Championship blueprint: Move heaven and earth to sign an NBA superstar in free agency. Surround him with fair priced talent, shooters, glue guys, the works. Hire a great coach. Make a post-season run. Perhaps win an NBA championship. Sounds easy enough, right? This just happened. The Miami Heat just demonstrated how 50+ million dollars in cap space can equate to the Larry O’Brien gold. For teams that strike out in the draft and don’t have the pieces to haul in a big gunner on the trade market, free agency is the best shot at constructing a contending team. What follows: has this approach truly worked?
In a three part series, we look at the top five free agent signings in each decade since the 1980s in the NBA, in reverse order. Players are selected and ranked based on impact in terms of championships won, overall team success, individual success and intangible team benefits. A free agent signing does not include a star re-signing with his previous team, the team that either drafted or traded for him.
Let’s kick off with the 2000s:
5) Chris Bosh, Miami Heat, 2010
Right off the bat, a real tough one. #5 is a toss-up between Robert Horry and Bosh. Horry was an integral part of each post-season championship run for the Spurs, although he didn’t put up impressive statistical numbers in a single season with SA. In his best statistical season, he averaged 6 points and 4 rebounds in 18 mpg per game, although he hit big shot after big shot, earning the moniker “Big Shot Bob”. The Spurs won three NBA championships, went 293-117 in the regular season and never won less than 55 games.
Bosh, on the other hand, has averaged 18/8 for a Heat team with two consecutive Finals appearances and one championship. Bosh’s length and silky shooting from mid-range is a big part of the Heat’s offense, which is why the rhetoric from Heat coach Erik Spoelstra always suggests that Bosh’s performance makes or breaks the team’s season. He’s learnt to play above-average defense for the Heat after playing for a horrific Raptors defense for seven years prior. Bosh gets the nod here for two reasons: the belief is that the Heat are not done and the first two seasons involved far greater trials for Bosh (and successes) than Horry ever faced. And besides, he left a woeful Raptors team that started him alongside Andrea Bargnani and failed to advance to the second round of the playoffs every year round.
4) Gilbert Arenas, Washington Wizards, 2003
Long before his name became synonymous with guns and albatross contracts, long before he was tossed about the league as an unwanted ‘problem’ player, long before he forgot how to jump, or shoot, or do anything basketball related, Gilbert Arenas was a phenomenal player. After signing with the Wizards for 6 years, 60 million, Arenas made the Wizards relevant in the league, and set up an intense three year postseason rivalry with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. In his best season, Arenas averaged 29 ppg, 6 apg and 2 spg for a Wizards team that made the playoffs in four consecutive years, after not having made it to postseason for seven consecutive years prior to that. While the Wiz only made it out of the first round once, Arenas did plenty to make them a fun, explosive team. Arenas, in my reckoning, is one of the few chuckers to succeed for a considerable period offensively (hello, Michael Redd) and that counts for something, right?
3) Steve Nash, Phoenix Suns, 2004
Among the most stupid things Mark Cuban has done (and he has done a lot of stupid things) is refusing to re-sign a 30 year old Steve Nash way back in 2004. Nash and Nowitzki would fight it out atop MVP voting for several seasons after, a storyline punctuated by the hollow knowledge of what could have been. Nash’s effect on the Suns after signing a 6 year, 63 million contract was instant, and it was electric. Between 2004 and 2012, he has averaged a double-double in all but one season and has recorded at least five seasons of 11 assist per game or more. The Suns have won at least 54 games in four of these seasons and have made the Conference Finals thrice and the second round of the playoffs once. Above all, Nash changed the way basketball was played in the 2000s. And he did it as a Phoenix Sun.
2) Chauncey Billups, Detroit Pistons, 2002
Billups signed with the Pistons in 2002 after a breakthrough season with Garnett’s Timberwolves the year before. He took over the reins and Detroit never looked back on its way to six consecutive Eastern Conference Finals, two Finals appearance and one Championship. No other team has achieved this feat in the 2000s and “Mr. Big Shot” Billups was the catalyst. In his time, the Pistons never won less than 50 games in a season. Billups and Duncan are, for my money, the paradigmatic NBA winners of the decade past. Tough, resilient, no-flash, hard-working, get-the-job-done. It’s no surprise that the Pistons have plummeted in the standings since Billups’ departure (and this was coterminous with Denver’s rise up – see the trend?).
Billups was the glue that held the 2004 NBA Champion Pistons together. That team is one of the few in NBA history to win a championship without a legitimate superstar player, or a “go-to” scorer. They had a bunch of good players – the Wallaces, Rip Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince – and a guy who made the team click.
1) Eddy Curry, New York Knicks, 2005
Didn’t see this coming, did you? You probably thought it was some guy called…
The Real 1) LeBron James, Miami Heat, 2010
This is not as self-evident as some may think. Bron might or might not win not two, not three, not four, not five NBA championships in Miami, but he certainly has won one and led the team to the Finals on another occasion. Billups resume with Pistons is more impressive, but what puts Bron over the top is the environment in which he succeeded. In which the Heat succeeded. No free agent signing has caused more faultlines to appear in the NBA landscape than Bron taking his talents to South Beach. Big threes are cool now, every team wants one. The 2010 offseason for the Heat has changed the way teams are restricting their rosters. The Brooklyn Nets are only the first in what promises to be long list of teams that link their future with free agency (hello, Dallas). LeBron also figures as the second greatest free agency signing in NBA history, about half a mile or so behind a certain 300 pound backboard shattering center in Hollywood.