How many times have we seen a free-agent signing go from widely criticized to universally praised? That’s exactly what we’re seeing with DeMar DeRozan.
DeRozan signed a three-year, $82 million contract with the Chicago Bulls last offseason. At the time, the deal was heavily mocked for being too expensive for a player of DeRozan’s age and skillset. But DD is at the forefront of the Bulls’ resurgence, guiding them to an Eastern Conference-best 25-10 record.
Although it’s less than halfway through his first season, DeRozan already looks like the top offseason signing. But what about over the last 10 years? Any signee worth considering should provide a level of individual excellence that justifies their contract and then some. Additionally, team success should play a major factor.
So who joins DeRozan on the list of the five best free-agent signings of the last decade?
Note: Only unrestricted free agents who changed teams between 2011-2021 will count. So Anthony Davis re-signing with the Lakers in 2020 or LeBron James signing with the Heat in 2010 are not eligible.
5. DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls
DeRozan has a chance to move up this list down the road, but so far the high-scorer has done enough to earn a spot in the top five.
There’s something to be said for instantly changing the trajectory of a franchise. Hall of Famers Shaquille O’Neal and Steve Nash did it for the Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns respectively, making them two of the top signings in league history. But only 35 games in, DeRozan is doing exactly that.
The 32-year-old is averaging 26.9 points per game, the fourth-highest mark in the league and his personal best since 2016-17. Although many questioned his fit alongside fellow All-Star Zach LaVine, the two have flourished side-by-side and given Chicago an elite 1-2 punch. Not to mention, DeRozan has come through in the clutch all season, most notably hitting game-winning, buzzer-beater threes two nights in a row, an NBA first.
An $82 million contract once considered too steep now looks like a bargain, as Chicago has gone from playoff outsider to championship contender overnight. It’s still very early into his three-year contract, but DeRozan deserves a massive amount of credit for the Bulls’ ascension.
4. Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
The Miami Heat were stuck in no man’s land after the 2018-19 season. That was until Jimmy Butler came in and gave South Beach the jolt it needed to return to contention.
In a loaded 2019 free-agent class, Butler was one of the more highly-coveted players available. The Houston Rockets and LA Clippers were two of the clubs targeting the 29-year-old. Yet it was Miami that secured his services, agreeing to a sign-and-trade deal with the Philadelphia 76ers and inking the star to a four-year, $140 million pact.
Jimmy Buckets had long been considered a great number two option on a contending team. Yet the fiercely-competitive vet helped spur Miami on an unexpected run to the NBA Finals in the Bubble. Despite the loss to the Lakers, Butler finished the Finals with 26.2 points, 9.8 assists, and 8.3 rebounds per game.
Now in his third season with the Heat, Butler has seen his average point total increase each year. He has also secured a pair of All-NBA honors, an All-Defense selection, and an All-Star nod during his time in South Florida. Should the 32-year-old eventually bring Miami its fourth title, he’ll cement his status as one of history’s most impactful signings.
3. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers are never one to shy away from the big splash. In 2018, they reeled in the biggest fish out there in James.
Before LeBron signed his four-year, $153 million contract, LA was in the midst of its worst stretch in franchise history. After getting bounced out of the first round in 2013, the Lakers were well below .500 for five years running. Yet that didn’t keep the King from leaving his Cleveland Cavaliers in pursuit of Hollywood.
While James’ individual numbers were strong in year one, a groin injury kept him out for much of the second half and nuked LA’s playoff aspirations. However, with Anthony Davis joining the fold in 2019, LeBron helped the Lakers finish a conference-best 52-19. Then in the Bubble, James helped secure the franchise’s 17th title and LeBron’s fourth overall.
Compared to previous tenures with Cleveland and the Miami Heat, James’ stint in LA may not be as successful as many envisioned. But even now as a 37-year-old, LeBron continues to play like a superstar worth every penny. Not to mention, making the league’s most decorated franchise relevant again is a huge bonus.
2. Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors
There’s a very convincing case to be made that Kevin Durant signing with the Golden State Warriors is the most controversial free-agent move in NBA history. That being said, his immediate impact on the franchise can’t be ignored.
Following a nine-year career with the Oklahoma City Thunder franchise, Durant became a free agent in the summer of 2016. While many thought the former MVP would re-sign with OKC, Durant stunned the basketball world when he signed a two-year, $54 million contract with the Warriors. The same Warriors, by the way, who finished the previous season with a 73-9 record.
To no surprise, KD fit in seamlessly in the Bay. The superstar averaged 25.8 points across three seasons with Golden State. He helped the Warriors win back-to-back Finals, taking home MVP honors for both after averaging a combined 32.3 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 6.3 assists. Injuries kept him from factoring into the 2019 Finals against the Toronto Raptors, otherwise he could have gone 3-for-3.
Durant’s time with the Warriors was brief but productive. After all, it’s hard to argue with two titles in three seasons. Plus, factor in how he joined Shaq and LeBron as the only players to win multiple Finals MVPs after signing with a team in free agency, and suddenly he’s in the conversation for the top free-agent signing ever.
1. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
There have been a number of big signings in recent memory who could have made the list. Kawhi Leonard joining the LA Clippers is one notable omission, as is Durant signing with the Brooklyn Nets. There is also a strong case for Andre Iguodala, whose contract with Golden State was followed by three titles in five seasons.
But we’re going back to the King, as no free-agent signing has been more impactful than when LeBron returned home to Cleveland in 2014.
James didn’t simply leave the Cavaliers in 2010. He left them in ruins, kickstarting a four-year run of futility. Meanwhile, the superstar won back-to-back titles with the Heat that included a pair of Finals MVPs. But after losing to the San Antonio Spurs in the 2014 Finals, James returned to the Cavs on a budget-friendly two-year, $42 million contract.
Once the Akron native returned to the Cavaliers, his team of seven seasons, it was as if he never left. With LeBron leading the way, Cleveland improved its year-to-year win total by 20 games, advancing to the NBA Finals. In 2016, James capped off a historic Finals performance with a Game 7 triple-double and series victory, delivering the franchise its first championship. The King would then guide the Cavs to two more NBA Finals before leaving for LA in 2018.
In those four seasons, LeBron instantly made the Cavaliers a title contender. He was a model of consistency, even playing all 82 games in 2017-18. And along with elite stats, he came through on a promise to bring Cleveland a championship.
All things considered, the Cavs’ signing of James is the easy choice for the top spot.