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. 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 long-term deal or on separate one- or two-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 Pistons will hold Marvin Bagley III‘s Bird rights when he reaches free agency this offseason, despite just acquiring him in February. His Bird clock didn’t reset when he was traded from Sacramento to Detroit.
- He finishes a third season with a team after having only signed for a partial season with the club in the first year. The Warriors signed Juan Toscano-Anderson midway through the 2019/20 season, adding him to their roster in February 2020. When his contract expires this offseason, Toscano-Anderson will have Bird rights despite not spending three full seasons with Golden State, because that half-season in ’19/20 started his Bird clock.
- 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. This one’s a little confusing, but let’s use Toscano-Anderson as a case study once more. After he finished the 2019/20 season with the Warriors, Toscano-Anderson was waived by the team in December 2020. Because the Warriors re-signed him shortly after cutting him and he didn’t join a new team in the interim, the swingman’s Bird clock picked up where it left off once he was back under contract, so he’ll have full Bird rights this summer.
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, as in scenario No. 3 above, a player’s Bird clock picks up where it left off if he re-signs with that team renounced without having signed with another NBA team. For example, Taj Gibson had Early Bird rights last offseason, then had those rights renounced by the Knicks as the team attempted to gain extra cap room. Since Gibson eventually signed a new deal with New York, he remains on track to secure full Bird rights this summer — that wouldn’t have been the case if he had signed with a new team.
- He is selected in an expansion draft.
If a player who would have been in line for Bird rights at the end of the season is waived and claimed off waivers, 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.
The Bird exception was designed to allow teams to keep their best players, even when those teams don’t have the cap room necessary to do so.
When a player earns Bird rights, he’s eligible to re-sign with his team for up to five years and for any price up to his maximum salary (with 8% annual raises) when he becomes a free agent, no matter how much cap space the team has — or doesn’t have. The maximum salary varies from player to player depending on how long he has been in the league, but regardless of the precise amount, a team can exceed the salary cap to re-sign a player with Bird rights.
A team with a Bird free agent is assigned a “free agent amount” – also called a 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 Hornets, for instance, will have a cap hold worth $16,264,479 for Miles Bridges on their 2022/23 books — 300% of his $5,421,493 salary for ’21/22. Charlotte could renounce Bridges and generate an extra $16MM+ in cap flexibility, but the Hornets would then lose the ability to re-sign him using Bird rights, which would force them to use either cap room or a different cap exception to re-sign him. As such, we can count on Charlotte keeping Bridges’ cap hold on the books until his free agency is resolved.
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 previous years by Luke Adams and Chuck Myron.