How Did We Get Here? A Review of 1990s NBA Free Agency

In about one week, NBA free agency will be upon us.  We are already being deluged with rumors, innuendo, and recruiting anecdotes.  This year, there are some huge names on the block, notably Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving, and Jimmy Butler.  We are hearing stories about Irving buying a home in New Jersey (where he is from), as proof that he’s locked into the Nets.  Durant is even more of a mystery, with his serious injury, his spats in Golden State, and the desperation of the Knicks (and maybe the Nets to sign him).  The pressure is real, as there are many campaigns, such as this one on Twitter by @SBD, pushing the Knicks to cut a deal with KD, without regard to risk or cost.

The chaos is fun for the fans, sometimes more fun than the actual season.  But the hoopla got me wondering how did we get here?   I thought we could delve on a summer-by-summer review of the biggest deals in the 1990s and see when things changed.  Was it always this crazy?  Let’s take a look at the biggest names to change teams in free agency in the 1990s to get a sense of how everything has changed…

-1989, Tony Campbell (Minnesota):  In the current environment of non-stop NBA news, it’s hard to conceptualize how boring a free agency that is led by the signing of a backup player with an expansion team.   Campbell was a Lakers backup who signed with the expansion Wolves to be the designated scorer, which he actually did pretty well (23 ppg that season) for a terrible team.  The next most notable move was the Nets signing an over-the-hill Purvis Short.

-1990, Sam Perkins (Lakers):   Perkins was actually a pretty coveted free agent in his prime (age-28) from Dallas and was supposed to help the Magic Johnson Lakers continue to contend.   Perkins was a good regular, though, and not a star (coming off a 15.9 ppg, 7.5 rpg season for the Mavs).

-1991, Moses Malone (Bucks):  Mo was a big star at one point but he wasn’t in 1991, when he was 35.  Malone was two years removed from making an All-Star team and was a bench player the previous season for Atlanta (10.6 ppg, 8.1 rpg).  Moses was essentially the same player for the Bucks in 1991-92 (good boarder, poor defender/passer) for a meh Milwaukee team.  The irony is that the Bucks had let go starting center Jack Sikma for being too old and replaced him with Moses.  In 1992-93, Malone suffered a major injury early in the season and was never a regular again.

-1992, Rod Strickland (Blazers):  Strickland was young and still a potential star but had a lot of baggage from his time in San Antonio and New York.  The deal ended up working out mostly well for Portland as Strick was a great player for them but had a notable meltdown with coach P.J. Carlesimo in 1995-96, which led to a great trade for a young Rasheed Wallace.

-1993, A.C. Green (Suns):  Like Perkins before him, Green was a solid regular who signed with a title contender to fill out the roster (in this case, the Charles Barkley Suns).  Green was his usual solid self for Phoenix until he was traded.

-1994, Horace Grant (Magic):  Grant was a little better than Green and Perkins but filled a similar role, complement to a star.  Grant left the Bulls (Michael Jordan was retired at the time and Ho had little use for management) to sign with Shaq and Penny in Orlando.  Grant helped eliminate MJ’s Bulls in 1994-95 but aged quickly in to an ordinary role player thereafter due to injuries.  There were two pretty big names in Danny Manning and Dominique Wilkins as well.  Manning was an All-Star but he took a deal as a role player for the Suns (and then blew out his knees multiple times).  Nique was also still a star but a bit older.  He took a weird deal with a rebuilding Boston team.  Wilkins was okay for a year before fleeing to a deal in Greece.

-1995, Dana Barros (Celtics):  Being a Celtics fan in the 1990s was not fun.  M.L. Carr was given full control and tried to shake things up by signing Barros after Barros made the All-Star team in 1994-95.  Barros’ All-Star season, however, was very fluky.  He was most of the offense for a bad Philly team and played 40.5 mpg.  He was not going to the same shot attempts or minutes for most other teams, including Boston.  Barros immediately reverted to useful role player on Boston and even quickly yielded the starting point job to David Wesley.

