NBA free agency has always been a hit-or-miss proposition for most teams. The stars and superstars will always get their money from anyone who’s willing to pay for them. Most of the time though, navigating the mine field of free agency can get very tricky. Players tend to get overpaid far more often than they should. Some exceptions do apply though, particularly those players who fall through the cracks with little attention paid to to them. They eventually latch on to a team for a modest contract, only to turn into some of the biggest signings in free agency.
In this space, we’re taking a walk down NBA memory lane to point out some of the most underrated free agency signings of all time.
Gus Williams - Seattle Sonics - 1977
Gus Williams had a stellar 12-year career in the NBA, but the first two of those years were anything but. He was drafted by the Golden State Warriors in 1975 and had two underwhelming seasons before the Warriors cut ties with him. Fortunately, he found a new team with the Seattle Sonics and in his first year in the northwest, Williams doubled his scoring average from just under nine points per game to 18.1 points per game. More importantly, Williams ended up being key cog in Seattle’s 1979 championship run. Dennis Johnson won Finals MVP in that series against the Washington Bullets, but Williams was just as stellar for the entire playoff run, averaging almost 27 points per game.
Tom Chambers - Phoenix Suns (5 years, $10 million) - 1988
Okay, so this wasn’t really an underrated free agency signing. Tom Chambers was an All-Star with the Seattle Sonics when he became a free agent in 1988. This deal, however, was important for an entirely different reason. Before Chambers signed a five-year, $10 million deal with the Phoenix Suns, the concept of “wining and dining” free agents—prevalent in today’s NBA—was nothing more than a concept. It didn’t exist because it was illegal. But as the story goes, the league and the NBA Player’s Association ratified the collective bargaining agreement in 1988 and one of the big changes in that CBA was the birth of “unrestricted free agents,” whereby players whose contracts had expired would be free to choose their teams provided they the had been playing the league for seven years or more and they had played through two NBA contracts. Chambers met both those conditions and officially became the godfather of modern NBA free agency.
John Starks - New York Knicks (4 years, $2.2 million (non-guaranteed)) - 1990
A four-year deal worth $2.2 million was nothing to sneeze at, even back in 1990. But it was a pittance in NBA circles, and that’s exactly what John Starks signed for with the New York Knicks. Coming from the Memphis Rockers in the WBL, the Knicks probably had no idea that Starks would turn himself into one of the most important—and most iconic—players of all those title-contending Knicks teams of that era. The Knicks never won a title even with Starks in the fold, but if you polled any Knicks fan from that era who they’re favorite Knick was, that poll starts and ends with Patrick Ewing and John Starks.
Steve Kerr - Chicago Bulls (1/$350,000) - 1993
Speaking of Chicago’s underrated free agency signings, Steve Kerr signed a one-year deal in 1993 for $350,000. Multiple one-year extensions later at no more than $1 million per year and Kerr ended up playing a pivotal role in the Bulls’ three-peat, including hitting the go-ahead basket in the 1997 NBA Finals to beat the Utah Jazz. That’s value at its best.
Ron Harper - Chicago Bulls (5 years, $19.2 million) - 1994
The 1994 offseason was a weird one for the Chicago Bulls. Michael Jordan was a year into his first retirement. Scottie Pippen was in trade rumors everyday. And the Bulls were at a crossroads: build on the core of Pippen and Toni Kukoc or blow up the team entirely. The Bulls eventually opted for the former, bringing in high-scoring guard Ron Harper from the Los Angeles Clippers on a five-year, $19.2 million deal. The team had hoped that Harper would serve as a nice scoring complement to Pippen and Kukoc, but as luck would have it, he didn’t have to take on that big of a role with Jordan returning in the middle of the 1994-1995 season. Harper accepted a reduced scoring load and embraced being a defensive hound. It still turned into money well-spent for Chicago as Harper served as a key role player in the Bulls’ second three-peat of the decade.
Rick Fox - Los Angeles Lakers (2 years, over $2 million) - 1997
The Los Angeles Lakers swung and hit big in the summer of 1996, landing Shaquille O’Neal in free agency and trading for Kobe Bryant in the NBA Draft. Everybody knows that. What has gotten lost in history was Los Angeles signing Rick Fox in the summer of 1997 to a two-year deal worth a little more than $2 million. It took a few more years and a contract extension in 1999, but Fox ultimately served as one of LA’s most important role players during its three-year title run from 2000 to 2002.
Bruce Bowen - San Antonio Spurs (six years, $18 million) - 2001
Love him or hate him, but you can’t deny that Bruce Bowen was one of the biggest and most underrated free agent signings of the previous decade. Unheralded and completely unknown to the common folk, the San Antonio Spurs signed Bowen to a six-year deal totalling $18 million. Gregg Popovich is on record admitting that he didn’t know what he signed up for with Bowen, but the defensive specialist ended up being one of the most integral parts of the San Antonio Spurs’ championship runs in 2003, 2005, and 2007. Bowen never won Defensive Player of the Year, but he did end up on the All-Defensive team in all eight seasons with the Spurs. Not too bad for a guy who started his playing career in France back in 1993.
Chauncey Billups - Detroit Pistons (six years, $35 million) - 2002
We all know him as today as Mr. Big Shot, but back in 2002, Chauncey Billups was the farthest thing from an NBA Finals MVP. He started his career in Boston after getting drafted third overall in the 1997 NBA Draft, but he didn’t even make it one season with the team after the Celtics shipped him to the Toronto Raptors 51 games into the season. That started a trend of Billups turning into a journeyman point guard, switching teams five times in six seasons. He eventually found a home with the Detroit Pistons in 2002 on a modest six-year, $35 million deal after the Minnesota Timberwolves opted to let him go in free agency. The rest, as they say, is history.
Robert Horry - San Antonio Spurs (two years, $9.5 million) - 2003
Seven championship rings speak for themselves. That’s at the top of Robert Horry’s resume. The sharp-shooting power forward collected five rings as an integral piece on the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers championship teams. But when the Lakers decided to load up in 2004 by bringing in Karl Malone and Gary Payton, Horry became expendable. It didn’t take long for him to find a team though as the San Antonio Spurs scooped him up on a short two year, $9.5 million. The Spurs’ decision to bring in Big Shot Bob paid off in kind when he hit yet another one of his iconic clutch daggers in the 2005 NBA Finals, helping beat the team led by the guy above him on this list.
Shane Battier - Miami Heat (three years, $9.4 million) - 2011
Ray Allen may be considered as the most high-profile signing of the LeBron James-led Big Three in Miami, but nobody remembers that Battier signed a year earlier than Allen for a relatively paltry sum of three years, $9.4 million. He never was a go-to scorer with the Heat, but Battier’s presences as a defensive stalwart and overall locker room leader helped the Heat win two titles in his three-year run with the team. Oh, and he also hit six three pointers in Game 7 of that iconic 2013 NBA Finals, one game after Allen’s clutch three-pointer in Game 6.
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