NBA free agency has become one of the most exciting aspects of being a basketball fan these days, with stars switching teams and forming super squads leading to more interest in the offseason than ever.
Still, not every NBA team enjoys the same amount of success in free agency, with the larger markets and bigger brands tending to hog the big-name-free-agent pickups.
One interesting note on the matter: Hornets, Pacers, Grizzlies, Bucks, Timberwolves, Pelicans and Trail Blazers have never signed a player in free agency who would go on to become an All-Star for them.
Regardless, we went through each team’s history and picked every NBA franchise’s best free-agent signing ever. Check it out below.
Hawks: Dikembe Mutombo
STEVE SCHAEFER/AFP via Getty Images
Stats with team: 11.9 ppg, 12.6 rpg, 3.1 bpg, 52.6 FG%
Accolades with team: Four-time All-Star, 2nd Team All-NBA, 3rd Team All-NBA, three-time Defensive Player of the Year, three-time 1st Team All-Defense, 2nd Team All-Defense
NBA Hall-of-Famer Dikembe Mutombo began his career as a member of the Denver Nuggets, receiving All-Star honors three times in five years while leading the league in nightly blocks three times.
After so much early success, Mutombo reportedly wanted a 10-year contract from the Nuggets in the 1996 offseason, which Denver balked at, opening the door for the shot-blocking legend to join the Atlanta Hawks on a five-year, $55 million contract.
Upon completion of the move, Mutombo told the media it was time for him to move on with his life while then-Nuggets general manager Bernie Bickerstaff would later say letting Mutombo walk was the only regret of his career as a general manager.
Mutombo would enjoy a lot of individual success while with the Hawks as noted above, though the Hawks’ success during that stretch was just so-so, with Atlanta never getting past the second round of the playoffs with Mutombo manning the paint.
Honorable mentions: Joe Johnson, Paul Millsap, Dan Roundfield
Celtics: Al Horford
Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports
Stats with the team (first stint): 13.5 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 4.6 apg, 38.2 3PT%
Accolades with the team: One-time All-Star, 2nd Team All-Defense
As you can denote by both the selection of the player here and by the short, weak list of honorable mentions spanning just one player, the Boston Celtics haven’t exactly been a powerhouse on the free-agent market in the team’s otherwise illustrious history, for whatever reason.
So we had to go with Al Horford as the team’s best free-agent pickup ever, despite just-solid statistics and accolades during his first run in Boston.
Still, Horford has always been more of an impact player than one who will put up tremendous individual statistics, so perhaps it’s fairer to judge the signing by how the Celtics did as a team during the former Florida standout’s first three years there.
Using that barometer, then the signing was a great success, as Boston made it to the Eastern Conference Finals and once to the Eastern Conference semis during Horford’s first stint there, with the now-36-year-old acting as the team’s top frontcourt option in that stretch.
Certainly not the flashiest signing on this list, Horford was quietly a great free-agent pickup for the Celtics, who snatched him up on a four-year $113 million deal.
Honorable mentions: Kemba Walker
Nets: Kevin Durant
Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
Stats with team: 28.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 6.1 apg, 40.9 3P%
Accolades with team: Two-time All-Star, 2nd Team All-NBA
Although by all current reports, the Kevin Durant/Brooklyn Nets marriage is going to end unceremoniously after three seasons (just two of which Durant actually played basketball for them), whenever a franchise is able to pick up a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer in free agency, that player is going to be its top free-agent signing ever, no matter how it ends.
Such is the case with Durant and the Nets, who did enjoy some success together, as the former league MVP was able to lead Brooklyn to the second round of the playoffs in his first season of action with it, coming with inches on a deep two-point shot of possibly getting the Nets to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2021.
And who knows what might have happened after that?
Durant chose to sign with the Nets following a devastating Achilles injury suffered in the 2019 postseason as a member of the Golden State Warriors. He announced the decision on his media business’ (The Boardroom) Instagram account and signed with Brooklyn on a four-year, $164.3 million via sign-and-trade with Golden State.
Durant’s reasoning for leaving the Warriors for the Nets remains somewhat unclear, though Brooklyn’s market size, off-court business opportunities and a chance for Durant to change the narrative on his legacy likely all played factors in the decision.
Hornets: Al Jefferson
Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Stats with team: 17.5 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 1.1 bpg, 49.5 FG%
Accolades with team: 3rd Team All-NBA
It’s quite rare for marquee free agents to sign with the league’s smaller brands and franchises.
That’s the case with the Charlotte Hornets, whose best free-agent pickup ever, according to us, was Al Jefferson back in 2013.
Still, this shouldn’t be seen as a slight to Jefferson, whose throwback post-heavy game was actually quite effective, especially during his time with the Hornets, a three-year stretch in which the big man helped guide the club to the playoffs twice, though never out of the first round.
After six great seasons with the Minnesota Timberwolves and Utah Jazz, Jefferson signed with the Hornets on a three-year, $40.5 million contract in the 2013 offseason. To make room for Jefferson that summer, Charlotte had to use its one-time amnesty clause provision on Tyrus Thomas.
Honorable mentions: Gordon Hayward
Cavaliers: LeBron James
Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images
Stats with team (second stint): 26.1 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 8.0 bpg, 52.6 FG%
Accolades with team (second stint): Four-time All-Star, four-time 1st Team All-NBA, one championship, one Finals MVP
The only instance on this list where a franchise’s top free-agent signing ever is also a player they drafted, LeBron James joining with the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2014 offseason changed the landscape of the NBA at the time and was historically important, as James was able to bring a championship to Cleveland in 2016.
