Best and worst free-agent signings of the past 10 years
As we roar into another July of NBA upheaval, history reminds us that not all free-agent classes are created equal. We don't have the league's foremost talent opting out of a contract every year. In fact, some free-agent classes turn out to be truly disappointing. So, with that on the table, let's call roll for the last 10 years of free agency, attempting to identify the best and worst signings each summer. Please note that our list is limited to scenery-changing deals. For example, we're not looking to credit the Thunder for the decision to bring back Kevin Durant.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY SportsBrad Penner
Best of 2013: Monta Ellis, SG, Mavericks
In addition to this unexpected result, last summer's signings of Dwight Howard (Rockets) and Al Jefferson (Bobcats) went better than many critics anticipated. The Mavericks were accused of having made a desperation move by bringing in the volume-shooting Ellis for a three-year deal worth $25 million, but that now looks pretty savvy. A season after hoisting 328 3-pointers and shooting 41.6 percent overall for the Bucks, Ellis responded well in Rick Carlisle's system. He fired up 209 3-pointers while choosing instead to rely upon his considerable gift for attacking the basket. He nearly matched his previous season's scoring average (19.0, down from 19.2) while lifting his field-goal shooting to 45.1 percent.
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY SportsCary Edmondson
Worst of 2013: Josh Smith, SF, Pistons
With very little risk involved, the Cleveland Cavaliers fail to get the nod here with their signing of Andrew Bynum. Instead, we'll go with the Pistons, who somehow thought Smith would be a fit at small forward, working alongside Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. There was quite a bit of evidence from his days in Atlanta that Smith operates with considerable more efficiency when deployed as a power forward -- when allowed to roam the perimeter in his final season as a Hawk, he put 201 3-pointers with 30.3 percent accuracy. During his first year in Motown, he shot more and made even less. And despite his formidable bounce and strength, Smith shot just 41.9 percent overall. All this for $54 million over four years.
Tim Fuller-USA TODAY SportsTim Fuller
Best of 2012: Goran Dragic, PG, Suns
By making this transaction, the Suns fixed the 2011 mistake they made by trading Dragic and a first-round draft pick to the Houston Rockets for Aaron Brooks. Yeah . . . wow. Anyway, while general manager Lance Blanks was making a pitch to free-agent point guard Raymond Felton, Suns owner Robert Sarver reportedly closed a deal with Dragic. A four-year contract for $34 million seemed pretty nice for Dragic at the time. But in his second season at what now appears to be a bargain, The Dragon played his way onto the All-NBA third team in 2013-14. Dragic has a player option next summer, but if he's even close to replicating last season's performance, this signing easily qualifies as a winner.
Howard Smith-USA TODAY SportsHoward Smith
Worst of 2012: Steve Nash, PG, Lakers
We almost made an exception to the re-signing-your-own-players rule by giving the Hornets' deal with Eric Gordon (matching a four-year, $58 million offer sheet from the Suns) the nod. But rules are rules, and by giving the aging Nash a contract worth $27 million across three seasons and receiving only 65 games (15 the past season) of duty from the two-time MVP in the two first seasons, the Lakers can rightfully claim this spot. In addition to minimal availability, diminished productivity and the potential for salary-cap clogging, the sign-and-trade deal for Nash cost the Lakers four draft picks. Two of those were first-round selections, the second of which happens a year from now -- unless the Lakers' play their way into the lottery's top five.
Best of 2011: David West, PF, Pacers
It's probably no coincidence the Pacers' regular-season rise over the past three seasons began shortly after they hired the former New Orleans Hornet. Although his numbers dipped from his New Orleans levels, what West provided for $20 million over two seasons was a level of intensity that set the tone for Pacers basketball. West's statistical return on that two-year investment was 15 points and 7 rebounds per game, but his influence went beyond numbers. Though Indiana's improvement also coincided with the on-court growth of Paul George and Roy Hibbert, West's stability and leadership motivated the Pacers to rehire him for three more seasons.
Worst of 2011: Tyson Chandler, C, Knicks
This one seems a bit harsh, because a healthy Chandler typically provides a high level of defense and rebounding. But to approach being worth $58 million over four years, Chandler needs a pretty good team around him. That happened in Dallas, where his contributions helped propel the Mavericks to the 2011 NBA championship and Chandler into a lucrative deal from the Knicks. His years in New York resulted in 10 points, 10 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game but not enough wins to warrant nearly $15 million per year.
