The ability for NBA teams to surpass the 15-man regular season roster limit has come into focus this week, with the Pelicans and Grizzlies applying for hardship provisions. Both teams are dealing with multiple injuries that have made it difficult for them to field competitive lineups, but the league provides relief, in certain circumstances.
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. It’s rare for the board of governors to get involved, but the rule also spells out circumstances in which injury and illness would allow teams to receive extra roster spots without board of governors approval, instead leaving the matter at the commissioner’s discretion. This is the more well-traveled route.
In these cases, a team must have three players who have missed at least three straight games because of injury or illness, plus a fourth player who is also unable to perform. The team can apply for the hardship, and it’s up to the commissioner’s office to determine, using an independent doctor if it so chooses, that all four of those players will continue to be unable to play for at least two weeks. If so, the commissioner can grant the hardship and the team can acquire an extra player.
The rules are vague about the mechanics of the hardship provision, but reports about the several instances in which teams have expanded their rosters beyond 15 players in the past couple of seasons have shed light on its parameters. Each provision lasts 10 days, regardless of whether it comes before or after January 5th, the first day each season that teams can sign players to 10-day contracts. Players who go into extra roster spots don’t necessarily have to be on 10-day contracts, and they may stick around past the expiration of the hardship as long as the team offloads someone else. That was the case when the Thunder waived Sebastian Telfair last season instead of hardship signee Ish Smith to reduce their roster to 15 players. Teams are also allowed to reapply for provisions as they expire, meaning they can carry a roster of more than 15 players for longer than 10 days if the league allows it. The NBA doesn’t limit the number of provisions a team may apply for at any one time, allowing teams to have as many players as they need, at the league’s discretion, though it’s rare for any roster to go beyond 16.
A sharply limited amount of time exists for teams to take action when the league grants a hardship. They have two days to acquire an extra player, giving front offices motivation to have deals lined up in advance. Still, complications sometimes arise. The Pacers scuttled their deal with Gal Mekel last season when a visa issue 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 two-day window, so they signed A.J. Price instead.
The hardship isn’t the only mechanism by which a team can acquire an extra player. Lengthy suspensions also give teams the ability to do so, and that happened twice last season, when the Grizzlies signed Kalin Lucas and Hassan Whiteside to move to 16 men while Nick Calathes was serving a league suspension, and when the Sixers traded for Jared Cunningham, who was briefly their 16th man while Andrei Kirilenko was on a team suspension. The rules are slightly different for a league suspension, which requires that the player have served at least five games of the suspension before a team can add an extra player, and a team suspension, in which case the player has to have missed only three games. The ability to carry an extra man goes away once the suspended player returns.
The NBA takes a careful approach to granting teams permission to expand their rosters. Not every team with four or more injuries receives a hardship provision, since making an accurate prognosis about whether an injured player might return to action within a two-week window is a tricky enterprise. The Pelicans received a hardship and used it to sign Orlando Johnson this week, but it’s unclear whether the Grizzlies got one, given the confusion over the time at which they signed Briante Weber. Thursday’s release of Mario Chalmers suggests the league didn’t give the OK, or at least hasn’t yet, because his season-ending torn Achilles would otherwise count toward the number of injuries necessary for the provision. The league doesn’t “hand those things out like candy,” as the late Flip Saunders observed.
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.
Reports from Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman, Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times and Marc Stein of ESPN.com provided background information for this post. An earlier version appeared on November 28th, 2014.