After four successful seasons with the Miami Heat, James opted to return home in 2014 and sign with the Cavs, a deal that was eventually reported to be for two years and $42.2 million, announcing the decision on July 11 via Sports Illustrated, ending the column with:
I see myself as a mentor now and I’m excited to lead some of these talented young guys. I think I can help Kyrie Irving become one of the best point guards in our league. I think I can help elevate Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters. And I can’t wait to reunite with Anderson Varejao, one of my favorite teammates. But this is not about the roster or the organization. I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get. In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have. I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.
It was noteworthy (and a bit hilarious) at the time that James neglected to mention Andrew Wiggins as a young player he was excited to work with, as it was immediately obvious Wiggins would be used as trade bait to build James his next Big Three. And that he was, as Wiggins was quickly dealt for Kevin Love as the Cavaliers’ championship triumvirate was formed.
Regardless, James’ signing by Cleveland in 2014 was obviously a grand-slam home run, leaving us without even a close second-place choice to pick as the team’s best free-agent signing ever.
Bulls: Pau Gasol
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Stats with team: 17.6 ppg, 11.4 rpg, 3.4 apg, 48.3 FG%
Accolades with team: Two-time All-Star, 2nd Team All-NBA
DeMar DeRozan has a chance to take this spot from Gasol in the coming years, and if he posts another season or two like his 2021-22 campaign, it could happen sooner rather than later.
For now, we’re going with Pau Gasol, who joined Chicago after very successful six-plus seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers, signing with the team on a three-year, $22.3 million deal, stating that he turned down more lucrative offers in order to play for a team he felt had a championship ceiling.
I’ve just signed my contract with the #Bulls. Ready to start this new experience, giving my all for the team and fighting for titles
— Pau Gasol (@paugasol) July 18, 2014
Gasol: "Money obviously wasn't the priority. I turned down bigger offers and I prioritized being on a championship caliber team."
— Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) July 18, 2014
Gasol believes Bulls are a contender: "I think we have all the pieces to get there."
— Chicago Bulls (@chicagobulls) July 18, 2014
Gasol would go on to spend two seasons with the Bulls, getting to the second round of the playoffs in Year 1 before missing the postseason in Year 2.
Still, it wasn’t a bad two-year run for Gasol and the Bulls, and at the price he signed for, he was a downright value signing for Chicago, even if the championship hopes didn’t come to fruition.
Honorable mentions: Dwyane Wade, DeMar DeRozan
Mavericks: Shawn Marion
Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Stats with team: 11.6 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 1.0 apg, 49.6 FG%
Accolades with team: One championship
His list of accolades as a Dallas Mavericks player might not be long, but the fact Shawn Marion was able to play a pivotal role in the lone championship in the franchise’s history as a role player was reason enough for us to pick him as the Texan team’s best free-agent signing ever.
After spending half of one season with the Toronto Raptors, Marion was acquired by Dallas in the 2009 offseason via a sign-and-trade, one that gave him a new contract worth five years and roughly $39 million.
Just one season later, in 2010-11, Marion was thrust into a starting role after coming off the bench in his inaugural Mavericks campaign and eventually helped guide Dallas to a championship playing off of the brilliance of Dirk Nowitzki, slashing to the bucket, spotting up from the corners, feasting in transition and defending multiple positions on the other end.
Maybe not the flashiest free-agent pickup ever, but one that paid off handsomely for Mark Cuban and Co.
Honorable mentions: Monta Ellis, Chandler Parsons, Harrison Barnes
Nuggets: Kenyon Martin
Brian Bahr/Getty Images
Stats with team: 12.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 1.9 apg, 49.6 FG%
As discussed above, smaller-market franchises haven’t exactly lit things up on the free-agent market historically. The Nuggets are a prime example of that, as their best free-agent signing ever, Kenyon Martin, amassed zero individual accolades during his seven years with the club.
In the 2004 offseason, Martin, coming off of the lone All-Star appearance of his career, as well as two Finals runs and a second-round playoff exit with the then-New Jersey Nets, was acquired by Denver in a sign-and-trade deal, signing a six-year, $82.3 million contract with the Nuggets.
Denver formed a solid squad during Martin’s tenure, building around Carmelo Anthony, as the franchise made the playoffs all seven years that Martin was there. The Nuggets only got out of the first round once during that span of time, however, albeit getting all the way to the Western Conference Finals in 2008-09.
Martin’s high-flying frontcourt play and toughness on both ends of the floor was an important factor for various good-but-maybe-not-great Nuggets squads, though neither the team nor the individual, in this case, can say this signing was a grand-slam success, either.
Honorable mentions: Andre Miller
Pistons: Ben Wallace
JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images
Stats with team: 7.9 ppg, 12.9 rpg, 2.8 bpg, 47.4 FG%
Accolades with team: Four-time All-Star, one championship, three-time 2nd Team All-NBA, two-time 3rd Team All-NBA, four-time Defensive Player of the Year, five-time 1st Team All-Defense, two-time rebounding leader, one-time blocks leader
Undoubtedly the greatest undrafted player of all time, Ben Wallace’s signing by the Detroit Pistons in the summer of 2000 was likewise one of the biggest coups we’ve ever seen, as Wallace would go on to post a Hall-of-Fame career mostly due to his accomplishments with Detroit.
