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, as most NBA fans know. 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 criteria. A player retains his Bird rights in the following scenarios:
- He changes teams via trade. For instance, the Pelicans hold DeMarcus Cousins‘ Bird rights as he approaches 2018 free agency, despite just acquiring him in February. His Bird clock didn’t reset when he was traded from Sacramento to New Orleans.
- He finishes a third season with a team after having only signed for a partial season with the club in the first year. Sean Kilpatrick signed his current contract with the Nets in March of 2016. It’s only a two-year deal, so Kilpatrick won’t qualify for full Bird rights this season, but that 2015/16 season counts as the first year on his Bird clock, even though he was only under contract with the club for about a month.
- He signed for a full season in year one or two but the team waived him, he cleared waivers, and didn’t sign with another team before re-signing with the club and remaining under contract through a third season. For instance, the Sixers waived Gerald Henderson in June after he spent a single season in Philadelphia. If the club were to re-sign Henderson at some point this season, his Bird clock would move to a second year, rather than resetting.
A player sees the clock on his Bird rights reset to zero in the following scenarios:
- He changes teams via free agency.
- He is waived and is not claimed on waivers (except as in scenario No. 3 above).
- His rights are renounced by his team. However, his Bird rights are restored if he re-signs with that team without having signed with another NBA team. Shabazz Muhammad (Timberwolves) and Udonis Haslem (Heat) were among the free agents who were renounced by their respective teams this past offseason before re-signing with those clubs. They’ve retained their Bird rights.
- He is selected in an expansion draft.
If a player is waived and claimed off waivers, and he would have been in line for Bird rights at the end of the season, he would retain only Early Bird rights. Meanwhile, a player with Bird rights who re-signs with his previous team on a one-year contract (or a one-year deal with a second-year option) would lose his Bird rights if he’s traded. As such, he receives the ability to veto trades so he can avoid that scenario.
When a player earns Bird rights, he’s eligible to re-sign with his team on a maximum-salary contract for up to five years with 8% annual raises when he becomes a free agent, regardless of how much cap room the team has. The maximum salary will vary for each player depending on how long he has been in the league, but regardless of the amount, a team can exceed the salary cap to complete the deal.
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 300% and 250%, respectively.
The Bulls, for instance, will have a cap hold worth about $9.6MM for Zach LaVine on their 2018/19 books — 300% of his $3.2MM salary for 2017/18. Chicago could renounce LaVine and clear an extra $9.6MM in cap space, but the Bulls would lose his Bird rights if they did that, which would force them to use either cap room or a different cap exception to re-sign him.
Instead, the Bulls will likely use LaVine’s Bird rights and his cap hold strategically, perhaps using their cap space on other free agents and/or trades while LaVine’s $9.6MM cap hold remains on the books. The Bulls could then circle back and use Bird rights to sign LaVine to a contract with a starting salary much higher than $9.6MM.
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.
Earlier versions of this post were published in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016 by Luke Adams and Chuck Myron.