In a Detroit Free Press article published yesterday, Drew Sharp suggests that "Big-time NBA free agents don't consider Detroit an option. Never have. Never will." Sharp's article relates to the Tigers recent acquisition of Prince Fielder, and how the writer feels that the Pistons could never strike such luck in free agency. The massive contract the Tigers gave to Fielder "only magnifies the long-range problems facing the Pistons," according to Sharp.
Sharp's article echoes a common sentiment amongst fans that Detroit is short-changed due to its inability to sign big-time NBA free agents. Sharp may in fact be right, but he's wrong in thinking this actually matters when building a winning team. "Big-time NBA free agents" just don't matter with regard to the most important metric by which a team should be judged-- championships.
The cores of the last several championship teams have been built through trades and the draft. The Mavericks drafted Dirk Nowitzki and traded for both Jason Kidd and Tyson Chandler. The Lakers before them drafted Andrew Bynum and traded for Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol. All three pieces of San Antonio's core came from the draft. The Celtics drafted Pierce, acquired the draft rights for Rondo and traded for Garnett and Allen. If you go all the way back to the 1989 and 1990 championship Pistons teams, only two teams have acquired a central part of their core with a big-time free agent purchase: the Lakers (Shaq) and the Bulls (Rodman). In both of those statistical outliers, these teams were poised for a championship with a once-in-a-generation superstar in tow.
Let's take the Going-to-Work Pistons for example. They are one of the rare teams that used a five-man core, not the big three style that most teams take to the finals. Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace and Richard Hamilton were all acquired by trade. Tayshaun Prince was acquired through the draft. The only free agent signing that built that core wasn't even remotely "big time", he was signed for less than the mid-level exception with little competition in the free agent market. Chauncey Billups reflects the shrewd free agent acquisitions where smart GMs buy real, underexposed talent with below-average contracts. That's the kind of move they make movies about nowadays...
When looking at the history of NBA champions, we can learn two things about "big-time NBA free agents". In both cases, Drew Sharp's declarative statement that Detroit "never will" sign a superstar is misguided, and frankly it just doesn't matter. The first thing we can learn is that while the evidence does suggest these superstars sign with big market teams, they also only sign with contending teams that already have a superstar. The second is that big-time NBA free agents win less championships than teams built through the draft and by trades.
Yes, you could argue that big-time free agents prefer to sign with teams in big markets with dope clubs. Personally, I don't buy this argument. If I'm a superstar in free agency, I value my own legacy more than the local party scene. I'm already traveling across the country 41 times a year anyway. If I have the opportunity to join a team that is on the brink of a championship and they have a once-in-a-generation superstar in their ranks, I'm signing there and I will even take a discount to do so. If Detroit ever grabs one superstar by draft or trade, a winning Pistons team will be a top free agent destination.
Second, the truth is that an inability to bring in star free agents doesn't matter. The Going to Work Pistons are a prime example, and so is pretty much every team that has won a championship in my lifetime.
At the end of the day, NBA teams should always look to build through the draft and through trades, and cap space should be used on extensions first, while free agent signings are tertiary and should rarely require more than the MLE. That’s how the Pistons did it in 2004, that’s how winning GMs have always done it. If big-time NBA free agents don't want to come here to Detroit, that's perfectly fine with me. Historically, Detroit has been better off without them...
(hat tip to V. for the link in the comments)