It’s been a very busy off-season in the NBA.
Free agents have had tractor trailer loads of cash thrown at them in the hopes they can take a team other than Golden State or Cleveland to the promised land.
Gordon Hayward got max dollars to flee Utah for Boston, while Paul Millsap also broke the bank to sign in the Mile High City with the Nuggets. Smaller, but not insignificant deals saw Taj Gibson ink a fairly big deal with Minnesota, as well as J.J. Redick in Philadelphia.
While we’re not ready to anoint anyone other than Boston as a potential contender, each of those teams made strides to bigger and better things down the road.
We already detailed what we thought were some good underrated NBA free agent signings in the past, now here is our list of the very best, including one from 2017 (in chronological order).
15. Cazzie Russell – Los Angeles Lakers 1974
Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, players actually left Golden State for greener pastures. Cazzie Russell, who was the first pick overall in the 1996 draft by the New York Knicks, was an all-star swingman who won a title with the Knicks in 1970. He played for the Warriors for three seasons between 1971-72 and 1973-74, earning an all-star nomination in 1972. The Dubs, however, low-balled him in free agency in 1974 and he signed with the Lakers, hwere he would be the last player to wear no. 32 before Magic Johnson came along. Russell was great in three seasons in L.A. scoring 14.5 points per game, along with 3.0 rebounds and 2.3 assists. Russell was also the second leading scorer in the 1977 playoffs for the Lakers behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, pouring in 15.8 PPG.
14. Moses Malone – Philadelphia 76ers 1982
In 1982, the Sixers were coming off a crushing loss to Los Angeles in the NBA finals, one where Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar dominated them in the paint. In Houston, Moses Malone, a perennial All-Star and two-time MVP (including 1982), wanted a then princely $2 million a season to stick around. With the Rockets ownership in a state of flux, they weren’t willing to match, so engineered a sign and trade that sent Malone to the City of Brotherly Love. He, along with Julius Erving, Maurice Cheeks, Andrew Toney and Bobby Jones would go on to win the 1983 NBA championship. Malone was again league MVP that season, pouring in 24.5 points per game and grabbing a league high 15.3 rebounds. Malone was also finals MVP, with 26.0 points per game and 15.8 rebounds.
13. John Starks – New York Knicks 1990
The Golden State Warriors didn’t quite know what they had in John Starks when they signed him as an undrafted free agent in 1988. Having drafted soon-to-be Rookie of the Year shooting guard Mitch Richmond, Starks got limited playing time in 36 games during the 1988-89 season and was released. After two seasons playing in the Contintental Basketball Association and World Basketball League, the Knicks gave him a shot and he ran with it. Along with superstar center Patrick Ewing, the two formed a formidable tandem who despite not winning a NBA championship took the Knicks to new heights. In 1993-94, Starks and Ewing propelled the Knicks all the way to the NBA finals, losing to Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets in a seven-game thriller. Starks contributed 14.6 points per game and 4.6 assists in 25 games.
12. Horace Grant – Orlando Magic 1994
When he was with Chicago, Horace Grant was a good to great complement to perennial All-Stars Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. The C/PF out of Clemson won three championships in a row with the Bulls from 1991 to 1993 and could have won more in the Windy City. However, after his first All-Star season in 1993-94 (15.1 PPG, 11.0 rebounds), Grant left the Bulls in free agency to join Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway in Orlando. His numbers that first year weren’t as good as in 1993-94, but he still managed 12.8 points and 9.7 rebounds per game. The Magic were destined for big things that year and through the first three rounds of the playoffs were full value, beating Grant’s old team, the Bulls, in the second round 4-2. However, like John Starks experience in New York the season previous, the powerful Houston Rockets took down the Magic 4-0 in the finals.
11. Dikembe Mutombo – Atlanta Hawks 1996
Giant Congolese center Dikembe Mutombo was very coveted for his shot-blocking prowess coming out of Georgetown University and when he was available at fourth overall in 1991, the Denver Nuggets wasted no time picking him. In his last three season for the Nuggets, Mutombo led the NBA in shot blocks, with 4.1, 3.9 and 4.5 per game between 1993-94 and 1995-96. However, the Nuggets couldn’t afford him in 1996 and he signed with the Atlanta Hawks for five years and $55 million. He and Steve Smith would rejuvenate the Hawks franchise, playing key roles in back-to-back 50-win seasons in 1996-97 and 1997-98. Mutombo would be Defensive Player of the Year for the second and third times those seasons, too. The man who developed the “finger wag” (later banned) for rejecting opponent’s shots was one of the best ever to suit up in Atlanta.
