The NBA free agency period is in top gear, and a market littered with max-contract-worthy players has left many teams feeling like this is the year they can turn the tides in their direction. Here is a quick look at some free agent signings in all sports that helped propel their respective franchises to relevance.
1. Vlade Divac – Sacramento Kings (1998)
During a busy offseason in which the Kings drafted Jason Williams and traded longtime franchise cornerstone Mitch Richmond for beleaguered star Chris Webber, the most important acquisition was Divac – a Serbian 7-footer with a point guard’s deft passing ability.
Divac signed a six-year, $62.5 million contract, helping transform the Kings into an instant contender and the most exciting team in the league.
2. Barry Bonds – San Francisco Giants (1993)
In Bonds’ three season prior to signing with the Giants, he had won MVP twice (finishing second the other time) and led the Pittsburgh Pirates the straight NLCS – losing every time. It was widely recognized that Bonds would not be returning to Pittsburgh after the expiration of his deal, especially after the Giants offered Bobby’s son a six-year, $43.75 million deal. The Giants had lost 90 games the year prior, and Bonds proved to be just what San Francisco needed – his .336/.458/.677 slash line with 46 home runs garnered him his third MVP award and led the Giants to 103 wins. If you want to see career stats that are flat-out cartoonish, take a look here. The godson of Hall-of-Famer Willie Mays would win five gold gloves and five more MVP awards in his time in San Francisco.
3. Deion Sanders – San Francisco 49ers (1994)
“Neion” Deion entered the 1994 season as a baseball player for the Cincinnati Reds. However, after the strike extended towards baseball season with no resolution in sight, Sanders went back on his word that he was sticking to baseball and started fielding offers from the NFL. Since the decision came late enough in the offseason that most teams had already set their budgets for the upcoming year, only a few teams emerged as contenders to sign one of the greatest cover corners in the history of the game. Although the 49ers had but $21,000 to work with under the cap, their inability to get past the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game during the previous two seasons launched inescapable speculation that San Francisco was the frontrunner for Deion’s services. After two weeks of the NFL regular season, baseball cancelled their season completely – and within just a day, the 49ers had restructured three contracts to create cap room and sign Sanders to a one-year, $1.1 million deal. In his fourteen games with the club, Sanders picked off six passes and helped push the 49ers past the Cowboys and into the Super Bowl, where they would blow out the San Diego Chargers.
4. Dave Stewart – Oakland A’s (1986)
Stewart doesn’t fit the profile of some of the other players on this list. His arrival in Oakland didn’t come with much fanfare; Stewart arrived as a free agent after being released by the Phillies midway through a 1986 season in which he posted a 6.57 ERA in eight appearances. He would finish the year making 29 appearances and 17 starts for Oakland, going 9-5 with a 3.72 ERA – but he wasn’t done. “Smoke” would go on to post four 20-win seasons for the A’s, finishing in the top five of Cy Young voting and helping lead the A’s to three straight AL Championships and a World Series title.
5. Billy Beane – Oakland A’s (1988)
Yes, that Billy Beane. Beane signed on with the A’s prior to the 1989 season as a utility outfielder struggling to get his career off the ground. In five seasons before joining Oakland, Beane played more than 12 games in a season only one time. He would hit .241 in his lone season on the field for Oakland and then retire at the end of the year, only to stay on with the front office and work with GM Sandy Alderson. Beane would eventually take over for Alderson, and his methods turned the low-budget A’s into a perennial contender by exploiting market inefficiencies through advanced statistical analysis. Beane’s success inspired both a bestselling book and an oscar-nominated film.