NBA free agency: Every team's most impactful signing since 2010

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Thursday, June 29, 2023

When LeBron James made the decision to sign with the Miami Heat in the summer of 2010, it quickly became one of the biggest moments in sports history. Since then, NBA free agency has become a more important avenue for teams and players, as other marquee superstars like Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonardhave used it to drastically change the trajectory of their careers.

But not every big signing since then has resulted in championships or even consistent success. While James' decisions resulted in at least one championship for every team he signed with, some teams have handed out massive contracts that never quite lived up to their expectations. Meanwhile, other deals that lacked the fanfare of bigger names have delivered surprising success.

Our NBA insiders made their picks for every team's most impactful free agent signing since James' league-shattering move to Miami in 2010 -- and the legacy each deal left behind.

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Atlanta Hawks

Paul Millsap, 2013

Two years, $19 million

The Hawks acquired Millsap in the summer of 2013 on a two-year deal worth $19 million. Millsap flourished in his new surroundings and was named to his first All-Star team that season. The following year, Millsap was a key cog in the surprising Hawks squad that won 60 games for coach Mike Budenholzer.-- Andrew Lopez

Boston Celtics

Al Horford, 2016

Four years, $113 million

It's easy to forget now, but in 2016 after Durant signed with the Golden State Warriors, Horford was down to two choices to sign as a free agent: with the Washington Wizards, or the Celtics. His decision to sign with Boston helped tip the balance of power in the East for years to come, as he has become a fixture of Boston's many deep playoff runs since then, while the Wizards failed to beat the Celtics in the second round in 2017 and haven't been back to the playoffs since.-- Tim Bontemps

Brooklyn Nets

Kevin Durant (sign and trade), 2019

Four years, $164 million

After working out a sign and trade with the Warriors that sent D'Angelo Russell to the Bay, Durant was at the center of one of the most interesting star experiments in recent memory. Pairing up with Kyrie Irving, and later, James Harden, Durant led an injury-riddled Nets team to the cusp of the 2021 Eastern Conference finals, but that was as far as the star-studded trio would ever go. Durant's three-plus years in Brooklyn, a tenure that started after he missed the entire 2019-2020 season while rehabbing an Achilles tear, were overwhelmed by ill-timed injuries and distractions. The Nets are arguably the greatest "what if" team in NBA history.-- Nick Friedell

Charlotte Hornets

Gordon Hayward (sign and trade), 2020

Four years, $120 million

Charlotte's run of bad front-office decisions has spanned many years, but the biggest blunder might have been signing Hayward for $120 million over four years in a sign-and-trade with the Celtics. Hayward has dealt with a variety of different injuries and has never been able to match numbers he recorded with the Utah Jazz after a gruesome leg injury in his first game with the Celtics. Charlotte took a swing on Hayward -- and missed.-- Friedell

Chicago Bulls

DeMar DeRozan (sign and trade), 2021

Three years, $85 million

The union between the Bulls and DeRozan in the 2021 offseason was met with skepticism around the league because of DeRozan's age (32 at the start of 2021-22), the price paid to acquire him (a sign-and-trade that cost them a three-year $85 million contract and a first-round pick) and his fit on the team. However, DeRozan has turned into a bargain. He has been an All-Star in each of his first two seasons with the team and led the Bulls to their first playoff appearance in five years during his first season in Chicago.-- Jamal Collier

Cleveland Cavaliers

LeBron James, 2014

Two years, $42 million

The Cavs were caught off guard by James' decision to come back to Cleveland in 2014, having already hired a coach in David Blatt to develop their young core and needing to hurriedly clear their books to accommodate James' two-year, $42 million contract. But, man, was it worth it. He ushered in the best era in franchise history, leading the team to four straight NBA Finals, including the unforgettable championship in 2016.-- Dave McMenamin

Dallas Mavericks

Monta Ellis, 2013

Three years, $25 million

The Mavs never signed the marquee free agent they had in mind when they prioritized cap space over keeping the aging 2011 title roster together, but Ellis (three years, $25 million with a player option) was the most impactful of the consolation prizes. He averaged 19.0 points and 4.9 assists for a pair of playoff teams in Dallas, missing only two games in two seasons.-- Tim MacMahon

Denver Nuggets

Paul Millsap, 2017

Three years, $90 million

When Millsap signed with the Nuggets as a free agent in 2017, he added instant experience, leadership and work ethic to a young locker room. Millsap helped steer the Nuggets onto their championship path, helping leadNikola Jokic and Jamal Murray to their first playoffs in 2018-19. With Millsap, Denver made three straight postseasons, starting a streak of five consecutive playoff appearances that culminated with last month's championship. Millsap gave them playoff toughness, unforgettably getting into an altercation with Marcus Morris Sr. in Game 5 that helped spark the Nuggets' 3-1 comeback inside the Orlando, Florida, bubble in 2020 to make their first Western Conference finals.-- Ohm Youngmisuk