10. Shaquille O’Neal – Los Angeles Lakers 1996
The same year that big man Dikembe Mutombo took his act to Atlanta, The Big Aristotle fled Orlando for the bright lights of L.A. The always engaging O’Neal was caught in a power struggle in Florida with coach Brian Hill and Penny Hardaway, who considered himself the Magic’s centerpiece. Thus, the four-time All-Star and 1995 NBA scoring champion took a seven-year, $121 million contract to join the Lakers. It would prove to be an astute move, as Shaq Diesel and the Lakers would win three straight championships between 2000 and 2002. In that first championship season, regular season MVP O’Neal would lead the playoff scoring race with an incredible 30.7 points per game, followed by Kobe Bryant with 21.1 points. That pair would be one of the most lethal tandems ever to hit the hardwood in the post-season.
9. Joe Smith – Minnesota Timberwolves 1998
In Joe Smith’s case, he actually took less money to sign with the Minnesota Timberwolves in 1998. The versatile forward/center was very good in his first two seasons in the NBA with Golden State, but experienced a decline in play during the third and last campaign of his rookie contract in 1997-98, split between the Dubs and Philadelphia 76ers. However, paired up front with Kevin Garnett, Smith got his groove back during the 1998-99 season, scoring 13.7 points and registering 8.2 rebounds per game during the lockout shortened campaign. The T-Wolves would survive only one round of the playoffs, but were in the playoffs during each of Smith’s four years there. Yet, because of a salary cap-tampering issue concerning his signing in Minnesota, the franchise would be hampered by its ramifications (loss of three first round draft picks) for years to come.
8. Tim Duncan – San Antonio Spurs 2000
In 1999, a very young Tim Duncan, along with veteran David Robinson, won the very first title in Spurs history beating the New York Knicks 4-1 in the finals. The next season, Duncan was an All-Star for the second time in three years, but an injury forced him to miss the playoffs (where the Spurs fell in the first round). Even still, the bidding war for his services that summer was furious. The Orlando Magic offered a massive six year deal in the neighborhood of $69 million, but eventually he would settle on the team he believed he could win with, the Spurs. And win he did. Duncan would be the face of the Spurs franchise for 16 more seasons, winning four more titles, two NBA MVP awards and three total Finals MVP honors. Offensively and defensively Duncan did it all and finished his illustrious career with 1,392 regular seasons games played, including 19.0 PPG and 10.8 rebounds.
7. Trevor Ariza – Houston Rockets 2009
Calling a move from a championship club, especially to one your team just beat en route to that title can’t rightly be called a great one. However, in Trevor Ariza’s case, going from the champion Los Angeles Lakers, where he was a mostly a back-up swingman, to Houston was a personal coup. He became a starter with the Rockets in 2009-10 (a team he still plays for, after bouncing around a bit in between. During that 2009-10 season, Ariza reached personal bests in points per game (14.9) and assists (3.8), along with 1.8 steals per game and 0.6 blocks. Houston, which signed him to a five year, $33 million pact, would only get that one season out of the contract before trading him to New Orleans. Yet, they traded for him again in 2014 and he has been with them since.
6. LeBron James – Miami Heat 2010
The jersey burnings that happened in Cleveland when LeBron James left for Miami in 2010 could probably be seen in South Florida. Such was the furor over the Cavaliers franchise player making his over-hyped “Decision” to join the Heat and be part of the “Big 3” with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. King James was just coming off a second straight MVP season, but was influenced his decision by Cleveland’s lack of success in the post-season. Losing in the conference semi-finals to the Boston Celtics in 2010 was the straw that broke that camel’s back. James and co. would lose in the finals in 2011 to Dallas, making the move look bad. But, back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013 cemented LeBron’s position as arguably the game’s best player. He would lose another final in 2014 to San Antonio and make a vaunted return to Cleveland.