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY SportsSteve Mitchell
Best of 2010: LeBron James, SF, Heat
As we await his next decision four years later, it's easy to see why James is the overwhelming winner in what was a loaded summer for free agency. Despite the negative hullaballoo surrounding "The Decision," LeBron has way more than outplayed the six-year, $110 million deal he received via an official sign-and-trade with the Cavaliers. His work in Miami has resulted in four consecutive Finals appearances, two Finals victories, two regular-season MVP awards and two Finals MVP awards. Along the way, he largely has silenced many critics who doubted his ability to make big plays to close important games.
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Worst of 2010: Amare Stoudemire, PF, Knicks
OK, it started out quite well. While whiffing on LeBron James and others in free agency, the Knicks lobbed $100 million at the former Suns star and his surgically repaired knee. In the first season of a five-year deal, New York got 25.3 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game from their new cornerstone. But with injury and the arrival of Carmelo Anthony limiting Stoudemire's physical capacity and strategic involvement, he dipped in points per game to 17.5, 14.2 and 11.9 over the subsequent three seasons. Now that he's reached Year 5 and a player-option decision, Stoudemire had to choose between taking the final $23.4 million from the Knicks or taking his chances on the open market. Guess what he decided?
Howard Smith-USA TODAY SportsHoward Smith
Best of 2009: Ron Artest, SF, Lakers
Two years before changing his name to Metta World Peace, the defensive-minded Artest chose to hunt a championship by joining forces with former co-antagonist Kobe Bryant. That championship happened during his first season with the Lakers. And even though his regular-season performance was uneven on both ends of the floor, Artest made big postseason plays when the Lakers needed them -- notably in Games 5 and 6 of the Western Conference finals against Phoenix. And, according to Coach Phil Jackson, Artest was the MVP in Game 7 of L.A.'s Finals victory over Boston.
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Worst of 2009: Charlie Villanueva, PF, Pistons
Although quite a few hoop followers prefer the candidacies of Pistons teammate Ben Gordon or Bulls signee Carlos Boozer, we think Villanueva (five years, $40 million) is a solid pick here. Although the 6-foot-11 forward did average 11.5 points over his first two seasons in Motown, his rebounding dipped by more than two per game from his high average of 6.7 during a career year in Milwaukee. In the next three seasons after that, Villanueva played in only 101 games, never averaging more than seven points per game.
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Best of 2008: Lou Amundson, SF, Suns
Unless you live near one of the cities where Lou has been employed, you might not even be familiar with the name. But when Phoenix gave him the league minimum at the time ($700K and change), it probably didn't expect him to become a cult hero in central Arizona. Amundson accomplished this while providing the Suns with an inordinate level of energy over the course of his 13 minutes per game. When extrapolated over 36 minutes, Lou's numbers would have been 11 points and nine rebounds. Let's also note that this was not a banner year for free agents. Best of the rest: James Posey, whose numbers for the Hornets were a bit better than Amundson's over 36 minutes but at a cost of $4 million per year.
NBAE/Getty ImagesP.A. Molumby
Worst of 2008: Elton Brand, PF, Sixers
By pulling in about $80 million during a five-year deal with Philly, you'd think Brand would be our runaway winner. But Baron Davis gave him a run for this excessive payoff by hitting Donald T. Sterling and the L.A. Clippers for $65 million over the same length of time. And even though Davis struggled to shoot 40 percent from the field for his hometown team, Brand wins by first convincing Davis to join him in L.A., then bolting for the Sixers. In four $16 million seasons in Philly, he put up 13 points and 8 rebounds per game on some below-average teams.
Best of 2007: Grant Hill, SF, Suns
When it comes to bang for the buck, there weren't many investments comparable with this particular move by Phoenix. Although the arrival of this former superstar didn't translate into a won-loss improvement, it's difficult to not be impressed by the production/pay rate associated with Hill -- who had resurrectured his career from injury and illness in his previous season in Orlando. Looking more for fit than finances, Hill signed a two-year deal with the Suns for a combined $4 million and gave Phoenix 13.1 points (on 50.3 percent shooting) and 5.0 rebounds in his first year, then stayed on for another four productive seasons.
