Posted Dec 7 2011 6:56PM
It's free agency time again, giving teams another chance to show what they know about spending money, and what they don't.
It happens all the time: players prove themselves to be a bargain or bust. This is when general managers fight through sleepless nights. One GM said it correctly: these are imperfect human beings judging others. Although in this case, a bad choice could set a franchise back years. A good decision could mean a championship.
Here are the 10 people who influenced free agency the most, one way or another, over the last decade:
Mark Cuban: He's king of the basketball world right now, an owner applauded for doing whatever it took for the Mavericks to capture their first championship. Cuban gave Dirk Nowitzki an extension prior to the season, same for an aging Jason Kidd. And he supported a payroll in the neighborhood of $75 million, among the league's highest.
But Cuban wasn't always so smart with his billions. Actually, he was Wall Street-reckless shortly after buying the team.
Eager to make a splash, a naïve Cuban gave an extension to Shawn Bradley, who blocked a few shots. Raef LaFrentz got seven years and $70 million and later Cuban copied the same contract and wrote in Erick Dampier's name. After being burned three times, Cuban's weakness for 7-foot lamp-posts surfaced again just last year when he gave Brendan Haywood six years and $65 million. Michael Finley was a solid player in Dallas but was paid Hall of Fame money: seven years, $102 million. He ultimately had to be amnestied.
And those weren't Cuban's worst decisions. He turned cheap at the wrong time, allowed Steve Nash to sign with the Suns for six years and $66 million, then watched Nash win a pair of league MVPs.
Jason Kidd: No single player impacted free agency in recent history quite like Kidd. Nobody. Allow us to explain. Not only did Kidd make quite a bit for himself, he made his teammates grotesquely wealthy during his time with the Nets.
Who got rich off Kidd's passes and presence? How about Kenyon Martin, who signed for seven years and $92 million? Or Richard Jefferson, who got a six-year, $78 million extension? Or Mikki Moore, who got three years and $18 million? Add that up. Then consider this: None played at the same level after leaving Kidd and the Nets.
The most amazing free-agent story involving Kidd was Kidd himself. After leading the Nets to back-to-back Finals, Kidd tested the market. The Spurs offered $100 million, which goes far in a tax-free state like Texas, and the chance to throw the ball to Tim Duncan. But Kidd re-signed with the Nets ($119 million) largely because his wife wanted a TV career in New York. Well, they divorced a few years later. And it was Tony Parker who ended up throwing passes to Duncan instead, winning three titles with the Spurs. Kidd didn't sip victory champagne until last summer in Dallas.
Isiah Thomas: The former Knicks boss showered Jerome James with a five-year, $30 million deal right before giving Eddy Curry six years and $60 million. Then the Knicks collapsed.
Gilbert Arenas: If it's possible to be a bargain and a bust in free agency, then we introduce Agent Zero. When the Wizards grabbed him from the Warriors for six years and $65 million, Arenas instantly became a smash hit with his scoring (high of 29.5), quick hands and quirky personality. He was a bargain. And then when he re-upped for $111 million, struggled with his damaged knees and brought guns to the locker room, he transformed into a bust almost overnight.
Chauncey Billups: He was just one of those free-agent stories that was too good to be true. Billups was a journeyman in little demand when the Pistons signed him for six years and $35 million in 2002. It's hard to imagine a bigger steal, from a team standpoint, than that. Billups led the Pistons to a championship and for the last several years has been one of the best leaders in basketball.
Allan Houston: He never made the All-NBA first or second team, never led his team to a championship, never quite did anything spectacular except convince the Knicks he was worth $100 million over six years. Houston destroyed the league's salary structure with that deal, which spawned dozens of max contracts for good-but-not-great players: Michael Redd, Joe Johnson, etc.
Tim Duncan: In 2001, he had the chance to bolt the Spurs and join Grant Hill with the Magic. Both were given the red carpet treatment by Orlando, complete with billboards and bouquets. But Duncan re-upped with the Spurs for four years and $46 million. And again in 2005. Both times, it was the quietest free-agency chase involving a player of magnitude in NBA history. There was no buzz, no "Duncan Watch," no TV shows, no widespread reports linking Duncan to every team in the league. True to his nature, Duncan kept it all low-key and stayed loyal.
Rashard Lewis: Yes, Orlando did give him $118 million. Even now, almost six years later, it's still outrageous. This happened back when money flowed and guys like Brian Grant were getting $86 million and Tim Thomas was maxed. The Magic wanted to keep Dwight Howard happy -- imagine that -- and overpaid for a nice but hardly great player. You know the rest. Lewis helped Orlando reach the Finals but, to this day, never could compete with that contract, which is more than Michael Jordan made in his entire career. Lewis became the symbol of the latest lockout and set the tone for the negotiations that led to a reduced slice for players.
Pat Riley: People forget that Riley made it possible to sign LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade by refusing to sign anyone the previous two years. By keeping Miami's salary costs down and allowing cap space to clear, Riley pulled off the coup of the decade. Don't be surprised to see teams copy the Riley Way and make themselves cap-friendly -- although it helps when you have the sun and South Beach as allies.
Gregg Popovich: Along with general manager R.C. Buford, Pop brilliantly padded the Spurs with low-cost signings that helped produce four championships. There was Stephen Jackson and Bruce Bowen and Robert Horry and Michael Finley; those were the major names who had big moments in a supporting role and perfectly complemented Tim Duncan and the Spurs' core.
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