5. David West – Indiana Pacers 2011
David West is now a champion, having won a title as a back-up C/PF with Golden State. It must be satisfying from that perspective, but from a personal standpoint, his contribution was minimal. There was a day that the former first round pick of the New Orleans Hornets was a key contributor, so much so that the Indiana Pacers anted up for his services in 2011, to the tune of two years and $20 million. For three seasons, he, Paul George and Roy Hibbert formed a pretty darned good front court in Indiana, getting a previously mediocre club to the Eastern Conference finals two seasons in a row. They lost to LeBron James and the Miami Heat in a thrilling seven-game set in 2013 and then again to the Heat in 2014, that time in six. West was a very consistent performer in those three post-seasons, averaging 15.4 points and 7.5 rebounds.
4. Al Jefferson – Charlotte Bobcats/Hornets 2013
Not many players make the leap straight from high school hoops to the NBA, but that’s exactly what Mississippi native Al Jefferson did in 2004. Drafted 15th overall by Boston, he was the first high schooler ever to be drafted by the Celtics. He made the all-Rookie Second Team that season and enjoyed nine pretty good seasons with three different teams (Boston, Minnesota and Utah) before hitting the jackpot with Charlotte in 2013. Jefferson signed a three-year, $40.5 million deal and despite missing the Bobcats (soon to be the Hornets) first nine games in 2013-14, he would go on to post good numbers in points per game (21.8) and rebounds (10.8). His play and leadership got the Bobcats to the playoffs for the first time in four years, but they fell in the first round to the finalist Miami Heat, 4-0.
3. LeBron James – Cleveland Cavaliers 2014
This time, LeBron put his words into an essay, instead of appearing on TV to make a “Decision.” Even though he was persona non grata for the four seasons he spent in South Beach, Bron Bron’s move back to his home state and original team was well received in 2014. A two-time champ with the Heat, it was expected that James would deliver the first championship in franchise history, along with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. But despite steamrolling through the Eastern Conference in the playoffs (they played just 14 games, losing two), the Cavs bowed to Steph Curry and the Warriors 4-2 in the finals. The next year, with a few controversies swirling around the team (like the firing of coach David Blatt midway through), the Cavs won 57 and again plowed through the competition in the East, whitewashing Detroit and Atlanta, before taking down Toronto 4-2. James and the boys quickly found themselves down 3-1 to the Dubs in the finals, however, but made a startling comeback. In game 7, James put his name in the pantheon of greats, posting a triple-double and an important block in the final minutes to seal Cleveland’s first title.
2. Kevin Durant – Golden State Warriors 2016
Just as King James did to Cleveland fans in 2010, so did Kevin Durant to the OKC faithful in the summer of 2016. Like James, Durant made his free agency a public event, penning a piece called “My Next Chapter” for the Player’s Tribune. The backlash to his self-serving tome was immediate and overwhelmingly negative, but the big man signed with the Dubs anyway, for two years and $54.3 million. A four-time scoring champion in Oklahoma City, Durant started all 62 games he suited up for with Golden State in 2016-17, recording 25.1 points per game, 8.3 rebounds and 4.8 assists. He was just as effective in the playoffs for the Warriors and in the finals He was the Warriors’ top scorer in every game, averaging 35.2 points, 8.4 rebounds and 5.4 assists while shooting 55.5 percent from the field, 47.4 percent from three-point range, and 92.7 percent from the free throw line. He was awarded the Finals MVP for his efforts.
1. Paul Millsap – Denver Nuggets 2017
It may be a tad early to anoint Paul Millsap’s move to Denver as one of the best all-time, but it’s hard to argue that Denver has been nothing if not bold in free agency. The Nuggets needed a go-to guy who plays as hard defensively as he does offensively and Millsap was a prized free agent. The four-time all-star and 2015-16 All-NBA Defensive Second Team nominee inked a two-year, $61 million contract to play power forward for a Nuggets team on the rise. Without him, they finished 40-42 in 2016-17, just one game out of the last playoff spot. With him, they could be poised to surpass all three teams who finished ahead of them in the Northwest Division, including Portland, Oklahoma City and Utah (who lost Gordon Hayward). It will be interesting in the Mile High City this coming season.