The NBA season is back, the draft prospects have arrived and rosters have been supplemented through the free agency window. Free agency has provided some incredible moves over the years, so who are the best free agent signings in the history of the NBA? Here are the top 5.
5 best free agent signings in NBA history
5. Al Horford (Boston Celtics)
Kicking off our top five is the only player in our list of the best free agent signings in NBA history who didn’t go on to lift a Championship with his team. It hardly means he was a bust though. Horford joined the Boston Celtics in 2017 to become the first real talent they’d attracted in free agency for donkeys years.
The prospect of the top prize evaded Horford and co but the former Hawks center did help take Boston to two conference finals and a semi-final in his three years with the team. It’s the closest they’ve come to doing anything for over a decade and, for that reason, combined with the fact his decision to join the Celtics opened the door to the franchise attracting better talent means he goes down as a quality signing.
4. Kevin Durant (Golden State Warriors)
The inclusion of Durant in this list might be sneered at by some who think calling him one of the best NBA free agency signings of all time is a bit of a stretch. After all, the Golden State Warriors were a mightily impressive outfit prior to Durant’s arrival from Oklahoma City Thunder in 2016.
The reason we feel differently is because, generally speaking, good teams don’t become great ones without longevity. The Warriors had won the Championship in 2015 but 2016 saw them fall short; then came Durant. Sure, he joined a plethora of talent but he proved the ingredient they needed to conquer the NBA again; they did so in consecutive seasons too. Durant was named Finals MVP in both years.
3. LeBron James (Cleveland Cavaliers)
James had been with the Cleveland Cavaliers for seven seasons before his acrimonious exit in 2010. In that time he’d been Rookie of the Year, a regular in the All-Star game, led the league scoring charts and twice been named MVP. When he left it seemed a bridge was well and truly burned. Come 2014 though and he was back with the Cavs.
There was no hard feeling towards him either; far from it in fact. The Cavaliers had been statistically the worst team in the NBA in the four seasons James wasn’t there. His return marked a transformation of epic proportions as the side reached the post season in his first year back before a MVP winning year from James saw the Cavs to NBA Championship glory for their first – and only – Championship win.
2. Shaquille O’Neal (LA Lakers)
To most people Shaquille O’Neal is synonymous with the LA Lakers but it wasn’t always that way. The big man was drafted to Orlando Magic in 1992 as the first overall pick. He had made a big impression with Magic but was slandered when he opted to join the Lakers during the 1996 free agency with suggestions of him chasing the money on the tips of everybody’s tongues in Orlando.
‘Shaq’ denied he was after financial gain and insisted his move was one driven from a hunger of success. As it turns out, he got both. The Lakers won their first Championship of the ‘Shaq’ era in 2000 when the ex-Magic man posted a career high of 3.8 assists per game alongside a career high – and league leading – 29.7 points. It would prove the first of three Championships on the bounce with O’Neal the driving force behind each one.
Number 1. LeBron James (Miami Heat)
Yeah, that’s right. Making his second appearance on our list of the best NBA free agent signings of all time and taking top spot is TIME’s athlete of the year LeBron James. Rewind a decade and, after leaving the Cavs (this was the bitter exit we mentioned earlier), reigning MVP James joined Miami Heat with the announcement somewhat unusual given it came on TV courtesy of ‘The Decision’. It was slammed as tasteless but James didn’t care – nor did Miami fans.
The Heat were building a formidable side, which is something James cited in his reasoning. The first year saw James suffer huge criticism but that would be silenced over the next couple of seasons as the NBA Championship headed to Miami in back to back seasons. James was named league MVP on both occasions.