Believe it or not, NBA free agency didn’t always exist. Up until the late 1980’s, the only way a player could change uniforms was via trade, compensatory signing (basically a mini trade), or taking a year off from the game after his contract was up. Team owners had all the power when it came to contracts, prompting an antitrust lawsuit against the NBA to be filed in 1970 by the legend, and then-president of the players’ union, Oscar Robertson.
The result was an elimination of what was known as the “reserve clause,” thus allowing no longer contracted players to sign elsewhere should they so desire. That being said, teams still retained the “right of first refusal," meaning that if you were a top talent in the league, you were likely stuck playing for the organization that drafted you until they decided otherwise.
It took many years for NBA players to obtain the level of “free agency” they have today. In 1982, Kevin Durant absolutely re-signs with the Thunder. He wouldn’t have a choice. Now, it's owners, coaches, general managers, and players lining up at KD’s door, vying for the opportunity to sell him on their organization. In 2016, Durant signs with the Golden State Warriors.
To celebrate the development, unpredictability, and excitement of modern day free agency, here are the most impactful decisions in NBA history, ranked. Note: It’s not just the on-court impacts we’re looking at here, but how particular signings altered the complexion of the Association forever.
Dwyane Wade (to the Chicago Bulls)
Cue the Diddy-Dirty Money music: Dwyane Wade is coming home. Well, sort of. The artist formerly known as Flash hails from Chicago, but he’s been the sheriff of Wade County in South Beach ever since getting drafted by the Heat back in 2003. He delivered the organization its first championship and helped propel the Big 3 Heatles to back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013.
All signs pointed towards Wade being a lifer in Miami, but uncertainty in the chaotic 2016 free agency world changed his narrative real quick. Whether Pat Riley is to blame for his departure (due to Riley not properly compensating Wade for taking less money during several prior contract years so the team could acquire more assets) or it’s simply a case of a man jumping at the opportunity to play professional basketball in the city that raised him, Wade is starting the final chapter of his career. One alongside Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo—a deliciously bizarre trio.
Wade won’t bring the city championships, but his decision is perhaps a symptom of his best friend LeBron scooting back home two off-seasons prior.
Gilbert Arenas (to the Washington Wizards)
Before he was toting guns and taking names, Agent Zero was a standout second round draft pick for the Golden State Warriors who averaged 18 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds in just his second season. A restricted free agent in 2003, the Wizards offered Gilly a 6-year $60 million contract, which the Warriors were unable to match since Bird Exceptions (more on this later) didn’t apply to second round draft picks. To ensure that teams were able to match the offers made by other teams in these types of situations, the NBA instituted the Gilbert Arenas Rule in the 2005 Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Among other effects, the Arenas Rule has led to the poison pill loophole which allowed the Houston Rockets to offer Jeremy Lin a back-loaded contract that would have forced the Knicks to cough up millions of dollars in luxury tax money.
DeAndre Jordan (to the Los Angeles Clippers)
✈️ 🚙 🚁 🚀 🍌 🚣. #NeverForget
Chris Bosh (to the Miami Heat)
LeBron James wasn’t the only player who took his talents to South Beach in 2010. Bosh joined the King and D-Wade in Miami and helped lead the super team to four straight NBA Finals appearances and two championships.
LaMarcus Aldridge (to the San Antonio Spurs)
The San Antonio Spurs typically send ripples through the pond that is free agency—preferring to sign low cost, high reward free agents—but in the summer of 2015, they made a huge splash. To prepare for the imminent breakup of their aging Big 3, the Spurs signed all-star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge.
Although his tenure with the Spurs got off to a rocky start, Aldridge reminded us why he was considered a top five player with the Blazers down the stretch and in the postseason. Against OKC, he dropped 38 and 41 in Games 1 and 2 respectively and finished the series averaging 27 points per game. Along with Kawhi Leonard, Aldridge is the future of the San Antonio Spurs organization and he’s an example of the modern day free agent superstar changing uniforms for a better chance of winning.