The Best Free Agent Signings Over the Last 15 Years: Eastern Conference Edition
*Photo via Getty Images
The 2015 free agency period began at 12:01 AM Wednesday and the flurry of deals since then have barely given us a chance to catch our breath. Just over one week removed from the draft, the league will continue to move and shake in an attempt to catch up to Cleveland and Golden State. So, in honor of the period beginning, I decided to go back and look at the best free agent signings since 2000 for each team. Today, we look at the Eastern Conference and we’ll tackle the Western Conference next week.
First off, I should clarify a few things. For the sake of this exercise, I will be including sign and trades. Originally I considered excluding S&T’s but this would all seem ridiculous if I didn’t include the likes of LeBron James taking his talents to South Beach or Tracy McGrady going to Orlando. Secondly, I am also not going to count moves that resulted in a player being resigned by the team they were currently on. Sure, this might seem like a cop out, but there are more than a handful of teams that would qualify here (San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Lakers, and Dallas Mavericks to name a few).
Finally, this is an entirely subjective post, there isn’t a blueprint to what makes a great free agent signing. For one team, being able to land the best player in the world will probably qualify (spoiler: Miami) whereas, another team signing a castoff who turns out to be a catalyst for a future championship (**cough-cough**, Detroit), and sometimes, it’s simply the least lousy signing (looking at you, Brooklyn). There is no exact guide to these picks—you’ll just have to bear with me.
ATLANTA HAWKS: Joe Johnson, 5 years/$70 million (2005)
Hard to believe at the time that Atlanta was really willing to spend this much money to sign the fourth best player on the Phoenix Suns. After spending the first several years of his career between the Boston Celtics and Phoenix, the Arkansas product was not one of the hottest prospects on the market. A strong playoff performance for the Suns in the 2005 playoffs sold the Hawks on the restricted free agent. With Amare Stoudemire, Steve Nash, and Shawn Marion, the Suns didn’t match and the Hawks landed a borderline franchise cornerstone.
James Posey, 2 years/$7 million (2007)
I looked over the last 15 years and thought, “James Posey? There has to be better” but in truth, the Celtics built their 2008 title winning team through trades (Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen) and the draft (Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce). Posey provided depth and was a box score filler for his tenure with the Celtics including a steal per game during the playoffs while playing the role of 6th man.
BROOKLYN/NEW JERSEY NETS:
Andray Blatche, 3 years/$23 million (2012)
When big name free agents hit the market, writers will begin making a list of potential suitors for these players. A handful of teams make this list without fail nearly every time: Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, Miami Heat, and for some reason, the Nets. The Nets believe their significant players in the free agent world as well, however, perception is not reality. When your best free agent signing over the last decade and a half is Andray Blatche—a man who was out of the NBA by age 28—you probably should reconsider where you stand as a heavy hitter in the NBA. Expect their name to surface as a possible Kevin Durant location next summer but don’t expect Durant to agree.
Al Jefferson, 3 years/ $41 million (2013)
I’m certainly on record for being a big fan of Al Jefferson. During his first season with Charlotte, Jefferson averaged 21.8 points per game and 10.8 rebounds per game while putting together one of the more efficient seasons of his career while helping lead the Cats to the playoffs. Unfortunately for the franchise, changing their name from Bobcats to Hornets seemed detrimental to Big Al’s game. His numbers dipped in the second year of his contract to his lowest averages since the 2006-07 season. Still, for a franchise that has not seen much success, the Jefferson signing stands out as the best during their short history.
Pau Gasol, 3 years/ $22 million (2014)
Quick confession: I originally wanted to make this a list that included both the best and the worst signing for each team. I wanted an excuse to write about Eddie Robinson, Ron Mercer, and Ben Wallace (we have all summer!) but when I began researching, I noticed that at least half of the NBA has been wildly unspectacular during free agency. Basically, singling out one bad pick would’ve been a herculean task. Long story short—Gasol gets the nod for the Bulls.
LeBron James, 1 year, $20 million (2014)
I mean, who else could it be? I’ll even make the case that this is the greatest signing in the history of the NBA considering how much LeBron means to the city of Cleveland. Also, anytime the best player in the league signs with your team as a free agent, it’s more than likely going to be the best signing your team will have in at least a decade and a half (SEE ALSO: Heat, Miami).
Chauncey Billups, 6 years, $35 million (2002)
It’s hard to imagine now, but in retrospect this was a risky signing. Coming off of a breakout season in Minnesota in 2001-02, Billups hoped to remain with the Timberwolves but the Wolves preferred to stick with Terrell Brandon. Minnesota’s loss was Detroit’s gain and Billups would be named NBA Finals MVP two years later, the same season the Timberwolves, during Kevin Garnett’s MVP season fell apart in the playoffs due to point guard performance (oh, the irony).
David West, 2 years, $20 million (2011)
There’s little doubt that the best years of David West’s career were behind him when he signed with Indiana but that didn’t mean West wasn’t the emotional backbone of the Pacers during their rise to the top of the Eastern Conference. West’s numbers while with the Pacers were steady and reliable, averaging 14 points per game and 7 rebound per game over his four seasons.
LeBron James, 6 years opted out after 4, $110.1 million (2010)
Mo Williams, 3 years (2004)
Williams signed with the Bucks following his rookie season with the Utah Jazz and the signing proved to be successful on all fronts. The Bucks brought on a player who would eventually become a regular starter as well as one of Milwaukee’s best scorers.
NEW YORK KNICKS
Amare Stoudemire, 5 years, $99.7 million (2010)
Sure, this is a contract that ultimately New York would probably like to have had back. The struggles, injuries, and eventual buyout from the Knicks is well documented. But when your competition for best contract over the last 15 years includes Jerome James, Amare’s one All-Star season is enough to earn you the crown. Fact is, the Knicks have been arguably the most atrocious franchise at handing out contracts over this period of time and don’t appear to be headed for a storybook ending this summer either.
Tracy McGrady, 6 years, $67.5 (2000)
While expanding the window for this list to the last 15 years, it offered me a chance to include the free agency class of 2000. Heading into the summer, McGrady was the third biggest name that people thought would hit the open market behind Grant Hill and Tim Duncan. In the end, Duncan stayed in San Antonio and Grant Hill would turn into one of the greatest “what-if” injury stories in the last 25 years. McGrady on the other hand turned into a reincarnation of Dominique Wilkins while making the All Star Game four times and leading the league in scoring twice.
Elton Brand, 5 years $82 million (2008)
There was quite a bit of controversy with this signing when it happened seven years ago. Leaving the Clippers behind for the City of Brotherly Love, Brand was signed to be a compliment to Andre Iguodala's perimeter style. While the 76ers didn’t have much success during his time in Philly (one playoff series win at the hands of the injury riddled Bulls in 2012), Brand did manage to put up consistently decent numbers but nothing near his career apex.
Jose Calderon (2003)
After going undrafted in the 2005 Draft, the Raptors took a chance on the Spanish point guard and the gamble paid off. Over eight seasons with the Raptors, Calderon established himself as one of the best distributors in the league averaging over eight assists four times during that span.
Gilbert Arenas, 6 years, $60 million (2003)
With most of these teams, I thought of a name off the top of my head and then went back and tried to top that name by going through every transaction since 2000. The player I had originally thought of off the top of my head was Paul Pierce given how exciting of a performance he put on during the playoffs this past year. But look back at the run Arenas had in 2005, it was nearly every bit as good as 2015 Pierce. The Gilbert Arenas flame burned bright for a couple of years before a “so ridiculous you can’t make it up” gun incident in the locker room.