Much is made of the potential of the free agent class of 2010. Some teams have designed their rosters to maximize their cap space this off-season, and some stars are expecting to cash in.
If you look only at the talent that will be on the market (LeBron, Wade, Bosh, Dirk, etc.), the hoopla is justified. (Get it? HOOPla.) But, if history is any guide, teams expecting to turn their fortunes around via free agency are setting themselves up for disappointment.
Championship teams are almost never built around a player who was acquired via free agency. Look at the champions of the past 20 years. The Bulls were led by Jordan and Pippen, the Spurs by Duncan and Robinson, the Bad Boy Pistons by Thomas and Dumars, and the Rockets by Olajuwon and Drexler. Each of those teams drafted or traded for each of those players.
The 05-06 Heat acquired Wade via draft and Shaq via trade (that’s why Odom is on the Lakers). The 07-08 Celtics acquired Garnett and Allen via trade (that’s why Al Jefferson is on the Wolves and Jeff Green is on the Thunder), and Pierce via draft. Last year’s Lakers were led by Kobe and Bynum, whom they drafted, and Gasol, whom they traded for. The 03-04 Pistons are kind of an anomoly, because they won without a superstar. Two of their main players – Billups and Wallace – blossomed into stars as Pistons after mediocre careers elsewhere. That team is not really a model that other teams can expect to replicate. (When the Pistons acquired Billups via free agency, he had never averaged more than 14 ppg or 6 apg at the time.)
That leaves only the three-peat Lakers of ’00, ’01, and ’02. They acquired Shaq via free agency.
So, if history is any guide, then, unless you’re signing someone as dominant as Shaq via free agency, and you already have a young Kobe Bryant on your roster, you ain’t transforming your team from mediocre to champion via free agency.
Why is this? I don’t know. Two initial thoughts come to mind: First, if your team has enough money to spend on a superstar free agent, then it’s probably a pretty lousy team, and one superstar free agent won’t be able to turn it around.
Second, the team that signs a particular free agent probably offered him more money than all of the other teams. Thus, there’s a good chance that the team that signs him has overrated him. Think about it; 1 team decides to offer the guy, say, $10 million per year. The 29 other teams in the league fall into one of two categories: either they don’t think the guy is worth more than $10 million (if they did they would have offered him more than that), or their present payroll prevents them from offering him that much. (These teams were probably already better than the team that wound up getting him, as noted in the paragraph above).
If the team that signed him is going to get significantly better, then the player has to prove himself worthy of such a high salary. There’s a chance that he does, but, remember, a bunch of teams did not think he was worth $10 million, so there’s a good chance that he doesn’t. Even if he turns out to be a star, he has to be so good that he makes the lousy team he signed with better than the teams that already had a bunch of guys making a bunch of money.
When we think of someone as talented as LeBron signing with a lousy team, it’s easy to start thinking of that team becoming an instant contender. I’m not saying it isn’t possible, I’m just saying that it’s not how teams historically improve themselves. When you hear talk about a team getting much better via free agency, be skeptical.