Sometimes, NBA basketball sucks you into a universe where everyone is speaking a different language. You may come across such terms as True Shooting percentage, offer sheets, qualifying offers, and Bird rights. Speaking of, have you ever asked yourself, “What do Bird rights mean in the NBA?”
If you’re curious about the answer, this article will spill the beans about Bird rights and what it means in the NBA context.
Why is it Called Bird Rights?
The term “Bird Rights” in the context of NBA basketball refers to a set of rights granted to NBA teams concerning their own players. It is named after Larry Bird, a legendary NBA player who spent his entire career with the Boston Celtics. What does Larry Legend have to do with it?
The year was 1983. It was a turning point in NBA history since it was the first time that the league’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA) called for a salary cap. Having a salary cap generally means a team could not just outspend another for the services of a player.
Coincidentally, Larry Bird was a free agent at the end of the season, jeopardizing his tenure with the Boston Celtics. But, of course, Bird remained with the Green until his retirement in 1992, as the league granted the Celtics an exception that allowed the team to go over the cap to re-sign its own players. This was eventually termed the “Bird Exception” or the “Bird Rule.” Bird has been in Boston for at least three years, so the Celtics own the ‘right” to sign Larry to a new contract even if it makes them over the salary cap.
Bird rights are a valuable tool for NBA teams to use to retain their own players, and all franchises have used them multiple times to their advantage. These rights are a crucial component of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, and they provide teams with a significant edge in retaining their own players if they ever hit free agency.
As the next section will explain, there are several types of Bird rights that teams need to work around.
What are the Bird Rights Rule in NBA?
Simply put, if a team owns the players’ Bird rights (such as spending at least three seasons with the team) and has the go-signal to sign said player in free agency even if it means going over the salary cap.
To fully understand the different types of Bird rights, here is a brief explanation of each one:
Early Bird Rights
An NBA team would secure a player’s Early Bird rights if the said player was with the team for two successive seasons without leaving in free agency.
For example, the Milwaukee Bucks owned Bobby Portis’ Early Bird right after Portis played for the team in the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons. The Bucks then re-signed him to a four-year deal worth over $48 million, a transaction that wouldn’t have happened if the team didn’t have his Early Bird rights.
Portis has early bird rights in Milwaukee.
The maximum that he can sign for is 4 years/$49M.
The contract has to be for a minimum of 2 seasons and cannot include an option in year 2. https://t.co/Nu5KC9G8D9
— Bobby Marks (@BobbyMarks42) June 29, 2022
Full Bird Rights
A team secures the full Bird rights to a player if the latter plays for three consecutive years for the said squad. It doesn’t have to be a three-year deal, per se; it may involve three consecutive one-year contracts, a two-year deal followed by a one-year contract, and so on. In this context, a player could be signed midway into the season, but still, his tenure will be counted as ONE season.
An example of a team going over the cap to sign their own free agent was the Washington Wizards and Bradley Beal. After 10 seasons in the nation’s capital, Beal signed a whopping five-year, $251 million deal.
If the Early Bird means two years and Full Bird three years, can you guess what a Non-Bird rights is? You got it right! A team would have a player’s Non-Bird rights if the latter played for the said team for one season.
Financially speaking, a team can sign a player on Non-Bird Rights to a maximum of 120% of his previous contract. For instance, if Player J signed up and played for a one-year deal worth 5 million, the team may only resign him for a maximum of $6 million a year on his next deal.
When Malik Monk signed with the Lakers in 2021 for $1.8 million, they could only offer him $2 million using Monk’s Non-Bird rights. They could use the Mid-Level exception and offer $6 million, but the Kings swooped in and used their own MLE to sign Monk to a two-year, $19 million contract.
Bird Rights and NBA Free Agency
As you may have learned, Bird Rights and Free Agency are closely tied. Every NBA offseason, free agency discussions will be permeated with such terms as Bird Rights, Early Bird Rights, and Non-Bird Rights. After all, the Bird Rights are just one of several exceptions that allow teams to go over the cap when re-signing their veteran talent while permitting the players to secure as much money as possible.
How does that work? Well, the only limit that a team has when offering their own free agents a contract is the max. The max, or maximum salary, is based on the percentage of salary cap. Consider the example of the 2023 NBA Finals MVP Nikola Jokic.