Detroit Pistons

Josh Smith, 2013

Four years, $54 million

The 2013 offseason was pivotal for Detroit, with the team looking to get back into contention after fewer than 30 wins for five straight seasons. After missing out on Chris Paul and Dwight Howard that summer, the Pistons handed Smith the largest free agent contract in team history, and the ramifications plagued the team for nearly a decade. Smith played in only 105 games for the Pistons before being waived in 2014, but they continued paying him until 2020 because of the stretch provision.-- Collier

Golden State Warriors

Kevin Durant, 2016

Two years, $54 million

The Warriors were coming off the best regular season in NBA history -- a league-record 73-9 before falling to the Cavs in the Finals -- when they managed to snag another MVP. With Durant in the mix, the Warriors went from being one of the best teams in the NBA to outright unbeatable. And even with the preexisting star power in Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, it was Durant who made them untouchable, claiming back-to-back Finals MVP awards in 2017 and 2018.-- Kendra Andrews

Houston Rockets

Dwight Howard, 2013

Four years, $88 million

The Rockets beat the Lakers and Mavericks, among others, in a recruiting battle to sign Howard in 2013 to a four-year, $88 million max deal with a player option. The big man's partnership with James Harden didn't work out quite as planned, but Howard made the last of his eight All-Star appearances the next season and helped Houston reach the conference finals in 2015.-- MacMahon

Indiana Pacers

David West, 2011

Two years, $20 million

With West joining the Pacers in summer 2011, Indiana had all the pieces to contend in the Eastern Conference. West was already a two-time All-Star with previous playoff experience by that time, and his arrival began one of the most successful periods in franchise history. Indiana made the postseason in three of his four seasons with the team, including consecutive trips to the conference finals in 2013 and 2014.-- Collier

LA Clippers

Kawhi Leonard, 2019

Four years, $176 million

When the Clippers landed Leonard in summer 2019, LA became an instant title contender. Leonard's signing allowed the Clippers to trade for Paul George, instantly creating championship expectations. While the Leonard and George era has been filled with injuries and just one trip to the Western Conference finals, Leonard has played like a two-time Finals MVP in the playoffs -- when healthy.-- Youngmisuk

Los Angeles Lakers

LeBron James, 2018

Four years, $153.3 million

With a stripped down, understated news release -- far different from his "The Decision" made-for-TV special nearly a decade before -- James made it known he would be joining the Lakers on a four-year, $154 deal in 2018. He led L.A. out of the doldrums it had been mired in and delivered a title in 2020, winning Finals MVP and later passingKareem Abdul-Jabbar as the league's all-time leading scorer while donning the purple and gold.-- McMenamin

Memphis Grizzlies

Chandler Parsons, 2016

Four years, $94 million

Memphis' most successful free agency addition was Tony Allen, the defensive menace Grizzlies fans will forever remember as the "Grindfather." But the most impactful is the player who expedited the fall of the franchise's most successful era. Memphis traditionally hasn't been a free agency destination, which factored into the Grizzlies' willingness to take a risk when the salary cap spiked in summer 2016, signing Parsons to a four-year, $94 million max deal despite knee surgeries ending his previous two seasons. He was never healthy in Memphis, where he averaged 7.2 points in 95 games as the Grizzlies' "Grit 'n Grind" era ended.-- MacMahon

Miami Heat

LeBron James (sign and trade), 2010

Six years, $110 million

After working out a sign and trade with the Cavs, James and Chris Bosh originally signed matching six-year, $110 million deals with opt-outs after four. The pair, along with good friend Dwyane Wade, delivered two championships to Miami while becoming one of the most dominating trios in recent history. James led the Heat to four straight Finals before going back to Cleveland in summer 2014.-- Friedell

Milwaukee Bucks

Brook Lopez, 2018

One year, $3.4 million

The Bucks signed Lopez to a bargain contract in 2018, coming off a season in which Lopez played a diminished role for the Lakers. But after arriving in Milwaukee, Lopez transformed his career and style of play. After spending the first nine seasons of his career as a back-to-the-basket center who became the Nets' all-time leading scorer, Lopez became the prototypical 3-and-D big man, a knock-down shooter from beyond the arc and defensive player of the year candidate who helped bring a championship to Milwaukee in 2021.-- Collier

Minnesota Timberwolves

Taj Gibson, 2017

Two years, $28 million

Gibson's two-year, $28 million contract with the Timberwolves was seen as a bit of an overpay, but given how reliable he had been throughout his career it wasn't much of a risk. And the Wolves were rewarded. He helped Minnesota to the playoffs in his first season, adding some needed edge and assistance to young star big manKarl-Anthony Towns.-- Andrews

New Orleans Pelicans

Rajon Rondo, 2017

One year, $3.3 million

Rondo spent only one season in New Orleans, but it was an impactful one. Rondo averaged just 8.3 points and 8.2 assists but steadied the Pelicans' attack and helped them navigate DeMarcus Cousins' Achilles injury. The Pelicans, with Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday leading the way, swept the No. 3 seed Blazers in the first round as Rondo averaged 11.3 points and 13.3 assists in that series.-- Lopez

