NBA: 5 Biggest Stars Who Left as Free Agents

This NBA offseason has already involved a lot of shocking news, with Kevin Durant and Dwyane Wade serving up major headlines. Durant surprised basketball fans when he chose to leave Oklahoma City to play with Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors — the team that knocked his Thunder out of the playoffs in the Western Conference Finals.

Not long after, Wade delivered a big shocker by signing a two-year deal with the Chicago Bulls; although it’s debatable how well the move will work out for Chicago. However, NBA superstars moving teams isn’t anything new in the NBA, especially in the last decade. Here are the five biggest stars to change teams prior to Durant’s decision.

5. Dwight Howard

NBA: Five Biggest Stars Who Left as Free Agents
Dwight Howard only played one season in Los Angeles. | Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Dwight Howard was traded from the Orlando Magic to the Los Angeles Lakers at the age of 27 amid fears that Howard would leave the Magic in free agency after the following season. Orlando turned out as well as you would think for trading a superstar big man in the NBA; they began the process of a rebuild that has been mediocre at best. But they aren’t the big losers here.

The Lakers thought they were getting a star to place next to Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol as well as lead them to win more championships. How could Howard not re-sign with the Lakers, who could offer him the most years and most money on his next deal? After a tumultuous season, where his scoring and rebounding stats dropped and he conflicted with Bryant, Howard bolted to Houston and signed a three-year deal worth $63 million.

He signed with the Atlanta Hawks this offseason, but at this point his skills have diminished enough that he’s no longer worth talking about as one of the top players in the game. Howard, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year winner, had a 109 defensive rating last year — the worst of his career.

4. Dikembe Mutombo

NBA: Five Biggest Stars Who Left as Free Agents
Dennis Rodman (L) and Dikembe Mutombo need to be separated on the court. | Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty Images

Dikembe Mutombo’s free agency didn’t have the fanfare of a modern NBA star, but defensively he was the Dwight Howard of the ’90s. The Nuggets took Mutombo fourth overall in the 1991 draft and he immediately improved their franchise. He won the Defensive Player of the Year award four times in his career and was an All-Star in his rookie year in 199192.

He was instrumental in one of the biggest playoff upsets in NBA history, when his eighth-seeded Nuggets knocked the top-seeded Seattle SuperSonics out in 1994. But Denver allowed Mutombo to get away in the summer of ’96, when he signed a deal to go play for the Atlanta Hawks. He had four-and-a-half great seasons with the Hawks, making the All-Star team each year.

The Nuggets flopped after losing Mutombo, dropping from a borderline playoff team in the Western Conference to winning just 32 games combined over the next two seasons. Mutombo was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers in 2001, where he played in the NBA Finals against the Lakers. Mutombo’s career lasted 18 years until he finally called it quits at the age of 42. He was inducted in to the Hall of Fame in 2015.

3. Steve Nash

NBA: Five Biggest Stars Who Left as Free Agents
Steve Nash returned to play for the Phoenix Suns in 2004. | Doug Benc/Getty Images

Many don’t remember that Steve Nash was actually drafted and played for the Phoenix Suns early in his career, as a third-string point guard behind both Kevin Johnson and Jason Kidd. The Suns dealt him to the Dallas Mavericks in the summer of 1998 for Pat Garrity, Shawn Marion, and a few others.

With the Mavericks, along with Dirk Nowitzki and Michael Finley, Nash became an All-Star-caliber point guard, averaging 14.6 points and 7.2 assists per game from 19992004. After a fairly successful run with the Mavs, Nash moved back to Phoenix to take over at point guard for a Suns team that had a young, promising Amar’e Stoudemire; a new coach with an up-tempo style in Mike D’Antoni; and a disappointing 29-53 record the season prior.

Nash broke out, transforming from All-Star to superstar. He led the Suns to the post-season with a 62-20 record, beat the Mavericks in the second round (before losing in the conference finals to the San Antonio Spurs), and won the first of back-to-back MVP awards.

Things ended up working out just fine for the Dallas Mavericks, who made a trip to the NBA Finals the following year and then again in 2010–11, finally winning the championship. Nash never would win a championship, eventually moving on to the Lakers to play out his twilight years before retiring in 2014.

2. Shaquille O’Neal

NBA: Five Biggest Stars Who Left as Free Agents
Shaquille O’Neal of the Los Angeles Lakers holds the MVP trophy and the Larry O’Brien Trophy after winning the 2000 NBA Championship. | Vince Bucci/AFP/Getty Images

Orlando’s Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway were supposed to be the makings of a new NBA dynasty. With Michael Jordan retiring to play baseball, the Eastern Conference was as wide open as it would ever be. With 22-year-old O’Neal (as well as Hardaway, Nick Anderson, and former Bulls forward Horace Grant) the Magic stormed their way to the NBA Finals in 1995 before losing to Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets.

Shaq’s Magic bounced out in the Eastern Conference Finals the next season by the resurgent Chicago Bulls, and that was the end of the story in Orlando. O’Neal went out West to sign with an exciting, young Lakers team that had just seen the brief return of Magic Johnson.

They also drafted a rookie out of high school, Kobe Bryant, who eventually made some waves in the NBA as well. The Lakers and O’Neal took a few years to gain traction, but they won three consecutive NBA championships from 2000–02 and were once again one of the dominant franchises in the league. Orlando didn’t fully recover for years.

1. LeBron James

NBA: 5 Biggest Stars Who Left as Free Agents
LeBron James, formerly of the Miami Heat | Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

This was the ultimate big free-agent signing. LeBron James is so good, he tops this list for leaving a team to sign elsewhere twice. Following the first seven seasons of his career with the Cleveland Cavaliers, James bolted to Miami to form a super-team with his buddies, Wade and Chris Bosh.

He was reviled for the way he did it — making it a spectacle on national television and announcing it in such a way that it tore out the hearts of Cleveland fans. James and the Heat went on to play in the NBA Finals four consecutive years, winning twice. He then surprised everyone one more time by returning to Cleveland and taking over a team that drafted Kyrie Irving in the wake of James’ exit.

The Cavs traded several other players for Kevin Love and put together a team that went to the NBA Finals for the next two years, and finally breaking through and winning one for Cleveland this last season.

Nobody knows what will happen for James next — presumably, he’ll sign another deal with the Cavs and continue to play out his career near his hometown of Akron, Ohio — but his legacy has already been cemented as one of the greatest players to put on a basketball jersey.

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