It may not have had the cachet of Shaquille O'Neal's jump to Los Angeles, but Mutombo set the Denver Nuggets back quite a bit after signing with the Atlanta Hawks. Denver tried one year of run-and-gun before falling apart entirely in the hands of GM-coach Dan Issel over the next half-decade. Mutombo missed only seven games in 41/2 seasons with the Hawks, winning two Defensive Player of the Year awards and making the All-Star team four times while manning the pivot for a team that made the conference semifinals twice.
2 of 10Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images
It seems laughable now to suggest that a 69-win team was in dire straits, but the Chicago Bulls were in a bit of a pickle late in the 1996-97 season. Dennis Rodman had sprained his MCL late in the season and seemed unable to relocate his rebounding touch. Second-year reserve forward Jason Caffey could score but was undersized and a little green. Enter Dele, then known as Brian Williams, who could play big forward and center and whose long arms made life tough for opposing big men. He played in only nine regular-season games but came alive in the playoffs, doing his damage against Chris Webber, Christian Laettner (an All-Star in '97) and Karl Malone.
3 of 10Mitchell Layton/Getty Images
Three years later, this looks like a no-brainer. Though Arenas averaged about 18 points, six assists, five rebounds and 35 minutes in his second season, the mercurial Golden State guard seemed to walk the line between "lovable eccentric" and "scatterbrained loudmouth." In Washington he's been glorious -- his 29.3 points per game were fourth-best in the NBA last year as he led a once-moribund Wizards team to the playoffs for the second consecutive season.
4 of 10Bill Frakes/SI
It was only after Gary Payton turned down Pat Riley's overtures that Hardaway became a spectacular bridesmaid -- making the All-NBA First Team ahead of Payton in '97. In 367 career games with Miami during an underrated career, Hardaway averaged 17.3 points and 7.8 assists in 36.2 minutes per game.
5 of 10Robert Beck/SI
Better players, smarter coaches and a new ownership group combined to turn the Sacramento Kings around -- but it was Divac who held everything together at century's end. His locker-room guidance helped convince a dubious and distressed Chris Webber to stay in the California capital, and Vlade's on-court derring-do set the tone as the Kings vaulted out of the lottery and into championship contention.
6 of 10John Biever/SI
Some questioned at the time whether Detroit should have committed to a six-year deal for a guy who had been living off a series of one-year contracts. But Billups has superseded Jason Kidd as the best point guard in the East and has developed into an All-Star while guiding the Pistons to two Finals appearances and winning the '04 Finals MVP award.
7 of 10John W. McDonough/SI
Offering a hefty deal to a 30-year-old point guard with a checkered injury past was a risk, but the deal has been an absolute smash for the Suns. Nash has won two MVP awards in his second go-round with Phoenix and led the team to a combined 116 wins and two Western Conference finals appearances. Even more lasting, Nash's attention to detail and insistence on pushing the ball has allowed Suns coach Mike D'Antoni to usher in an aesthetically pleasing brand of fast-moving basketball.
8 of 10John W. McDonough/SI
We can only guess what Duncan's motivations were in the summer of 2000, signing only a four-year deal while other players maxed out to the tune of six or seven seasons. We can tell you that it kept the San Antonio franchise on its toes. The front office made sound basketball decisions, such as refusing to commit big money to guys like Derek Anderson or Stephen Jackson. By the time '03 rolled around, not only were the Spurs coming off another title, and not only was Duncan ready to re-sign for seven more seasons, but they had the cap space to make a run at Jermaine O'Neal or Jason Kidd. While those overtures didn't work, the Spurs at least were happy to lock Duncan up through his prime.
9 of 10Manny Millan/SI
It wasn't that close a call, as Jordan and his reps never got to the point of negotiations, but there was a very real possibility that MJ would sign with the New York Knicks in the summer of '96. Following Chicago's 72-win season, the Knicks managed to clear nearly $20 million in cap space while retaining the services of Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley and John Starks. The addition of Jordan would have vaulted New York back into championship contention while crippling Chicago. Luckily for Bulls fans, owner Jerry Reinsdorf stepped to the plate and offered a single-season deal in excess of $30 million, which kept Jordan in town and set the starting point for the one-year deal he signed the following summer.
10 of 10John Biever/SI
Probably the biggest free-agent catch in any sport since the Yankees reeled in Reggie Jackson in '76, O'Neal's defection to Los Angeles turned the league on its ear. Not only did it devastate the Orlando Magic, leaving the squad to bank on injury-prone Anfernee Hardaway, but it also vaulted a mediocre Lakers team into the championship stratosphere. It was a huge gamble on GM Jerry West's part; he traded solid pivotman Vlade Divac to Charlotte for an 18-year-old rookie (Kobe Bryant) and sent serviceable, starter-quality parts such as Anthony Peeler and George Lynch to Vancouver for the pittance of second-round draft picks so that he could clear cap space. There was no guarantee that O'Neal would make the jump, but when Orlando's initial offer was found to be lacking, the Big Fella made the move.
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