The Serbian was earning $1.3 million in 2017-18 after agreeing to a three-year deal worth a little over $4 million in 2015. So, by 2018-19, the salary cap increased to $101,869,000. And since Jokic was only in the league (and with the Nuggets) for less than six years, he may sign a max contract worth 25% of the cap, or roughly around $25 million.
Because Denver owns Joker’s Full Bird Rights (he has been with the team for three years), no other team can offer him that much money, and thus, the inevitable happened. The two-time MVP signed a contract with Denver in 2018 that paid him around $25 million in his first season.
Now, what about the deal Joker signed in 2023? Almost the same thing happened. Jokic was eligible to sign a max contract with Denver equivalent to 35% of the salary cap. Again, only the Nuggets can sign Jokic to this type of contract, and the Serbian, in the same vein, could not get this amount of money elsewhere in free agency.
Here’s how it went down: Since the salary cap in 2023-24 was already set at $136.021 million, Jokic’s mega-sized, $276 million contract pays him $47 million in the first year, exactly 35% of the salary cap. He is also entitled to an 8% annual raise after the 2023-24 season.
How Do NBA Teams Use Bird Rights?
Having a player’s Bird Rights is always advantageous for NBA teams. It’s often the determinant whether a player re-signs with his old team or executes a sign-and-trade if said player wants to go elsewhere.
The ability to retain players without using the available cap space for salary is an overlooked aspect of team management. The cap flexibility allows a team to build the best roster available, perhaps by singing free agents with their cap space. The deeper the team you have, the better your chances of making a noise in the playoffs.
How Do NBA Players Benefit from Bird Rights?
Bird Rights is a two-way street; if it benefits teams, it also presents numerous advantages to the players.
For instance, a player whose Bird Rights are tied to a specific team may sign the most amount of money with that franchise. He may also sign an additional year with the team, five in total, instead of the four-year deals other franchises who don’t own his Bird Rights may offer. This gives the players more financial security in the future.
5 NBA Players with Bird Rights Salaries
The biggest contracts in the NBA right now are a product of the players’ Bird Rights. As mentioned, their old teams can offer more money compared with other franchises, and money is always the biggest determinant in contract negotiations.
1. Jaylen Brown
Brown signed a five-year, $304 million supermax extension in the 2023 offseason. The salary will take effect in 2024-25, where the cap is projected to exceed $170 million. Even Jaylen’s current salary is signed because Boston owns his Bird Rights.
2. Anthony Davis
Like Brown, the Lakers own AD’s full Bird Rights. This allowed the team to lock Davis up with a five-year contract from 2020-21 until 2024-25. And before it was all said and done, AD and the Purple and Gold sat down and extended their partnership for three more years.
3. Nikola Jokic
Nikola Jokic is a perfect example of how someone who earned league minimum became one of the NBA’s biggest contracts. Jokic signed a max contract with Denver after three years, and inked another extension based on the max and the fact that the team owns his Bird Rights.
4. Austin Reaves
The case of Austin Reaves was a little complicated, but he couldn’t have signed the four-year, $53 million deal with the Lakers if the team did not have his Early Bird Rights. The Purple and Gold got a little lucky that no other team pulled up an offer sheet, so they offered the max they could offer him using the Non-Taxpayer MLE and secured the Oklahoma State product until the summer of 2027.
5. Joel Embiid
Embiid has played in Philly his entire career and is on his way to earning $47 million in the upcoming season and more than $50 million for the next three. Joel has made it that far because of the combination of Bird Rights and the Designated Veteran Player Exception.
Wrapping Things Up: What Do Bird Rights Mean in the NBA?
The NBA has become one of the most lucrative leagues in the world. It operates with a soft salary cap that offers numerous exceptions for teams to go over the threshold to re-sign their own talents. One such exception is through the Bird Rights or the Larry Bird Rule.
What do Bird Rights mean in the NBA? This rule, named after , allows any team to go over the salary cap to re-sign their own free agents, provided the player has been with the team for three seasons. The specifics have changed over time to accommodate the players who have played for one or two years (Non-Bird and Early Bird Rights). The point of the rule is to let teams secure advantages during free agency chaos and for players to secure a bigger payday by settling with their old employers.
We hope you enjoyed this post! If you did, be sure to check out our other basketball FAQ articles here.