Hoops Rumors Glossary: Bird Rights

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:

1. He changes teams via trade.

For instance, the Thunder will hold Gordon Hayward‘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 Charlotte to Oklahoma City.

2. He finishes a third season with a team after having only signed for a partial season with the club in the first year.

The Heat signed Haywood Highsmith during the second half of the 2021/22 season, adding him to their roster in March 2022. When his contract expires this offseason, Highsmith will have Bird rights despite not spending three full seasons with Miami, because that partial season in ’21/22 started his Bird clock.

3. He signed a full-season contract (ie. not a 10-day deal) 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 ultimately remaining under contract through a third season.

This one’s a little confusing, but let’s use former Raptors big man Christian Koloko as an example. After spending the 2022/23 season with Toronto and opening the ’23/24 season on the roster, Koloko was waived by the team in January. If the Raptors were to re-sign him in July without him joining a new team in the interim, his Bird clock would pick up where it left off. He’d have full Bird rights in the summer of 2025, since he would’ve spent part or all of each of the previous three seasons with Toronto, without changing teams in between.

It’s worth noting that while the Raptors could restart Koloko’s Bird clock by re-signing him, they wouldn’t be able to use any form of Bird rights to add him to their roster this offseason — they would have to use cap room or another exception to do so. His Bird clock would only resume once he’s back under contract.

This rule also applies to players who are waived after they already have Bird rights. For example, let’s say the Warriors were to waive Chris Paul this offseason before his $30MM salary for 2024/25 becomes guaranteed.

Golden State, which doesn’t project to have cap room this summer, would have no means to re-sign Paul except via the minimum salary exception or perhaps the mid-level exception, since waiving him would mean losing his Bird rights. But if they did find a way to re-add him on a one-year contract after waiving him, the Warriors would regain Paul’s full Bird rights in 2025.

A player sees the clock on his Bird rights reset to zero in the following scenarios:

  1. He changes teams via free agency.
  2. He is waived and is not claimed on waivers (except as in scenario No. 3 above).
  3. 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, Boban Marjanovic had Bird rights last offseason, then had those rights renounced by the Rockets as they freed up extra cap room. Since Marjanovic eventually signed a new deal with Houston, he’ll retain his full Bird rights this summer — that wouldn’t have been the case if he had signed with a new team.
  4. He is selected in an expansion draft.

Players on two-way contracts accumulate Bird rights in the same way that players on standard contracts do. Magic forward Admiral Schofield has been under contract with Orlando on various two-way and standard deals in each of the past three seasons, so if he remains on his current two-way deal through the end of 2023/24, he’ll have full Bird rights this summer.

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.

It’s also worth noting that there’s one specific scenario in which a player with Bird rights can lose them in a trade. A player who re-signs with his previous team on a one-year contract (or a one-year deal with a second-year option) would have his Bird clock reset if he’s traded later that season. As such, he receives the ability to veto trades so he can avoid that scenario.

[RELATED: Players who had the ability to veto trades in 2023/24]

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 Sixers, for instance, will have a cap hold worth $13,031,760 for Tyrese Maxey on their books this offseason — 300% of his $4,343,920 salary for 2023/24. Philadelphia could renounce Maxey and generate an extra $13MM+ in cap flexibility, but doing so would cost the Sixers 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 Philadelphia keeping Maxey’s 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.

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