The availability of a 16th regular season roster spot to NBA teams was little-used and little-known when the season began a month ago today. The league granted the Timberwolves an extra roster spot in the 2012/13 season, and it did the same for the Pelicans near the end of 2013/14, but the league doesn’t “hand those things out like candy,” as Wolves executive Flip Saunders recently observed. However, poorly timed injuries and illnesses have already prompted three teams to receive clearance to sign extra men this season, and the Wolves and Lakers have explored the possibility of becoming the fourth. All of it has cast the NBA’s hardship roster rules into the spotlight and resolved some of the mystery surrounding them.
The term “hardship” used to be a common part of the league’s vernacular in reference to players who entered the draft before exhausting their college eligibility, but it has a completely different meaning in regard to the size of NBA rosters. The NBA’s Constitution and By-Laws, in their definition of hardship, give the Board of Governors the power to approve special provisions counter to the NBA’s roster limits with a majority vote. Yet the rule also spells out circumstances in which injury and illness would allow teams to receive extra roster spots without Board of Governors approval. In these cases, a team must have three players who have missed at least three straight games because of injury or illness, and an additional player who has incurred an injury or illness but hasn’t necessarily missed any games yet. Should the Commissioner’s Office determine, using an independent doctor if it so chooses, that all four of those players will continue to be unable to play, the team may acquire an extra player. The commissioner can grant additional extra roster spots to the team should he deem that conditions warrant it. The Thunder, one of the teams that carried a 16th player this month, was reportedly ready at one point to seek Adam Silver’s approval for a 17th spot.
The league’s by-laws expound on such roster dynamics much more broadly than the collective bargaining agreement, and the first-time public release of the by-laws, which happened this past spring amid the Donald Sterling scandal, provided new insight into the hardship rule. Yet the by-laws leave some significant questions unanswered, and the way the league has handled the situations involving the Thunder, the Pacers, and a somewhat related scenario in which the Grizzlies received a 16th roster spot, has helped show just how the NBA applies these rules.
The NBA granted the Thunder and Pacers 10-day windows in which they could keep a 16th player on the roster, as several reports have made clear. The Pacers essentially acknowledged as much when the league granted them a second window that allowed them to keep A.J. Price, their 16th man. The more hidebound Thunder made no such announcement when they retained Ish Smith for a second 10-day period, but Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman, among others, made reference to a pair of 10-day stints for Smith. The Thunder also demonstrated another facet of the hardship rules when they waived Sebastian Telfair instead of Smith to reduce their roster to 15 players. Telfair had been on the roster since the start of the regular season, but even though it was Smith whom the hardship allowed the team to sign, the Thunder were at liberty to choose the player they wanted to unload to get back down to 15 men, as this week’s move indicated.
There appears to be a time limit on the front end of the hardship, too. The Pacers scuttled their deal with Gal Mekel when a visa complication would have kept him from signing until a day after the Pacers were ready to put pen to paper. That extra day would have pushed the Pacers past the time the league allowed them to add a 16th player, according to Marc Stein of ESPN.com (Twitter link), so they turned to Price instead.
The Wolves considered applying for an extra roster spot this month but were wary of doing so because it would have meant that Nikola Pekovic and Ronny Turiaf would have had to remain out during the 10-day window, as Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune reported last week. That suggests that even if injured players make a recovery on a more rapid timetable than the league had thought they would, they’d still be ineligible to play until the 10-day hardship expired.
That didn’t come into play for the Grizzlies, who earlier this month signed Kalin Lucas and Hassan Whiteside to take their roster from 14 to 16 men on a night when five Grizzlies were sick with a stomach virus. Memphis waived Lucas and Whiteside the next day, and a day after that, some of the Grizzlies returned from the virus to play. The 16th roster spot for Memphis was a curious provision on the surface, since the Grizzlies hadn’t had three players miss at least three straight games. But what triggered the extra roster spot for Memphis wasn’t the same as what allowed Indiana and Oklahoma City to add 16th men.
The Grizzlies could take on both Lucas and Whiteside because Nick Calathes was serving a league suspension that had caused him to miss more than five games. In such cases, teams are allowed to transfer their suspended players to the Suspended List rather than the Active or Inactive Lists. Teams may do the same when a player has served at least three games of a team suspension. When teams put such players on the Suspended List, they’re allowed to add an extra man, and the Grizzlies took advantage.
Note: This is a Hoops Rumors Glossary entry. Our glossary posts will explain specific rules relating to trades, free agency, or other aspects of the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (or in this case, the NBA’s Constitution and By-Laws). Larry Coon’s Salary Cap FAQ was used in the creation of this post.