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. Other salary cap exceptions are available for teams to keep players who don’t qualify for Bird rights. One such exception is the Early Bird, which applies to 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 limitations 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 without using cap space 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.
The Heat will have to reckon with having only Early Bird rights instead of full Bird rights on Hassan Whiteside this summer. Miami has only about $48MM in guaranteed salary against a projected $92MM cap for next season, but cap holds for Dwyane Wade and Luol Deng add about $43MM to the team’s books. Whiteside, who’s rapidly emerged while on a two-year deal for the minimum salary, is likely to command a deal at or near his maximum-salary of an estimated $21.7MM. The Heat would have to open cap space to sign him for more than 104.5% of the average salary, which is expected to be only about a third of the value of Whiteside’s max. The Heat face a stiff challenge if they’re to re-sign the foursome of Whiteside, Wade, Deng and Joe Johnson, another key contributor who’s hitting free agency this year.
Their Southeast Division rivals in Atlanta can sympathize. The Hawks fostered DeMarre Carroll‘s development on a cheap two-year contract and had to choose between re-signing him and Paul Millsap when Carroll entered Early Bird free agency last year. A similar predicament faces the Hawks this summer, when Al Horford and 2014 bargain signee Kent Bazemore hit the market. The Hawks have full Bird rights with Horford, as they did with Millsap last year, but re-signing Horford at his max of an estimated $26MM would add to the more than $51.7MM in guaranteed salary already on Atlanta’s books. Other cap holds would limit the Hawks to no more than about $12MM of space for Bazemore, with whom they only have Early Bird rights and can’t pay more than roughly $7MM without using cap room. Bazemore didn’t break through quite as profoundly as Carroll did with the Hawks, but it’ll be a player’s market in free agency this summer, and Atlanta will be hard-pressed to keep both Horford and Bazemore.
Teams can nonetheless 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. That helps the Heat, since the cap hold for Deng, an Early Bird free agent who isn’t due for the sort of raise Whiteside is, will be only about $13MM, not much higher than his salary of roughly $10MM for this season.
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.
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 were initially published in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015.