Wallace was acquired by the Pistons from the Orlando Magic as part of a sign-and-trade deal for Grant Hill, one that gave him a six-year, $34 million contract with Detroit.
The rest, as they say, is history.
With one championship, another run to the Finals, multiple deep playoffs appearances, four Defensive Player of the Year awards, three 2nd Team All-NBA honors and much more, Wallace was magnificent as a Piston, stamping himself as one of the greatest defenders and rebounders the league has ever seen, and one of its fiercest competitors to date.
Who would have thought a player who averaged six points and eight rebounds in his final season with Orlando would go on to become that over the next few years?
Certainly not the Magic.
Honorable mentions: Chauncey Billups
Warriors: Kevin Durant
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
Stats with team: 25.8 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 5.4 apg, 52.4 FG%
Accolades with team: Three-time All-Star, two championships, two Finals MVPs, 1st Team All-NBA, two-time 2nd Team All-NBA
One of the most unpopular free-agent decisions of all time, Durant makes our list for the second time, this time as the Warriors’ best free-agent signing ever. And that signing panned out in spades for Golden State, as the team added two championships to its mantle in Durant’s three seasons there, both of which Durant took home Finals MVP honors.
With the level James was playing at during that second Cavaliers’ stint, who knows if the Warriors would have had enough firepower to stop him twice without Durant?
Still, Durant’s choice was panned by both fans and the media – probably even by other players behind closed doors – and though he likely doesn’t regret it, the fact he chose to leave after just three seasons is a bit telling.
What made the choice particularly tough to digest was the fact that Durant had just led the Oklahoma City Thunder to within a game of the Finals, going up against those very Warriors in the Western Conference Finals that year before he and his team blew a 3-1 series lead, before opting to join the club that beat his.
Regardless, Durant signed with Golden State on a two-year, $54.3 million deal and announced his decision on July 4 via The Players’ Tribune, stating:
The primary mandate I had for myself in making this decision was to have it based on the potential for my growth as a player — as that has always steered me in the right direction. But I am also at a point in my life where it is of equal importance to find an opportunity that encourages my evolution as a man: moving out of my comfort zone to a new city and community which offers the greatest potential for my contribution and personal growth. With this in mind, I have decided that I am going to join the Golden State Warriors.
It really pains me to know that I will disappoint so many people with this choice, but I believe I am doing what I feel is the right thing at this point in my life and my playing career. I will miss Oklahoma City, and the role I have had in building this remarkable team. I will forever cherish the relationships within the organization — the friends and teammates that I went to war with on the court for nine years, and all the fans and people of the community. They have always had my back unconditionally, and I cannot be more grateful for what they have meant to my family and to me.
At least Thunder fans were solaced by the fact Durant felt somewhat bad about his decision.
Honorable mentions: Andre Iguodala
Rockets: Dwight Howard
Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images
Stats with team: 16.0 ppg, 11.7 rpg, 1.6 bpg, 60.1 FG%
Accolades with team: One-time All-Star, 2nd Team All-NBA
Despite signing with the Rockets ahead of his age-28 season, little did anyone know Houston would not be getting the elite, All-NBA version of Howard for long, as the big man’s drop-off from his first year with the Rockets to his third was pretty steep.
Even so, the Howard signing by Houston wasn’t disastrous by any means, as the team made the playoffs all three years he was there, even getting to the Western Conference Finals in the second season.
Howard joined the Rockets on a four-year, $87.5 million max contract after one tumultuous season with the Los Angeles Lakers, announcing his decision on Twitter:
I’ve decided to become a member of the Houston Rockets. I feel its the best place for me and I am excited about joining the Rockets and I’m looking forward to a great season. I want to thank the fans in Los Angeles and wish them the best.
Although things ended in an ugly manner, Howard would eventually rejoin the Lakers and even win a title with the purple and gold.
Pacers: David West
Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
Stats with team: 14.0 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 2.8 apg, 48.7 FG%
The list of accolades here isn’t long – it’s nonexistent, in fact – but David West was a reliable starter on various very good Indiana Pacers teams. Plus, with Indiana, one of the league’s smaller markets, not exactly being a free-agent destination, our list of choices to pick as its best free-agent signing wasn’t exactly long.
The Pacers made it to the playoffs in three of West’s four seasons there, getting to the Eastern Conference Finals twice in that span, with West playing a pivotal role as a frontcourt starter on those teams.
West signed with the Pacers on a two-year, $20 million contract after starting his career with the then-New Orleans Hornets. Both West and Pacers president of basketball operations at the time, Larry Bird, were excited about the move, telling the media:
“It’s great for the Indiana Pacers to have a class, quality person that David is join our team,” said Pacers President of Basketball Operations Larry Bird. “We know what he has accomplished on the court, but it’s the other intangibles he brings that will make us stronger off the court as well as on the court.” “This is a great opportunity and I’m looking forward to finding my role with this team,” said West, who played collegiately at Xavier, earning two national player of the year awards as a senior. “”I feel I can add to this group and once I find my place, I’ll help this ballclub the best I can.”
Clippers: Kawhi Leonard
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Stats with team: 26.0 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 5.0 apg, 48.8 FG%
Accolades with team: Two-time All-Star, 1st Team All-NBA, 2nd Team All-NBA,
An easy decision here, as not only have the Los Angeles Clippers never been the free-agent destination their crosstown foes have been, but Kawhi Leonard would be the best free-agent signing ever for most franchises in the NBA, let alone for one at the level, historically, of the Clippers.
