Ideally, if a team is interested in re-signing its own free agent at any cost, the player will have earned Bird rights, allowing his club to offer up to the maximum salary to retain him. However, there are also salary cap exceptions available for signing players who have yet to earn full Bird rights. One lesser exception is the Early Bird, available for players formally known as Early Qualifying Veteran Free Agents.
Whereas the Bird exception requires a player to spend three seasons with his club without being waived or changing teams as a free agent, Early Bird rights are earned after just two such seasons. Virtually all of the same rules that apply to Bird rights apply to Early Bird rights, with the requirements condensed to two years rather than three. Players still see their Bird clocks restart by being claimed off waivers, changing teams via free agency, being claimed in an expansion draft, or having their rights renounced.
The crucial difference between Bird rights and Early Bird rights involves limits on contract offers. While Bird players can receive maximum salary deals for up to five years, the Early Bird exception cannot be used to offer a max deal. The most a team can offer an Early Bird free agent is 175% of his previous salary or the league-average salary, whichever is greater. These offers are also capped at four years rather than five.
One example of a player who will earn Early Bird rights after this season is the Knicks' Landry Fields. Fields is in his second season in New York without having being waived, and isn't on a rookie contract. As such, the Knicks could use the Early Bird exception this summer to offer up to the league-average salary to keep Fields in New York for up to four more years. While Fields likely won't receive an offer that large, having the ability to use this exception means the Knicks won't have to dip into their mid-level to retain the 23-year-old.
The cap hold for an Early Bird player is 130% of his previous salary.
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.