Once the calendar hits July, there’s no stopping the avalanche of activity as teams work to sign the best possible players to improve their chances of capturing the Larry O’Brien trophy in 2017.
Free agency has become an absolutely vital component of most teams’ strategy when they try to build towards a championship. Whether you’re looking for a role player to put your team over the top or a bona fide superstar to build your team around, the free agent market usually has what you’re looking for.
But NBA free agency is a high risk, high reward game and is never a sure thing.
While a good showing in free agency can become the key to an NBA championship and can provide teams with the missing piece of their championship puzzle, a bad showing, however, can doom a franchise to years of futility and frugality if the wrong decisions are made.
No pressure, NBA GMs.
On that note, here are some GMs that got it right and landed free agents that paid off almost immediately.
Cleveland Cavaliers to Miami Heat – Six Years, $110 million (2010)
Miami Heat to Cleveland Cavaliers – Two Years, $42 million (2014)
‘King’ James could actually be nominated for ‘best signing’ twice – the first time with the Heat, who he helped bring two championships to in four years and the second, of course, the Cavaliers, who he re-signed with in 2014 and brought a long-awaited title to just a few short weeks ago.
Sure, it cost both teams a pretty penny, but signing the best player in the world in his prime is never going to be cheap.
Chicago Bulls: One Year, $150,000 (1993)
Before Steve Kerr became the coach of the ultimate sharp shooter in Steph Curry, Kerr was a wizard from behind the arc himself as a member of the Chicago Bulls.
Kerr shot over 50 percent from 3-point range in both the 1994-95 and 95-96 seasons and averaged 48 percent over the course of his five years with the Bulls. Lest we forget, he also hit the game-winning bucket for the Bulls against the Jazz in Game 6 of the 1997 finals and gave a more-than-memorable speech about his heroic shot at the Bulls’ celebratory parade days later.
Oh yeah, and every subsequent year they signed Kerr they paid less than $1 million for the sharpshooter.
Phoenix Suns: Six Years, $66 million (2004)
Below, you’ll see the reason why signing a 30-year-old, oft-injured player to a large contract can be a very, very bad idea. But, in the case of the Phoenix Suns and Steve Nash, the gamble paid off in spades.
After failing to sign with the Mavericks following the 2003-04 season, Nash signed a big time deal with the Suns and rewarded them by starting in over 75 games in his first four years while spearheading a rejuvenated Suns team.
Nash finished his Suns career averaging 14.4 points per game (down ever so slightly from 14.6 per game with the Mavericks) but upped his assists per game to 9.4.
Not a bad return on investment for a supposedly ‘aging’ star.
San Antonio Spurs: Two Years, $9.5 million (2003)
Those who thought Robert Horry was finished after a seriously successful run with the Los Angeles Lakers were seriously mistaken. Sure, Horry’s minutes were cut drastically when he arrived in San Antonio, but it gave the forward new life and spurred (no pun intended) him on to two more NBA championships and more clutch playoff performances with the Spurs over a five-year period with the team.
Most notably, Horry scored 21 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter and overtime of Game 5 of the NBA Finals in 2005 against the Detroit Pistons and made the game-winning 3-pointer to give the Spurs a critical victory en route to a championship.
Philadelphia 76ers: Six-years, $13.2 million (1982)
The story goes, that the Houston Rockets – who were under new ownership at the time – matched Malone’s offer sheet from the 76ers, but with uncertainty surrounding the team, Malone wanted, and got, out.
After joining the 76ers, Malone immediately paid dividends for the club and helped lead them to their third NBA championship in franchise history.
Malone was a master rebounder and gave the 76ers the big presence they needed down low to round out their championship roster after losing to the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar-led Lakers in the finals the year before.
Malone ranks fifth all time in rebounds and averaged an incredible 20.3 points per game and 12.3 rebounds per game over the course of his career.
Detroit Pistons – Six-Years, $35 million (2002)
One of the most important players in the illustrious history of the Detroit Pistons came to the team relatively unwillingly through free agency. Chauncey Billups replaced the injured Timberwolves point guard Terrell Brandon and went on to average 22 points, 5.7 assists and 5 rebounds over the remainder of the year.
Still, the Timberwolves elected to let Billups walk in free agency where he signed with the Pistons. The rest, as they say, is history.
Billups averaged 16.2 points per game and 6.2 assists in eight years in Detroit and upped his points per game production to 17.3 points per game in the playoffs, thereby earning the nickname, ‘Mr. Big Shot.’
Los Angeles Lakers: Seven Years, $121 million (1996)
For some reason, Shaquille O’Neal was severely under-appreciated by the fans in Orlando when he played with the Magic. In fact, one of the biggest reasons ‘Shaq Daddy’ left the Magic was because of a poll published by Orlando media outlets that revealed fans didn’t think Shaq was worth $115 million as a free agent.
So naturally, Shaq left Orlando, went to Los Angeles for a cool $121 million and brought the Lakers three straight NBA championships in tandem with Kobe Bryant.
Reminder: be careful what your wish for, NBA fans.
Bryan Altman is, for some reason, an unabashed fan of the Rangers, Jets and Mets. If he absolutely had to pick a basketball team it would be the Knicks, but he’d gladly trade them for just one championship for any of his other three teams.