To land a proven, elite talent like Leonard at the peak of his prime was a coup for the Clippers, one that has paid off to an extent, though one that still has potential for more, as the two-time Finals MVP has already missed one full season due to injury.
Still, Leonard has two All-Star appearances as well as a 1st Team and 2nd Team All-NBA recognition as a Clipper, leading the team to the second round of the playoffs both years. In 2020-21, Los Angeles got all the way to the Western Conference Finals, doing so without Leonard due to a torn ACL suffered the round before against the Nuggets.
With a healthy Leonard, who knows? Maybe the team makes it all the way to the Finals.
Leonard chose to sign with the Clippers in the summer of 2019 after winning a championship with the Toronto Raptors, doing so on a three-year, $103.1 million deal, choosing to team up with Paul George in his home state after a very successful season north of the border.
Landing George was the key for Leonard choosing L.A., as he told the media days after the historic announcement:
Kawhi on how close he was to choosing the Lakers or Raptors instead of the Clippers:
"I was very close. Real close. But when [the Clippers] presented the opportunity of playing with Paul, it was easy, it was a yes. I said let's get it going."
— Rachel Nichols (@Rachel__Nichols) July 24, 2019
Now, we wait to find out if Leonard will be able to do what he has already done with two other franchises, and that’s lead L.A. to a championship. The upcoming season looks like as good of an opportunity for the Clippers as any, as the team is absolutely loaded with talent, with the promise of a returning Leonard early on in the campaign.
Lakers: Shaquille O'Neal
LUCY NICHOLSON/AFP via Getty Images
Stats with team: 27.0 ppg, 11.8 rpg, 2.5 bpg, 57.5 FG%
Accolades with team: Seven-time All-Star, league MVP, three-time champion, three-time Final MVP, six-time 1st Team All-NBA, 2nd Team All-NBA, 3rd Team All-NBA, three-time 2nd Team All-Defense, scoring champion
One of the biggest free-agent pickups of all time and arguably the first such move of its kind, opening the doors for the likes of James and Durant to follow suit years later, Shaquille O’Neal leaving Orlando, Florida, for the bright lights of L.A. changed the landscape of the Association forever.
Once O’Neal left the small-market franchise that drafted him for one of the biggest brands and markets in the world, it became more palatable for free agents later on to do the same.
O’Neal was hugely successful during his time with the Magic, winning a scoring title, reaching the Finals and receiving All-Star honors all four years. But he still chose the Lakers in the summer of 1996 and for a variety of reasons, with off-court endeavors and treatment by Magic fans during his free agency – when they strongly voted against O’Neal being worth the $115 million Orlando were reportedly offering him – playing a part.
Of course, the monster seven-year, $121 million contract the Lakers signed him to certainly had a hand in matters, as did the fact that the Magic tried to low-ball O’Neal with their original free-agent offers.
Whatever the reason, in the end, L.A. won out, causing Jerry West, the Lakers’ executive vice president of basketball operations at the time, to compare O’Neal committing to Los Angeles to the birth of his children:
When the deal was complete, West, a Hall of Fame player and National Basketball Association champion who also helped lead the legendary 1960 United States Olympic team, compared his feelings with those at life-altering moments. “At about 2:15 in the morning when we signed the contract, it was probably the most relieved I’ve ever felt in my life,” West said. “I really can’t explain it. I’ve often thought that the birth of my children was something that I’d never forget. Just the excitement of this, for us to sign him, really rates right there with that.”
Jerry West might love basketball just a bit more than the rest of us.
Of course, O’Neal’s tenure with the Lakers was an enormous, transcendent success, as O’Neal and Kobe Bryant would form arguably the greatest big man/guard duo of all time, winning three titles together and playing some of the most exciting, dominant basketball the league has ever seen.
Pretty easy choice here for the Lakers’ best free-agent signing ever.
Honorable mentions: LeBron James, Jamaal Wilkes
Memphis Grizzlies: Tony Allen
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Stats with team: 8.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 1.7 spg, 47.4 FG%
Accolades with team: Three-time 1st Team All-Defense, three-time 2nd Team All-Defense
After seeing the Hall-of-Famers the Los Angeles teams were able to pick up in free agency, we head to another small market, Memphis, to discuss the Grizzlies’ best free-agent signing ever, who is, in our estimation, Tony Allen.
Allen was not exactly a Shaq- or Kawhi-level signing but he was no slouch, either, a savvy, team-friendly signing money-wise who was arguably the league’s best guard defender during most of his Grizzlies tenure.
Prior to heading to Memphis, Allen was an important piece on various good Celtics teams, even playing a part in the team’s 2008 championship run, though many forget he was even on the team at the time. That was part of what played into his decision to leave Boston for the Grizzlies on a cheap three-year, $9.7 million deal, as Allen said he felt he was overshadowed while with the Celtics:
“I’m definitely going to try to start early defining a role, try to bring some sort of toughness to the ballclub,” Allen said. “It’s obvious I have experience and I’m just looking forward to just letting that marinate amongst the players that’s in this locker room.” … “Being in Boston I was kind of overshadowed by those guys, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen,” Allen said. “Here’s a ballclub who’s on the rise and a lot of guys can make names for themselves. It’s a coming out party for a lot of guys on this team.”
Allen, a career 8.1-point-per-game scorer with no All-Star appearances, saying he felt overshadowed by two Hall-of-Famers is so very Tony Allen, but either way, the signing panned out wonderfully for Memphis. The Grizzlies made the playoffs all seven years he was there, getting as far as the Western Conference Finals in 2012-13, with Allen playing a huge part in the team’s success as one of the league’s top defenders.
