Bird rights offer teams the chance to sign their own free agents without regard to the salary cap, but they don’t apply to every player. Still, there are other salary cap exceptions available for teams to keep players who don’t qualify for Bird rights. One such exception is the Early Bird, available for players formally known as Early Qualifying Veteran Free Agents.
The Bird exception is for players who’ve spent three seasons with one club without changing teams as a free agent, but 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 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 the limits on contract offers. Bird players can receive maximum-salary deals for up to five years, while the most a team can offer an Early Bird free agent is 175% of his previous salary or 104.5% of the league-average salary in the previous season, whichever is greater. These offers are also capped at four years rather than five, and the new contracts must run for at least two years.
Another distinction between Bird rights and Early Bird rights applies to waivers. Players who are claimed off waivers retain their Early Bird rights, just as they would if they were traded. Those who had Bird rights instead see those reduced to Early Bird rights if they’re claimed off waivers. This rule stems from a 2012 settlement between the league and the union in which J.J. Hickson was given a special exception and retained his full Bird rights for the summer of 2012 even though he’d been claimed off waivers that March.
Teams can benefit from having Early Bird rights instead of full Bird rights when they’re trying to preserve cap space. The cap hold for an Early Bird player is 130% of his previous salary, significantly less than most Bird players, who take up either 150% or 190% of their previous salaries.
One example of a player who will have Early Bird rights this summer is DeMarre Carroll of the Hawks. Carroll is coming off the second season of a two-year deal with Atlanta after having finished the season before with Utah. The Hawks can use the Early Bird exception this summer to re-sign him, and it’s likely that this season’s average salary, which will probably come close to $6MM based on the average salary in the past few years, will exceed 175% of his salary of a little more than $2.442MM from this year. The Hawks will have to weigh retaining his Early Bird rights against the chance to renounce them if they open up cap space this summer, since they have only about $39MM in guaranteed salary against a projected $67.1MM cap for next season.
A special wrinkle involving Early Bird rights, called the Gilbert Arenas Provision, applies to players who’ve only been in the league for one or two years. We covered the Gilbert Arenas Provision in another glossary entry.
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.
Earlier versions of this post appeared on April 19th, 2012, April 24th, 2013 and June 3rd, 2014.