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Worst of 2007: Morris Peterson, SF, Hornets
After Mo Pete's scoring average dipped from 16.8 to 8.9 over his final two seasons with Toronto, the Hornets decided giving him a four-year deal worth almost $24 million was a good move. It really wasn't. Although Peterson came close to duplicating that 8.9 average during his first season in New Orleans, his field-goal shooting dropped to 41.7 percent. And the fall-off didn't end there. The Hornets $6 million per season got them 4.4 points per game in Peterson's second season and an uptick to 7.1 the next. His final season consisted of four games and five points with Oklahoma City.
NBAE/Getty ImagesLayne Murdoch
Best of 2006: Al Harrington, SF, Pacers
This nomination reminds us that saving up for summer free-agent shopping doesn't always work out. Harrington turned out to be the best of a skimpy free-agent class by averaging about 17 points (and shooting 40 percent from 3-point range) over the four-year life of a reported $34 million deal. His sign-and-trade return to Indy quickly was followed by a trade to Golden State, where his willingness to shoot the rock was perfect in the Warriors' system. The final two seasons on this contract were spent with the Knicks, bringing the former New Jersey high school star the chance to fire from home.
NBAE/Getty ImagesJesse D. Garrabrant
Worst of 2006: Ben Wallace, F/C, Bulls
Big Ben's work as an altitude-challenged post player had earned him superstar-role-player status and helped the Detroit Pistons win an NBA title. It also enabled Wallace and his agent to coax $60 million (over four seasons) from the once-proud Bulls. Unfortunately, Chicago lacked the surrounding talent of the Pistons, and Wallace's specialty contributions weren't worth nearly as much. Wallace and his controversial headband provided 5.7 points and 9.7 rebounds in the one-season-plus he gave the Bulls before they shipped him to Cleveland.
NBAE/Getty ImagesVictor Baldizon
Best of 2005: Antoine Walker, SF, Heat
It wasn't exactly a bumper free-agent crop in '05, either. Walker's reported six-year, $53 million sign-and-trade deal with Miami got off to a shaky start in his first season in South Beach, but it ended nicely with the Heat's first NBA title. The former Celtic gave them 13 points and 11 rebounds in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, a nice uptick from his 12.2 points and 5.1 rebounds per game during the regular season. He lasted one more year in Miami before being shipped off to Minnesota.
NBAE/Getty ImagesIssac Baldizon
Worst of 2005: Eddy Curry, C, Knicks
Curry had plenty of competition for this dubious distinction from New York teammate Jerome James, who was given a five-year, $30 million deal before Curry arrived in a sign-and-trade with the Bulls. Curry had missed his last 17 games for Chicago after being diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat. He refused to be tested to determine the severity of his condition, so the Bulls sent him to the Knicks, who showered him with $56 million over six years. The Knicks bought one pretty good season (his second in NYC) and had Curry on the floor for a combined 24 games over the final three years. By the way, with a draft pick lobbed to Chicago in the Curry deal, the Bulls drafted Joaquim Noah.
NBAE/Getty ImagesFernando Medina
Best of 2004: Steve Nash, PG, Suns
All Nash did during his first season after leaving Dallas was push the Suns to first among NBA teams in points per game (110.4) and offensive efficiency (114.5 points per 100 possessions). The previous season, the Suns checked in 11th and 21st in those categories. They improved from 29 victories to a league-best 62. Oh, and he also earned the first of two consecutive league MVP awards. Over his five-year, $65 million deal, the Suns averaged 55 wins.
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Worst of 2004: Erick Dampier, C, Mavericks
Rather than ante up for Nash, the Mavericks -- who had won 52 games the previous season -- used part of their budget in a reported seven-year, $73 million sign-and-trade deal with Golden State to upgrade their rim protection. And it sort of worked. Dallas won 58 games in Dampier's first season, but it should be noted he wasn't the only new arrival. It's fair to say the Mavericks' string of successful seasons happened with below-contract performance from Dampier, who gave them 9.2 points and 8.5 rebounds per game that first season -- and that was his high-water mark.