Heat: LeBron James
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Stats with team: 26.9 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 6.7 apg, 54.3 FG%
Accolades with team: Four-time All-Star, two-time league MVP, two-time champion, two-time Finals MVP, four-time 1st Team All-NBA, three-time 1st Team All-Defense, 2nd Team All-Defense
One of the biggest free-agent moves of all time on par with O’Neal to the Lakers and Durant to the Warriors, James to the Heat was a shocking moment in league history, particularly due to the manner it was announced, on television in an aired special on ESPN called The Decision.
Once The Decision show was announced, some believed that meant Cleveland was in the driver’s seat to re-sign James, as surely he wouldn’t spurn his hometown franchise on national television like that… would he?
But that he did, as James told the world that night he was headed to South Beach and taking his talents with him with the rest being history, as James would sign with the Heat on a six-year, $110 million deal with an early-termination option after four years after taking meetings with the Bulls, Clippers, Knicks Nets and Cavaliers.
By doing so, James became just the second league MVP to switch teams in free agency, the first being (spoiler alert) Moses Malone in 1982, who we’ll talk about in just a bit.
OK, I'll be that guy: 2xs before have reigning MVP's left their current teams for a new team: Wilt in '68 and Moses in '82. #PardonTheGarden
— Alan Hahn (@alanhahn) May 2, 2010
Joining Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, James helped form one of the best Big Threes of all time, leading Miami to four straight Finals, winning two of them and really only failing to live up to expectations once, in the 2011 Finals.
Outside of that one series, James was the undisputed best player in the world during his four years in Miami as he took home league MVP honors in back-to-back campaigns with the Heat in 2012 and 2013 and was 1st Team All-NBA all four seasons.
For a team with so many major trades and free-agent pickups in their history, James still goes down as the best free-agent signing in Heat history – and it’s really not close.
Honorable mentions: Jimmy Butler, Chris Bosh, Ray Allen
Bucks: Brook Lopez
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Stats with team: 12.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 2.0 bpg, 46.2 FG%
Accolades with team: One championship, 2nd Team All-Defense
The Milwaukee Bucks’ offseason history isn’t a super impressive one but even so, Brook Lopez was a savvy pickup at a solid price, the exact type of signing teams like the Bucks have to make to thrive.
And thrive they have in this current era behind Giannis Antetokounmpo, as over the last four seasons, since the Lopez signing in the 2018 offseason, Milwaukee has made the playoffs four times, reached the conference finals once and even taken home a championship back in 2021.
Lopez has played a major role in that as the team’s starting center over the past four seasons, one capable of blocking shots at an elite level and hitting threes at a respectable rate.
Lopez signed with the Bucks after a lone season with the Lakers on an unbelievably team-friendly, one-year, $3.4 million deal, one that the big man greatly outperformed. Milwaukee then rewarded Lopez with a four-year, $52 million contract the following summer, a deal far more befitting a role player as solid as Lopez has proven to be.
Honorable mentions: Mo Williams
Timberwolves: Chauncey Billups
Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports
Stats: 10.9 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 4.5 apg, 42.3 FG%
We had no choice but to go with Chauncey Billups as the Timberwolves’ best free-agent signing ever, as the franchise didn’t give us many good options to choose from.
Billups didn’t even fully break out during his two seasons in Minnesota prior to joining the Pistons, amassing zero individual accolades while the team made the playoffs twice, losing in the first round both times.
Billups signed with the Timberwolves on a two-year, $4.7 million contract after spending his first three seasons with three different teams, and was originally slated to be a backup to Terrell Brandon. In Billups’ second season with Minnesota, however, Brandon hurt his knee, allowing Billups to become the starter at point guard, eventually breaking out in the playoffs by averaging 22.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.7 assists in the 2002 postseason.
Billups was impressive enough as the starter for the Timberwolves that Detroit signed him to a six-year, $34 million deal.
Solid signing by the Pistons, there.
Pelicans: Julius Randle
Catalina Fragoso-USA TODAY Sports
Stats with team: 21.4 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 3.1 apg, 52.4 FG%
Julius Randle was not long for New Orleans as his time with the Pelicans lasted just one season, but without many other options here, we weren’t left with much of a choice for the team’s best free-agent signing.
Still, despite a lack of individual accolades and even though New Orleans failed to make the playoffs in his one season there, Randle did break out in 2018-19 with the Pelicans, looking like the elite prospect the Lakers originally drafted him to be.
After a quiet start to his career with Los Angeles, Randle asked the Lakers to renounce his restricted free-agent rights in the summer of 2019 once it became clear the purple-and-gold franchise had no plans to offer him a long-term deal to stay. The Lakers accommodated the request, paving the way for Randle to sign with New Orleans on a two-year, $18 million deal, one that the former Kentucky standout outperformed in his lone season there.
Knicks: Allan Houston
Doug Pensinger /Allsport
Stats with team: 18.5 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 2.5 apg, 44.4 FG%
Accolades with team: Two-time All-Star
One of the NBA’s underrated 2-guards of the late ’90s and early ’00s, the New York Knicks did well to sign Allan Houston on a six-year, $35 million contract in the 1996 offseason, plucking him away from the Pistons in the process.
