With Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James being wined and dined by any team with enough imagination to clear up the requisite cap space to sign either superstar, the favorites to win the next NBA title won’t be known until someone signs on the dotted line. What is known, is that if either player bolts his current team, it will likely mark one of the most significant free agent signings in the recent history of the NBA. Where would it rank all-time? Below are the five most significant of the last 20 years.
5. 2002—Chauncey Billups signs with the Detroit Pistons: The talented Billups was the third overall pick of the 1997 draft but by the time the 2002 free agency period rolled around, the 26-year old had already played for four different teams. After signing a six-year, $35 million deal with Detroit, Billups and the Pistons took off with the team eventually winning the title in 2004 as Billups was named finals MVP.
4. 2004—Carlos Boozer signs with the Utah Jazz: Although Boozer’s performance with the Jazz wasn’t earth-shattering, it’s how he got there that was. An overachieving second-round pick in 2002, Boozer reportedly got the Cavs to decline his $695,000 team option in 2004 (which normally should be a no-brainer for someone averaging a double-double) with a verbal (yet illegal) agreement that he’d sign a six-year $41 million free agent contract—the most Cleveland could offer. Once he was let loose though, Utah swooped in and offered him $68 million over six and Boozer was gone and so were Cleveland’s hopes.
3. 2004—Steve Nash signs with the Phoenix Suns: There was no doubting that Nash was good in Dallas, but even the spend-happy owner of the Mavericks, Mark Cuban, wasn’t going to match the offer that Phoenix came up with to lure him away from Dirk Nowitzki and company: six years for $65 million. Amazingly, the gamble paid off for the Suns though as the already 30-year old Nash thrived in coach Mike D’Antoni’s up-tempo system to the tune of back-to-back MVPs as the Suns became instant contenders in the west.
2. 1996—Shaquille O’Neal signs with the Los Angeles Lakers: The Lakers had one of the great offseasons of all-time in 1996 when the team traded Vlade Divac for the 13th pick of the draft (Kobe Bryant) and then signed free agent superstar Shaquille O’Neal to a seven-year, $120 million deal—the richest deal in league history at the time. While Kobe was still a teenager, Shaq turned the team into instant contenders for years to come, culminating with back-to-back-to-back NBA titles from 2000–2002 and an MVP award.
1. 2010—LeBron James and Chris Bosh sign with the Miami Heat: James, Bosh, and established Heat star Dwyane Wade teamed together to form one of the greatest trios of stars in NBA history by conspiring to play together instead of toiling away as the lone stars on three separate lukewarm teams. Although it ended well for the trio, who advanced to the finals all four seasons and twice cut down the nets, the backlash of James’s much-anticipated live TV dumping of his Cavs turned the superstar into a villain for most.