Wheeling and Dealing: The Significance of NBA Free Agency


Some view as a plague. Others have no problem with it at all.


When it comes to the historic viewpoint of the NBA, the league changed during the summer of 1988. Then, the league came to a conclusion on a collective bargaining agreement that opened the floodgates to what we call ‘NBA Free Agency’.


As a result, the first unrestricted free agent, power forward Tom Chambers, left the rainy scene in Seattle for the desert scenery and joined the Phoenix Suns. A Suns team that employed two young guns in Kevin Johnson and Jeff Hornacek who many would recognized as decorated veterans a little later down the line. The Suns reeled in a power forward at that time that was an All-Star and topped 20 PPG in three of the four previous seasons. Thanks to the young tandem and the signing of Chambers, who led the team in scoring at 25.7 PPG, the Suns improved greatly from 28 wins the season before to 55 wins and the #3 seed in that season’s playoffs. The combination of those three formed what some will call a “super team” and the team reached at least 53 wins for the next four seasons with that nucleus.


Tom Chambers scored more points in the NBA than any Hall of Fame-eligible player who has not been inducted. (Photo: David G. McIntyre)

Bet you didn’t know that did you?


It’s ok. That’s what I’m here for. I’m also here to inform you of how the element that is free agency has shaped the sport of basketball significantly. Regardless of how we attempt to devalue, discredit, or depreciate the tactic. Dating back before Chambers being the first UFA, Hall-of-Famer Moses Malone was a restricted free agent in 1982 and was involved in a sign-and-trade deal that allowed Malone to join the Philadelphia 76ers. That’s right, a team already loaded with Julius Erving, Darryl Dawkins, and Maurice Cheeks and coming off an NBA Finals appearance. A “super team” if you will.¬†Interesting huh?


I for one voiced my disagreement with Kevin Durant signing with the Golden State Warriors. Only because it was a move on both sides that did not necessarily need to happen. Neither party needed a change in their respective realms. The motive was crystal clear but it did feel as if Durant joined a team he could not beat while with the Oklahoma City Thunder. A “If you can’t beat them, join them” type of transition.¬†Both parties ultimately achieved their goal, so it absolutely paid off.


When it comes to NBA free agency, it has truly shaped the sport that we see today. Think back to the massive free agency signing of Shaquille O’Neal by the Los Angeles Lakers in the summer of 1996. A seven-year, $120 million dollar contract given to O’Neal swung the pendulum in the NBA. It was the first domino to the eventual breakup of the young, up-and-coming Orlando Magic team and created the foundation of what became a Lakers dynasty in the early 2000s.


A move such as that was historic in it’s own right.


While it may not compare to LeBron James or Kevin Durant or even Chris Bosh for that matter heading for their respective outward opportunities, the fact is that it changed the dynamic of the sport in a significant manner.


I also look at it as two of the best players in the NBA today taking free agency to a higher level. Adding their twist to it by joining teams who have established presences and provide the best opportunity to win a championship. Both get the index fingers pointed in their direction as players who diminished the sport by forming super teams.


Is it fair? Probably not. Because they are not the first stars to sign such deals and it appears they will not be the last. When it comes to NBA free agency, it is way more impactful than given credit for. In the cases of Malone, O’Neal, James, and Durant, free agency altered the playing scene significantly soon after. Guess what? It’s something we should just swallow because that is ultimately what free agency is all about.

Eric Robinson