A sharpshooter with some off-the-dribble game and defensive toughness, Houston had the following to say after choosing the Knicks over remaining in Detroit, the team with which he had just broken out the season prior:
“At this point in my career, this is the best thing for me. I’m looking forward to playing with Chris, Larry and Patrick (Ewing), and hopefully we can take some of the pressure off each other.”
Houston and the Knicks’ time together was solidly successful, too, with the 2-guard becoming a modern team legend and New York reaching the Finals in 1998-99 before falling short against the San Antonio Spurs.
Of course, for a franchise in the biggest market in the NBA and playing behind a hugely popular brand, it’s probably a little disappointing that they don’t have a free-agent signing more impressive than Houston, who was a good player in his own right but doesn’t stack up against the likes of the James’ and Durants, who the Knicks chased repeatedly in free agency.
Honorable mentions: Amare Stoudemire, John Starks
Thunder: Gus Williams
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports
Stats with team: 20.3 ppg, 6.0 apg, 2.3 spg, 47.5 FG%
Accolades with team: Two-time All-Star, one championship, 1st Team All-NBA, 2nd Team All-NBA
One of the unfairly forgotten-about players from the pre-Magic Johnson/Larry Bird revival era in the NBA, Gus Wiliams was a stout two-way guard who was a terror in transition and could score and create at impressive levels while racking up takeaways on the other end of the floor.
Williams was nicknamed “The Wizard” and was considered one of the top guards in the league in the late ’70s and early ’80s, even leading the then-Seattle SuperSonics in scoring in the 1979 Finals with 29.0 points per game, the last time the franchise would taste championship gold.
Williams joined the Sonics in the 1977 offseason after spending his first two seasons with Golden State, signing with the franchise on a three-year contract worth – get this – $510,000.
Williams came to Seattle as a free agent before the 1977-78 season, after contract hassles with his first NBA team, the Golden State Warriors. He signed a three-year deal with the Sonics at $170,-000 a season and proved a bargain, leading Seattle into the NBA finals his first season and to the title his second.
How’s that for a value signing?
Needless to say, Williams, whose numbers exploded during his time with Seattle on his way to 1st Team All-NBA and 2nd Team All-NBA distinctions, was a fantastic free-agent pickup for the Sonics.
Honorable mentions: Spencer Haywood
Magic: Tracy McGrady
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images
Stats with team: 28.1 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 5.2 apg, 44.6 FG%
Accolades with team: Four-time All-Star, two-time 1st Team All-NBA, two-time 2nd Team All-NBA, two-time scoring champion, Most Improved Player
The Heat aren’t the only Floridian franchise to have success on the free-agent market, as the Orlando Magic’s list of offseason signings is an impressive one, too.
One man reigns as the best free-agent pickup in Magic history, however, and that’s Tracy McGrady, who left the Toronto Raptors and immediately became an MVP-level player with Orlando during his four years there.
It led to absolutely zero team success as the Magic never got out of the first round of the playoffs during McGrady’s time there, but even so, to sign a player in free agency and have him turn into one of the top players in the world is no easy feat, and Orlando was able to accomplish just that.
Multiple factors played into McGrady’s decision to leave Toronto for the Magic in free agency for a variety of reasons, including the monstrous seven-year, $92.8 million contract. Also playing a role in the decision was the fact that McGrady didn’t love having a secondary role behind his cousin, Vince Carter:
“Playing behind a superstar in Vince Carter last year, it wasn’t my turn,” said McGrady, who left Toronto to join the Magic as a free agent before this season. “I believe I could have done some of the things I did this year last year, but I was held back. So, I brought my talent to Orlando and exploited it here.”
McGrady has since walked that back, even later saying he regrets the decision to sign with Orlando, but back in 2001 after winning Most Improved Player, that’s what he claimed to have felt.
To this day, that remains one of the NBA’s biggest what-ifs: What if McGrady had re-signed with the Raptors and developed into his borderline-MVP-level self alongside Carter, who was one of the league’s top 2-guards at the time?
Unfortunately for Raptors fans, we’ll never find out.
Honorable mentions: Horace Grant, Hidayet Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis, Grant Hill
76ers: Moses Malone
Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Network
Stats with team: 23.9 ppg, 13.4 rpg, 1.5 bpg, 47.8 FG%
Accolades with team: Four-time All-Star, one championship, Finals MVP, league MVP, two-time 1st Team All-NBA, 2nd Team All-NBA, 1st Team All-Defense, three-time rebounding champion
Everyone remembers LeBron James as one league MVP to switch teams the offseason after receiving the distinction. What far fewer recall is that Moses Malone, after taking home league MVP honors in 1981-82, did the exact same thing, though as a restricted free agent.
The Rockets, Malone’s prior team, had just switched ownership, so when Malone signed a six-year, $13.2 million offer sheet with the Philadelphia 76ers, they said the reigning league MVP did not fit into their plans at that cost and let him walk, though they were at least able to make it a sign-and-trade with Philadephia that included a first-round pick going back to the Rockets.
Here’s a bit on what was a very interesting free agency:
On Sept. 2, 1982, the Sixers met with Malone and his agent, Lee Fentress, in New York and signed Malone to an offer sheet. The Rockets had 15 days to match the offer or lose Malone without compensation. Sounds simple enough, but it wasn’t. First, there was a unique no-trade clause in Malone’s contract with the Rockets. It stipulated that Malone would play for no owner other than previous Rockets owner Gavin Maloof without Malone’s approval. The Sixers argued that the contract, because of new ownership, made Malone a free agent without compensation. Also, the Sixers put a contract together they knew the Rockets couldn’t match. They offered Malone a 6-year, $13.2 million deal, which could grow to $15 million. The league had no problem with the $1 million signing bonus or the $100,000 bonus for each season Malone averaged more than 30 minutes a game.
