The 10 Best NBA Free-Agency Signings of the Last 10 Years
With apologies and all due respect to the injured Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard is the NBA's free-agent prize of the summer. If he leaves the Toronto Raptors for one of the Los Angeles teams or goes elsewhere, he'll most certainly be one of the most significant free-agent acquisitions in recent history.
But what company would he join?
I combed through the last 10 years of top free agents and pulled out the 10 most significant signings. Instead of including players retained by their old teams, I focused on players who shook up the NBA's championship landscape by joining a new franchise.
Ergo, I considered the success of the franchise and how much the new team member was responsible for it.
Some of these signings weren't major news on the day of the deal, but the impact they had on the franchise exceeded expectations. Others were huge stories and then justified the fanfare with which they were received.
Instances such as Gordon Hayward joining the Boston Celtics—big gets who fell short of expectations, even if for legitimate reasons—were omitted but not forgotten.
Here are the leading free-agency signings of the last decade, ranked in order of significance.
10. JJ Redick to the Philadelphia 76ers, 2017
When JJ Redick agreed to sign with the Philadelphia 76ers on a one-year, $23 million contract, it seemed like that could be a bit of an overpay.
Sure, he was a better-than-advertised defender and one of the league's best three-point shooters. But he was also 33 years old and on the decline. The price tag seemed a little steep.
However, Redick joined on a one-year deal, the Sixers were below the salary floor and they weren't just paying for his play. He was a leader, and the 76ers were a young team featuring elite up-and-coming talents in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Markelle Fultz was the incoming No. 1 draft pick, and the Sixers were coming off a year in which they were the fourth-worst team in the NBA with a 28-54 record.
Redick helped change the culture. Philadelphia was 45-25 in games Redick played (7-5 without him), and its net rating was 5.2 points per 100 possessions better with him on the court, per NBA.com.
In part because of his presence, the Sixers changed their culture and wound up a miracle Kawhi Leonard game-winner from beating the Toronto Raptors, who went on to win the 2018-19 title, in this past season's Eastern Conference semifinals.
9. Trevor Ariza to the Houston Rockets, 2014
When Trevor Ariza inked with the Houston Rockets in 2014, he wasn't one of the more heralded acquisitions.
Time told otherwise.
Ariza spent four years with the Rockets, and they maximized his $32 million combined salary over that stretch, even making it to the Western Conference Finals twice.
During his Clutch City tenure, Ariza was sixth in the NBA in total minutes and was one of just 23 players who had a plus-minus over 1,000. He missed just 18 games over the duration of the contract, and 15 of those absences came in the final year.
According to ESPN.com, Ariza finished among the top 10 small forwards in real plus-minus wins every season. The only other players at his position to do so were LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
Additionally, his 377 made threes over the span ranked seventh in the Association.
Ariza's contract might not have received the same fanfare as some of the others in these rankings, but it might have been the most economical.
8. David West to the Indiana Pacers, 2011
David West is not only one of the top free-agent signings of the last decade, but he may also be the most underrated.
He came from New Orleans as a 31-year-old who was past his prime and whose best years were boosted by the facilitating of Chris Paul. But West launched a second career in Indianapolis, becoming a valuable piece and a leader on a surprisingly successful team.
During the four years he played with the Pacers (2011-12 to 2014-15), he averaged 14.0 points and 7.0 rebounds, but the box-score numbers don't sufficiently describe his impact.
"I called him Uncle West. Just (his) knowledge of the game and the conversations we would have away from the game. For me being 21, 22 years old, that was stuff that stuck with me and has helped me with this unit having younger guys. A lot of stuff that I’m going through now … I was able to vent to David about. About officiating, about play calls, what’s going on out in the court. That was my person I vented to and he was the one who set me straight."
Both on and off the court, West proved a massive signing by the Pacers.
7. LaMarcus Aldridge to the San Antonio Spurs, 2015
With Tim Duncan entering the last year of his Hall of Fame career, the San Antonio Spurs were looking for the man who could step in and keep their winning legacy alive.
Here's a fact that may be surprising: In the four years he's been a Spur, San Antonio has the third-best record in the NBA (223-105), trailing only the Golden State Warriors (255-73) and Toronto Raptors (224-104).
Aldridge has made the All-Star game three of four years, was named to an All-NBA team twice and even finished ninth in MVP voting for 2017-18.
The Spurs might not be winning championships. But they have stayed relevant in the post-Duncan era, and no player is more responsible for that than Aldridge.
6. Al Horford to the Boston Celtics, 2016
Al Horford's signing with the Boston Celtics was significant for two reasons: what it meant to the franchise as a destination and what he has done there as a player.
Before Horford arrived, the Celtics were far from a free-agent destination.
HoopsHype rated their biggest acquisition in recent history as David Wesley in 1994. The guard spent three years with the Celtics and averaged 12.7 points and 5.8 assists. When that is the cream of the crop, it's not much of a crop.
So when Horford signed after he was ranked the fourth-best free agent of 2016 by Sports Illustrated (and the second-best to actually change teams behind only Kevin Durant), it made a difference to Bostonians, who suddenly had hope.
After Horford came, Gordon Hayward, the top free agent who changed teams in 2017, followed.
In an interview with Graham Couch of the Lansing State Journal, Horford answered a question about his involvement recruiting Hayward by just giving respect to the new Celtic: "I think with him it was about winning. Not that he couldn't win in Utah, but he felt he had a good chance with the Celtics to do something special. I give him a lot of respect because he put stability, money, everything aside and came to Boston because he wants to win. So it speaks volumes to the type of person he is."
