As 2010 approached, so did the purported greatest free agent class in NBA history. The names: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer, Joe Johnson, Travis Outlaw, Yao Ming. Stars on stars on stars.
Several of them, including LeBron, were coy about their plans, which created hope in several teams around the league. Hope created starry-eyed dreams. Starry-eyed dreams led a half-dozen teams to strip their rosters as bare as possible in an effort to outsmart other GMs and build a winning situation to entice LeBron. If that didn't work, at least there were excellent leftovers to lap up.
Things didn't go as planned, however.
LeBron hoarded the two best backup options -- Wade and Bosh -- in Miami. A number of big names (like Dirk and J.J.) stayed home. The bare rosters jostled over the few remaining stars in play. Some teams, like Chicago and New York, landed one (Boozer and Amar'e, respectively). Others, like New Jersey, came up with Outlaw, Johan Petro and Jordan Farmar. (What a press conference that must have been.)
In the end, only one team that chased free agents hard that summer went to the top of the league. That was the Heat, of course. The next NBA championship was claimed by the Mavericks, who instead leveraged trade assets brilliantly to land Tyson Chandler. Within two years, the Heat's top challengers were the Spurs (whose biggest recent free agent coup is ... Danny Green or Boris Diaw), Pacers (who made a big splash with David West in 2011 but otherwise built through the draft), Thunder (Derek Fisher!) and Grizzlies.
There is no good team other than the Heat whose best player arrived as a free agent from another team, unless you'd take Dwight Howard over James Harden in Houston. The other good teams were built around high draft picks who stuck around or trade pieces, including those 2011 Mavericks.
Because of the players involved -- Carmelo Anthony, for one, and maybe LeBron if things get weird -- free agency is still worth monitoring, and the teams in play should be ready to capitalize. For example, if Melo is ready to leave New York, the Bulls need to be prepared to lose Boozer via amnesty and sign Anthony. The same applies to the Lakers. If there's a chance you can pull in Melo without giving up assets -- which L.A. doesn't have, anyway -- you do what you can to prepare for that.
The key to free agency is avoiding the self-defeating cleanse that teams like the Knicks and Nets went through in advance of 2010, methods that only hurt you in the long run. The Knicks gave up legitimate assets to get out of Jared Jeffries' mid-rung contract in 2010 to open up a second max contract spot. Amar'e filled the first. Raymond Felton and friends shared the second.
The Nets cleared all that space and struck out repeatedly. What sprung them from the cellar? Trading for Deron Williams, trading for Joe Johnson and developing Brook Lopez. The Clippers (hilariously) pitched themselves to the 2010 free agent class. They had another lost season before trading for Chris Paul.
Free agency is vastly important on the fringes. The best GMs fill out their rosters with quality and find gems. Green is a prime example in San Antonio. West's signing by Larry Bird was a another perfect display of how good GMs use free agency to get good pieces. Miami has repeatedly added contributors off the market, thanks in part to the ring-chasing phenomenon. The Grizzlies landed Tony Allen as a free agent years ago. These guys aren't out-and-out stars, but they were important additions. July 2014 features a bunch of players who could swing playoff series, like Luol Deng, Lance Stephenson and Kyle Lowry.
But you don't need tens of millions of dollars in cap space to land them. Any team positioning themselves in February to open up the vault in July might end up shooting themselves in the foot.
When in doubt, look to history.