-1996, Shaquille O’Neal (Lakers):  For the first time in the 1990s, a huge star was available in free agency and Shaq went to Los Angeles.  The Lakers had to gut their roster of useful role players to get the cap room but it was well worth it.  But Shaq wasn’t the only big name.  The Knicks signed youngish Allan Houston, the Hawks signed an in-his-primce Dikembe Mutombo, and Portland signed Kenny Anderson.  Mutombo and Anderson were considered legit stars at the time and Houston was a budding All-Star.  On top of these deals, Juwan Howard was signed to a huge deal by the Heat, which was set aside for violating the salary cap (Howard re-signed with the Bullets to a contract.  It became clear very quickly that the deal was a big overpay).

-1997, Brian Grant (Blazers):  After the flurry of activity in 1996, the next offseason was pretty tame.  Grant led a parade of solid starters/role players, who changed teams (David Wesley and Bobby Phills to Charlotte, Rick Fox to the Lakers, Clifford Robinson to Phoenix, and Bison Dele to Detroit).  This activity was not particularly exciting but the number of pretty good players who were not either over-the-hill or problem children, made this a bit better than most of the prior off-seasons outside of 1996.

-1998, Scottie Pippen (Rockets):  Technically, this was a sign-and-trade.  The NBA went into a deep lockout after the 1997-98 that lasted until January 1999.  Then, there was an explosion of activity.  Pippen was the big name and the Rockets wanted him to replace the retiring Clyde Drexler and lead Hakeem Olajuwon and Barkley to a title.  Pippen was already 33 and wasn’t quite as good as the Bulls verson (his PER dropped from 20.4 to 16.8).  On top of that, he wasn’t happy and famously called Barkley fat.  Pippen was traded to the Blazers after the season and was solid enough for a few more years.  There were two other relatively big signings, with the Nuggets getting young Antonio McDyess (who was very good before he blew out his knee) and Phoenix getting vet Tom Gugliotta, who cratered early into the contract.

-1999, Detlef Schrempf (Blazers):  In a return to pre-Shaq free agency, there was little going on in 1999.  Detlef was only an older bench player at the time.  The only competition for the best free agent was Rodney Rogers to the Suns.

-2000, Grant Hill/Tracy McGrady (Magic):  There you have it….a megastar free agency with the teams jockeying to take the stars away.  Hill was a huge star at the time (and like KD, coming off of a bad playoff injury).  T-Mac looked like a young potential star, though it wasn’t clear how good he would be.  The potential was enough for Orlando to pay him a huge deal.  The Magic were the first team to really try to assemble a free agent super team.  They also went after Tim Duncan, who nearly left San Antonio to play with Hill and McGrady.  In the end, Hill was never quite the same player, McGrady turned into a superstar, and TD stayed in San Antonio (allegedly Duncan stay with the Spurs because Orlando coach Doc Rivers refused to let players’ spouses/girlfriends fly on the team plane).  Despite the fact that the plan failed, teams would follow this formula in free agency for the next two decades (and beyond).

In reviewing the off-seasons of the 1990s NBA, it’s clear that the massive attention didn’t really start until the late 1990s, most specifically, the off-season of 1996.  Before 1996, the only play with All-Star potential to change teams was Strickland and he was moved because he burned bridges with the Spurs.

What changed in 1996?  First, the television contract money had gotten huge.  The team now had to invest a ton to keep young stars or potential stars.  Some teams were reluctant to invest the huge sums to young players who were erratic for various reasons like Derrick Coleman or Joe Smith.  Other players felt entitled to pick the team/city of their choice because most teams could pay competitively.  Stephon Marbury forced his way to New Jersey because he knew the money would be similar in most places.

Before 1996, stars and potential star young players didn’t really leave the teams they were playing on.  This was partly because the Larry Bird Rule made it hard for other teams to sign players and partly because most players would take the security of a long term deal over playing where they wanted to play in an ideal world.  Shaq helped change this paradigm when he decided to go to L.A. but he wasn’t the first player to do this (Both Chris Webber in 1994 and Alonzo Mourning in 1995 forced trades to destinations of their choices by refusing to sign big contracts offered).  By 2000, star players were strategizing about where they could maximize both money and wins the way Orlando tried to do at that time.  Internet and new media has made the rumor mill even louder but we are basically in the same world, free agency-wise, since 2000.

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