With a team-high plus-818 in total net points, Horford has also been the Celtics' most valuable player on the court since he signed. He's led them to two Eastern Conference Finals appearances and one exit in the semifinals.
During his tenure, he helped make Boston a destination city.
5. LeBron James to the Los Angeles Lakers, 2018
LeBron James to the Los Angeles Lakers is the one signing in these rankings that still has a chance to move up.
While he hasn't led the Lakers back to the playoffs yet, he's made an impact in other ways. It's not hard to believe, for instance, that sharing an agent with Anthony Davis had an impact on Davis' trade demands and the eventual deal that led him to Los Angeles.
James' one year in L.A. was cut short by injury, and he played a career-low 55 games. Still, he averaged 27.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 8.3 assists—impressive numbers for anyone, let alone a 34-year old.
Will James' first extended time off in nearly a decade help him? Will he mesh with Davis? Will the Lakers be able to get another max free agent to join them? Did last year feature a fluke injury or a sign that even James will have to answer to Father Time? Will the Lakers be contenders next year?
All these questions remain unanswered, but making one of professional sports' most historic franchises relevant again is enough to put James high up on this list.
4. Andre Iguodala to the Golden State Warriors, 2013
Meanwhile, the Golden State Warriors were doing everything they could to land him. They ultimately sent multiple draft picks to the Utah Jazz for them to take on a few expiring contracts, which freed up the funds they needed to give him a four-year, $48 million contract.
After starting with the Dubs in 2013-14, Iguodala came off the bench in 2014-15 as Steve Kerr took over the head coaching job. Iguodala became one of the most important reserves in the NBA, even if he never did win a Sixth Man of the Year award.
He established his value in a more important arena, winning the Finals MVP in 2015, in large part because of the stellar defense he played on James.
The Warriors' run over the last five years has been one of the best from any team in history. Although Iguodala started only 21 regular-season games during that span, he was a critical piece nevertheless.
3. LeBron James to the Cleveland Cavaliers, 2014
When James went to the Miami Heat in 2010, he was roundly lambasted for the way in which he announced it. Four years later, he executed his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers far more gracefully, announcing his choice via Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated.
All that was wrong with his first departure was right with his return. He conveyed humility, leadership and respect for his former team.
After returning to Cleveland, James led the Cavaliers to four straight NBA Finals. He helped the franchise win its first-ever title in 2015-16 with arguably the greatest Finals performance in league history.
Down 3-1 to the Golden State Warriors, who had just broken the record for regular-season wins that year, James helped the Cavaliers become the first team ever to come back from such a deficit in the Finals. Over those three games, he averaged 36.3 points, 11.7 rebounds, 9.7 assists, 3.0 steals and 3.0 blocks. He had a 59.0 true shooting percentage, a 44.8 assist percentage, a 34.8 usage percentage and a net rating of plus-31.
Although he left the team in disarray in 2018, he ended a 52-year championship drought for the city of Cleveland. He will always be remembered and loved for that.
2. Kevin Durant to the Golden State Warriors, 2016
Like it or not, Kevin Durant joining the Warriors is the second-most significant signing of the last decade.
A lot of people were bothered that he went to a 73-win team. They didn't like that he left for the team that beat his Oklahoma City Thunder in the playoffs.
Regardless, he won two straight Finals MVPs while helping the Dubs win back-to-back titles.
His overall numbers as a Warrior are impressive—he's averaged 25.8 points, 7.1 rebounds and 5.4 assists—but they aren't surreal. His Finals numbers, on the other hand, are out of this world.
In the 2017 and 2018 Finals, he averaged 32.3 points, 9.3 rebounds and 6.3 assists while shooting 54.3 percent from the field, 45.0 percent from deep and 94.1 percent from the charity stripe. His 24.7 career game score in the Finals is the highest since 1983, which is as far back as the stat can be tracked.
He missed the first four games of this year's Finals with a calf strain, and he lasted only 12 minutes in Game 5 before he ruptured his Achilles.
Regardless of whether he returns to the Warriors, he's one of three players in history to win multiple Finals MVPs after signing with a team as a free agent, joining James and Shaquille O'Neal.
1. LeBron James to the Miami Heat, 2010
Of the 51 Finals MVP winners, 36 received their accolade having never played for another team. Three (Kawhi Leonard this year, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1984-85 and Wilt Chamberlain in 1971-72) were traded for. The other dozen came through free agency.
Before James signed with the Miami Heat in 2010, only four free-agent* acquisitions had won a total of six Finals MVPs, with three of those awards going to Shaquille O'Neal. The other six have come since James won his first Finals MVP in 2012 (James has three, Durant has two and Iguodala has one).
In other words, James changed the nature of team-building when he went to Miami. He made it acceptable for players in their prime to consider proximity to title contention when determining where to play.
When James teamed up with Dwyane Wade and Chirs Bosh to form the "Heatles," it was an unprecedented case of players acting in coordination to build a championship franchise.
With the Heat, the King averaged 26.9 points, 7.6 rebounds and 6.7 assists. He won two MVPs, two Finals MVPs and led the Heat to the NBA Finals every year. His impact on the team warrants his placement as No. 1 on here, but his impact on the history of the game is not limited to what he did on the court.
As such, James' arrival in Miami is the most significant free-agent acquisition in NBA history.
*Note: Rick Barry left the NBA for the ABA in 1968-69, then returned to the Warriors in 1972-73. He won the Finals MVP in 1975. While I counted him as a free agent here, the Warriors were the only NBA team he'd ever played for.
All statistics via Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.