So for those who believe players have too much power these days when it comes to free agency or demanding trades, just realize this sort of thing has been happening for decades, though certainly not as publicly as today.
Regardless, Malone joined what was a stacked Sixers team, featuring Julius Erving, Maurice Cheeks and Bobby Jones, and the team ran away with the 1983 championship. Malone also won league MVP that year, his first with Philadelphia, and Finals MVP for his efforts in the championship series.
Honorable mentions: Steve Mix, Caldwell Jones, Elton Brand
Suns: Steve Nash
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Stats with team (second stint): 16.3 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 10.9 apg, 43.7 3PT%
Accolades with team: Six-time All-Star, two-time league MVP, three-time 1st Team All-NBA, two-time 2nd Team All-NBA, five-time assists champion, four-time 50/40/90 club
After originally being drafted by the Phoenix Suns and spending his first two seasons there, Steve Nash was traded to the Mavericks where he spent the next six seasons of his career and started to show signs of being one of the top floor generals in the NBA, making two All-Star appearances along the way.
Then, in the summer of 2004, ahead of his age-30 campaign, Nash became a free agent and had hopes of re-signing with Dallas, the team that helped turn him into an elite point guard. However, with so many big salaries already on the payroll, namely those of Antoine Walker, Michael Finley, Antawn Jamison and Dirk Nowitzki, and with Nash already entering his 30s, the Mavericks low-balled their point guard, offering him a four-year deal worth roughly $36 million.
Phoenix, on the other hand, was offering Nash a six-year, $63 million contract, which the Canadian legend ended up agreeing to.
We know how the rest of the story goes, as Nash, alongside Amare Stoudemire and Shawn Marion, and under the tutelage of then-head coach Mike D’Antoni, helped form the 7-seconds-or-less-era Suns and turned the franchise into contenders, getting to the conference finals three times during his tenure there, a span in which he was named league MVP twice.
Honorable mentions: Tom Chambers, Connie Hawkins
Trail Blazers: Rod Strickland
USA TODAY Sports
Stats with team: 17.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 8.6 apg, 47.3 FG%
Rod Strickland was a nice player in his heyday, right on the cust of being an All-Star but never quite receiving the honor. He did manage to pick up a 2nd Team All-NBA distinction in his career, but did so after his time with the Portland Trail Blazers, making that point moot with regards to this discussion.
Still, we had to go with Strickland as Portland’s best free-agent signing ever, as the team didn’t leave us with many other strong options. Plus, his raw numbers during his four seasons there were impressive at over 17 points and eight assists nightly. Moreover, the Blazers made the playoffs all four years Strickland was there.
Strickland signed with Portland in the 1992 offseason immediately after the franchise had made it to the Finals, doing so on a multi-year contract worth $12.6 million.
The Blazers’ head coach at the time, Rick Adleman, said at the time of the signing that Strickland would be important to Portland because the team lacked a second ball-handler outside of Terry Porter to get the ball up the floor, a deficiency that was exposed by the Bulls in the 1992 Finals:
In Portland, Strickland is expected to be part of a three-guard rotation with Clyde Drexler and Terry Porter. “It was fairly obvious in the Chicago (championship) series that, when Porter was out of the game, we struggled to get the ball up the court,” Portland Coach Rick Adelman said. “In looking at the free agents available, Rod was the guy we wanted. Whether Danny was here or not, Rod Strickland was the guy we wanted to get.”
Strickland would go on to perform admirably for the Blazers but even so, the team wouldn’t get out of the first round of the playoffs during his time there, so Adleman was unable to find out if that second ball-handler would have made a difference against the Bulls in a Finals rematch.
Honorable mentions: Wesley Matthews, Danny Ainge, Kenny Anderson
Kings: Vlade Divac
Jed Jacobsohn /Allsport
Stats with team: 11.4 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 3.7 apg, 47.8 FG%
Accolades with team: All-Star
Vlade Divac may have not put up monster numbers or racked up a ton of accolades with the Sacramento Kings, but he was an above-average starting center on various contending teams while there.
The Kings had their most successful stretch of the modern era while Divac was there, making the playoffs all six seasons, making it to the second round three times and to the conference finals once. They also had a 61-win and 59-win regular seasons in that span, and two more 55-win campaigns.
Divac may not have been the driving force behind that, that honor would probably go to Chris Webber, but Divac played an important role as a low-post scorer and mid-post creator.
Divac said when he signed with Sacramento on a six-year, $62.5 million contract that it would be an exciting challenge to turn the Kings into a competitive team, but that he did, even if the team did fail to reach the Finals or win a title during his time there:
“With Chris and Corliss, we have one of the best front lines in the league,” said Divac, who spent seven seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers and two with the Charlotte Hornets. Divac, one of just five active NBA players with 8,000 career points, 5,000 rebounds, 1,500 assists and 1,000 blocks, said he wants to break a streak of 15 consecutive losing seasons by the Kings — a league record. “That’s one of the biggest challenges in my career now, to make Sacramento a competitive team,” he said. “It’s a very big challenge, and I like challenges.”
