Golden State Warriors in 2016, it had the whole league in its feelings.

    The Warriors went from a widely beloved feel-good story (built the right way, purists would argue) to a competition-killing Frankenstein's monster of excess. It felt unfair. A 73-win team added perhaps the best player in the league without surrendering anything of consequence.

    That the Warriors had put themselves in position to pull off such a move by signing talent to team-friendly deals, planning ahead and cultivating an attractive environment didn't seem to matter. Nobody wanted to hear the argument that the Warriors earned their opportunity.

    Several teams seemed to punt on the idea of competing with this version of the Warriors for titles. A few, like the Houston Rockets and James' Cavaliers, put up a fight. But in the two years KD was healthy, Golden State was indomitable.

    Any time a free-agent signing creates what might go down as the greatest team ever assembled, it's a big deal. And that's before wondering whether James might have a few more championships if KD hadn't turned the Warriors into a juggernaut, or if James Harden might have a ring, or (in a hypothetically alternate past in which he doesn't come down on Zaza Pachulia's foot) Kawhi Leonard would have added another banner to the Spurs' dynasty.

    Maybe if Durant hadn't leveled up the Warriors, Stephen Curry would have a third or fourth MVP. Maybe the original Golden State cast would have found a way to win just as big, cementing its legend without becoming the team so many rooted against toward the end.

    It's hard to imagine we'll see another rich-get-richer situation like this again. It took a perfect storm for the Warriors to add Durant, with lucky breaks and brilliant management combining to allow such an anomaly.

    Considering the excitement it generated and high level of play it produced, that's almost a shame. We need a seeming impossibility like Durant signing in Golden State to completely explode our brains every few years.

Whatever Happens in 2019

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    This was a backward-looking exercise, but it'd be wrong to put a bow on it without acknowledging the strong possibility that the summer of 2019 will produce a free-agent move on par with the ones already discussed.

    The level of available talent is staggering. Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Kemba Walker, Al Horford and Jimmy Butler are all capable of affecting the league landscape for the next several years—particularly if a couple of them team up.

    More than that, the Warriors are no longer the prohibitive title favorites. That's new!

    Any of nearly a dozen teams could conceivably be regarded as the front-runner by the time the season starts in October. Depending on how free agency shakes out, would anyone be shocked if LeBron James led the Lakers to a championship?

    What about James Harden's Rockets? Don't forget the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors or Philadelphia 76ers. Maybe Brooklyn will rise. Maybe the rebuilt Los Angeles Clippers will come out of the West.

    Then there's the Utah Jazz and last year's No. 2 seed in the West, the 54-win Denver Nuggets.

    Suppose Durant and Thompson both re-sign with the Warriors, return in April or May and spur a magical run. It's not impossible.

    The league is a blank canvas right now, and this summer's free agency is going to determine which team paints a masterpiece.