3 Free Agent Signings That Changed the NBA
By now, everyone has dissected the signing and ramifications of Kevin Durant to the Golden State Warriors. He’s joining a team that finished with the best regular season record in NBA history (73–9) and blew a 3–1 lead in the most recent NBA Finals.
Given that, I wanted to take a look back at some of the biggest free agent acquisitions in NBA history, which altered the landscape of the league as we know it:
Shaquille O’Neal signs with the Los Angeles Lakers (1996) — Shaquille O’Neal became the NBA’s biggest phenom since Michael Jordan while in Orlando, taking a moribund franchise to the NBA Finals in just his third season. But after an injury-riddled 1995–1996 season, a variety of factors came into play, which led to O’Neal looking elsewhere when deciding where to continue his NBA career (after his most recent contract had expired). He faced intense public scrutiny around whether he was worth a record-breaking $115 million extension by the Orlando Magic, and often felt overwhelmed with the attention he got in the small-market town. In addition, he began to believe the Magic preferred to build their franchise around the team’s other young superstar, Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway. Eventually, O’Neal signed a seven-year, $121 million contract to join the Los Angeles Lakers, where he would win three NBA titles.
Steve Nash signs with the Phoenix Suns (2004) — Despite back-to-back All Star appearances and back-to-back seasons with 52 or more wins, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was relucant to sign Steve Nash to a long-term contract extension. Cuban didn’t want to be paying Nash — who was already 30 years old — a lot of money, especially when he was already paying nearly $50 million in combined salaries to Samaki Walker, Michael Finley, Antawn Jamison, and franchise cornerstone Dirk Nowitzki. Cuban’s decision turned out to be one of the biggest blunders in NBA decision-making history, as Nash went on to win back-to-back MVP awards in his second and third seasons after leaving Dallas, and helped give birth to the “seven seconds or less”-style of basketball that formed the foundation of the way teams like Golden State play today.
LeBron James signs with the Miami Heat (2010) — After being upset by the Boston Celtics in the second round of the NBA Playoffs, and amidst a bunch of off-the-court rumors involving some of this Cavaliers teammates, LeBron James began taking meetings with other teams trying to acquire his services via free agency. While Cleveland appeared to be the front-runner to retain his services, he eventually revealed — in his infamous live television broadcast known as “The Decision” — that he would be signing with the Miami Heat. James drew immense criticism from Cleveland fans, who felt their “hometown hero” had betrayed them. His signing also gave increased credibility to the rumors of a surreptitious agreement made between himself, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh to sign somewhere together when their contracts expired, made when the trio played together for the United States Olympic basketball team in 2008. Regardless, James guided the Miami Heat to four straight NBA Finals appearances and two championship wins.