July 1st marks the opening day of free agency for the NBA’s 2014-2015 season. Top-tier talents like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Dirk Nowitzki are among the many star players than can begin negotiating with any team of their choice. The summer of 2010 proved to be a landmark event in free agency as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh all decided to join forces on the same team in Miami. As we wait to see if this summer will live up to the excitement of 2010, let’s take a look back at my top 5 free-agent signings in basketball history, excluding the 2010 Miami Heat signings of James, Wade, and Bosh.
5) Magic Johnson 1995 L.A. Lakers/Michael Jordan 2001 Washington Wizards: I put these two together because they will be inexorably linked in basketball lore forever. Both were fierce competitors in the 1980’s, went head-to-head against each other in the 1991 NBA Finals, were teammates on the historic 1992 Olympic Dream Team, and both attempted successful comebacks to the NBA in their late 30’s. Although both Magic and MJ were well past their primes, the hype surrounding their returns to the hardwood was unbelievable. And considering the advanced age and long layoffs for both superstars, they played extremely well in their twilight years. Jordan averaged 21.2 points per game in two years with the Wizards while Magic dished out 6.9 assists per game in 32 games with his beloved Lakers during the ’95-96 season.
4) Steve Nash 2004 Phoenix Suns: After being buried on the bench his first time around in Phoenix, Nash blossomed into a six-time All Star and a two-time NBA MVP during his second go-round in the Valley of the Sun. During his incredible run in Phoenix, Nash led the league in assists five times. In addition to his dishing skills, Nash produced four seasons of shooting at least 50% from the field, 40% from three-point range, and 90% from the free-throw line. Nash’s eight-year run from 2004-12 in his second stint with the Phoenix Suns cemented his legacy as a sure-fire NBA Hall of Famer.
3) Wilt Chamberlain 1958 Harlem Globetrotters: Disinterested with his college basketball career at the University of Kansas, Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain left school after his junior season to begin a professional basketball career with the Harlem Globetrotters. In those days, the NBA did not allow players to be drafted until they were four years removed from their graduating high-school class. While this rule was usually enough to dissuade young ball players from dropping out of school, it certainly wasn’t enough to stop the Big Dipper from signing with the independent Globetrotters. Chamberlain’s one year contract worth a cool $50,000 was an obscene amount of money for a professional basketball player at that time. Eventually, Chamberlain would land in the NBA, completely obliterate the competition, and become known to many the greatest big-man in NBA history. But it was his decision to leave school early and sign a free-agent deal with Harlem that proved to be a precursor of things to come in the modern basketball era.
2) Julius Erving 1971 Virginia Squires : Almost 40 years before LeBron took his talents to South Beach, Dr. Jay took his talents to the fledgling American Basketball Association. Like Chamberlain, Erving was also an underclassman who was eager to begin a professional basketball career. With his outstanding athleticism and dunking skills, “The Doctor” brought style and flair to the game of basketball that was never seen before in the NBA. Even though the ABA folded in 1976, four ABA teams were absorbed into the NBA (Nuggets, Spurs, Pacers, Nets). In addition to adding talented teams and excellent individual players like Erving to the NBA game, the ABA was also responsible for influencing the culture of basketball and the style of play of future NBA players. Julius Erving was a basketball pioneer that helped to blaze a new trail for those players that followed him.
1) Shaquille O’Neal 1996 L.A. Lakers: Of all the legendary free-agent signings on this list, the O’Neal signing in 1996 was the only one to result in any championships. Shaq had formed a great duo in Orlando with Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, but who could have ever predicted that he would form an even better combination in Los Angeles with a then 17-year old teenie-bopper named Kobe Bean Bryant. In Shaq’s eight seasons with the Lakers, he produced seven All-Star Game appearances, one NBA scoring title, one NBA MVP award, and three straight NBA championships, including three NBA Finals MVP awards. Although there was a bitter divorce from L.A. that soured the relationship between Shaq and many within the Lakers organization, the list of accomplishments for “The Diesel” while wearing purple and gold is second to none. In my opinion, this was the single greatest free-agent signing in basketball history.