New York Knicks

Jalen Brunson, 2022

Four years, $104 million

This answer could also be Amar'e Stoudemire, whose arrival in 2010 led to Carmelo Anthony coming to New York via trade, as well as the sign-and-trade for Tyson Chandler. But Brunson was the best free agent on the market last summer and chose to come to the Knicks on what will turn out to be a bargain contract entering his prime years, giving the team a true franchise cornerstone to build around.-- Bontemps

Oklahoma City Thunder

Derek Fisher, 2012

One year, $1.39 million

There aren't many big free agent signings in Thunder history, but this one is a nod to a buyout signing Oklahoma City made on its way to its only Finals appearance. Fisher had been traded from the Lakers to the Rockets, who bought out his deal. The Thunder needed a backup point guard, and the 37-year-old Fisher jumped in. Fisher averaged 22.3 minutes in helping OKC reach the Finals.-- Lopez

Orlando Magic

Bismack Biyombo, 2016

Four years, $70 million

Former Magic GM Rob Hennigan made plenty of mistakes during his five seasons at the helm in Orlando, but the free agent signing that looks worst during that terrible stretch is giving Biyombo a four-year, $70 million deal. The big man averaged just 5.8 points and 6.3 rebounds over two years with the Magic before being traded to the Hornets.-- Friedell

Philadelphia 76ers

Al Horford, 2019

Four years, $109 million

While Horford's arrival in Boston foretold a turnaround in the team's fortunes, his arrival in Philadelphia was the opposite. Rather than being a great fit with Joel Embiid, whom Horford had tormented as an opponent with the Celtics, the signing was instead a clunky and expensive mistake. Philadelphia was swept out of the first round of the playoffs in 2020, and Horford was sent out in a salary dump after one season.-- Bontemps

Phoenix Suns

Jae Crowder, 2020

Three years, $30 million

Don't let Crowder's unceremonious departure from the Suns overshadow his immediate impact after signing a three-year, $30 million deal in November 2020. Just weeks removed from making an NBA Finals run with the Heat, the Suns signed the rugged forward and made a Finals run of their own and followed that up with a 64-18 record the next season -- the most wins in team history.-- McMenamin

Portland Trail Blazers

Wesley Matthews, 2010

Five years, $34 million

When Matthews signed a five-year, $34 million deal in 2010, even the swingman had to admit that he might've been overpaid at the time. But Matthews helped Portland reach the second round in 2014, the first of eight straight playoff appearances for the Blazers. More importantly, Matthews was a key cog on the squad that helped Damian Lillard get his first taste of playoff basketball. Lillard has made it to the second round only twice more after that first trip with Matthews, reaching the Western Conference finals in 2018-19. Matthews spent five seasons in Portland, averaging 15.4 points and 39.4% 3-point shooting.-- Youngmisuk

Sacramento Kings

Darren Collison, 2014

Three years, $16 million

The Kings signing Collison in 2014 was a steal. Over his three years with the Kings, Collison became one of their most reliable and consistent players -- even as his role changed from starter to reserve. He was one of Sacramento's bright spots during its 17 years of darkness before beaming into the playoffs in 2022-23.-- Andrews

San Antonio Spurs

Danny Green, 2010

One year, salary undisclosed

Apologies to LaMarcus Aldridge, but Green playing a key role in the Spurs winning a title gives him the nod here. Green, originally a second-round pick by Cleveland, was cut in October 2010 before signing with the Spurs a month later. He was waived again by San Antonio but re-signed in March and stuck around. During the title run in 2014, Green started every game for the Spurs while shooting 47.5% from 3 in the playoffs.-- Lopez

Toronto Raptors

Fred VanVleet, 2016

Signed as an undrafted free agent

The Raptors have made a lot of significant trades over the past decade -- acquiringKyle Lowry, Lou Williams, Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol and Kawhi Leonard -- but rarely made an impactful free agent signing. One obvious exception: landing VanVleet as an undrafted free agent out of Wichita State in 2016. All "Mr. Bet On Yourself" has done since then is help Toronto win a title and become both an All-Star point guard and franchise cornerstone.-- Bontemps

Utah Jazz

Joe Johnson, 2016

Two years, $22 million

The Jazz signed 35-year-old Johnson to a two-year, $22 million deal in 2016 with the hope that he could help them return to the playoffs. "Iso Joe" delivered and played a starring role in their first-round win over the Clippers, hitting a game-winning buzzer-beater in Game 1 and scoring 11 straight points down the stretch in a Game 4 victory.-- MacMahon

Washington Wizards

Paul Pierce, 2014

Two years, $11 million

Pierce was a Wizard for only one season, but he left Washington with one of its best basketball memories of the past decade. Piercefamously called "game" when he hit a buzzer-beater to beat the Hawks in Game 3 of their first-round playoff series in 2015. While Washington lost the series, Pierce helped the Wizards reach the second round, something that has happened only five times since 1979.-- Youngmisuk

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