Spurs: LaMarcus Aldridge
Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports
Stats with team: 19.2 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 2.0 apg, 50.2 FG%
Accolades with team: Three-time All-Star, 2nd Team All-NBA, 3rd Team All-NBA
The Spurs don’t typically go after marquee free agents, but an exception was seemingly made in the 2015 offseason when the Texan franchise successfully recruited and landed LaMarcus Aldridge on a four-year, $80 million contract.
It’s not difficult to see why Aldridge ultimately said yes to the Spurs, either, over a bevy of other offers, as the team did a great job recruiting him, putting on the full-court press for the talented scoring big man:
Sources said the pitch Aldridge received Friday in Los Angeles from Spurs coach Gregg Popovich — about playing with Tim Duncan his final days in the NBA and then taking over for him as the Spurs’ frontcourt linchpin alongside Kawhi Leonard — resonated strongly with Aldridge. It was the Spurs’ second meeting with Aldridge. Popovich, Duncan, Leonard and Tony Parker all pitched Aldridge directly Wednesday morning, sources said.
Aldridge chose the Spurs over offers from the Lakers, Rockets, Mavericks Suns, Raptors and Heat.
Despite boasting a loaded roster, however, Aldridge never proved to be an ideal fit with San Antonio, though the player and franchise did enjoy success together, with Aldridge racking up solid personal accolades and the team making the playoffs four times while he was there, including a trip to the conference finals.
Aldridge would be bought out of his contract in the 2020-21 season.
Honorable mentions: Robert Horry, Bruce Bowen
Raptors: Fred VanVleet
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
Stats with team: 13.7 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 4.9 apg, 40.4 FG%
Accolades with team: All-Star, one championship
The lone player on this list who was signed as an undrafted free agent by his team, Fred VanVleet will go down as one of the great undrafted players of all time, as he has already developed into one of the top point guards in the East, despite having just one season without Kyle Lowry under his belt.
Despite an impressive four-year career at Wichita State, VanVleet went undrafted in 2016, reportedly turning down two offers to get drafted in the second round and play in what was then called the D-League for two years before agreeing to join the Raptors.
Even so, VanVleet took a while to develop into an NBA stud but Toronto did a great job of being patient with him, turning the undersized, average athlete at point guard into an All-Star in the Eastern Conference and one of the toughest lead guards in the league.
Honorable mentions: Jose Calderon
Jazz: Carlos Boozer
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Stats with team: 19.3 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 2.9 apg, 54.4 FG%
Accolades with team: Two-time All-Star, 3rd Team All-NBA
A team known far better for its drafting and developing as opposed to its free-agent prowess, the one top free-agent signing the Jazz did pick up was Carlos Boozer, which happened in the 2004 offseason.
The Boozer signing panned out well for Utah, with the former Duke standout becoming an All-Star-level big man with the franchise, one that helped lead it four years in a row, including a trip to the Western Conference Finals in 2006-07.
Boozer’s signing by the Jazz was not without drama, however. It was reported back then that Cleveland, the big man’s original team, and Boozer had an understanding that if they released him from the final year of his contract and made him a restricted free agent, he would re-sign with the Cavaliers for six years and $39 million.
Once Cleveland granted his wishes and released him, though, Boozer would turn around and sign a six-year, $70 million deal that the Cavaliers could not afford to match.
The Cavs owner at the time, Gordon Gund, was not happy with the situation, telling fans and the media:
Boozer has denied there was an agreement, although he did tell
The Associated Press at the beginning of the free-agency period
that he planned to stay in Cleveland. Gund posted a letter to fans on the team’s Web site explaining Cleveland’s side of the story. “In the final analysis, I decided to trust Carlos and show him the respect he asked for. He did not show that trust and respect in return. That’s what happened,” Gund’s letter said.
Somewhat amusing to see Cavaliers’ owners have a history of publicly calling out their former players who choose to leave the team in free agency.
Either way, Boozer and the Jazz enjoyed solid success together, which is fortunate for both parties considering the drama that went into the signing.
Wizards: Gilbert Arenas
Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Stats with team: 26.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 5.9 apg, 42.6 FG%
Accolades with team: Three-time All-Star, 2nd Team All-NBA, two-time 3rd Team All-NBA
Tumultuous as the ending of his time with the team was, Gilbert Arenas still goes down as the best free-agent signing by the Washington Wizards ever, even over the legendary Michael Jordan.
Arenas had a stretch there with Washington where he was one of the top guards in the league, a player ahead of his time in that he was willing to shoot – with aplomb – from beyond the arc before it was common to do so. In the modern NBA, Arenas’ game would be even more respected, as guards with deep range are one of the most important player archetypes of the times.
When he hit free agency in 2004, Arenas was having a hard time deciding which team to sign with, the Wizards or Clippers, after ruling out a return to the Warriors, so he opted to… flip a coin to decide.
Even weirder about the process was the fact that Arenas said he flipped the coin 10 times, with the Clippers being heads and the Wizards, tails. The coin landed on heads eight times.
So Arenas picked the Wizards, because, according to him, he likes to go against the grain:
The Clippers were heads, the Wizards were tails. Ten flips of a quarter would decide. Heads came up eight times. Washington it was. “I always go against the odds,” Arenas said of his unconventional process. “When the Clippers came up eight times, I was like, I don’t go with the grain. I go against the wave. I go upstream.” That is Gilbert Arenas.
The Wizards and Arenas enjoyed some success together, making the playoffs four times and getting past the first round once, but that go-against-the-grain mindset ultimately made the marriage end in an awkward, ugly fashion.
Honorable mentions: Michael Jordan