The Bird exception, named after Larry Bird, is a rule included in the NBA’s Collective Bargaining Agreement that allows teams to go over the salary cap to re-sign their own players. A player who qualifies for the Bird exception, formally referred to as a Qualifying Veteran Free Agent, is said to have “Bird rights.”
The most basic way for a player to earn Bird rights is to play for the same team for at least three seasons, either on a multiyear deal or separate one-year contracts. Still, there are other, more complicated criteria. A player retains his Bird rights in the following scenarios:
- He changes teams via trade, rather than being waived or signing elsewhere as a free agent. For instance, MarShon Brooks is in the third year of his contract. He has been traded three times, from the Nets to the Celtics, the Celtics to the Warriors and the Warriors to the Lakers, but he still has his Bird rights because he hasn’t been waived.
- He finishes a third season with a team after having only played partial seasons with the club for one or both of the first two years (without signing elsewhere in between).
However, a player sees the clock on his Bird rights reset to zero in the following scenarios:
- He changes teams via free agency.
- He is selected in an expansion draft.
- He is waived and is not claimed on waivers.
- His rights are renounced by his team.
If a player has earned Bird rights, he is eligible to sign a maximum-salary contract for up to five years with 7.5% annual raises when he becomes a free agent. The maximum salary will vary depending on how long the player has been in the league, but regardless of the amount, a team can exceed the salary cap to complete the deal.
Although the Bird exception allows teams to exceed the cap, a team cannot necessarily use free cap room to sign free agents and then re-sign its own players via Bird rights. A team with a Bird free agent is assigned a “free agent amount” or cap hold worth either 190% of his previous salary (for a player with a below-average salary) or 150% of his previous salary (for an above-average salary), up to the maximum salary amount. For players coming off rookie scale contracts, the amounts of those cap holds are 250% and 200%, respectively.
The Mavericks, for instance, will have a $6.042MM cap hold for Vince Carter on their 2014/15 books — 190% of his $3.18MM salary this season. Dallas could renounce Carter and clear that $6.042MM in cap space, but the Mavs would lose his Bird rights if they did that. That would force them to use either cap room or a different cap exception to follow through on their plan to re-sign him.
Ultimately, the Bird exception was designed to allow teams to keep their best players. The CBA ensures that teams are always able to re-sign them to contracts up to the maximum salary, assuming the player is interested in returning and his team is willing to go over the cap.
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. Larry Coon’s Salary Cap FAQ was used in the creation of this post.
Versions of this post were initially published on April 17th, 2012, and May 2, 2013 by Luke Adams.