NBA free-agency FAQ: Explaining the moratorium, Bird rights and more

Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo dunks during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Indiana Pacers. (Morry Gash/AP)

NBA free agency will open Friday evening at 6:00 p.m. ET — or rather, the NBA’s free-agent moratorium period will open then.

A little confused about what that means, exactly? Have no fear, with free agency just hours away we’ve put together a helpful FAQ to help you better understand some of the terminology that you’re sure to be bombarded with soon.

NOTE: All collective bargaining agreement details are sourced from Larry Coon’s CBA FAQ.

Key dates

Before diving in, here are some key dates to keep in mind:

Nov. 20: Start of the NBA’s free-agent moratorium period at 6:00 p.m. ET
Nov. 22: End of moratorium period at 12:01 p.m. ET
Nov. 30: Players must report to team markets
Dec. 4, 6: Group practices begin
Dec. 11: NBA pre-season begins
Dec. 21: Deadline for rookie-scale extensions
Dec. 22: NBA regular season begins

What is the moratorium period and why can a deal not be made official until Nov. 22?

The moratorium period was first established in 1999 to give teams equal opportunity to pursue free agents and prevent under-the-table deals agreed upon before the start of free agency.

As such, any deal that you hear about during this period can’t be made official until Nov. 22 at 12:01 p.m. ET.

In normal times the moratorium period would last about a full week of fun, non-stop rumour-mongering, but due to the condensed nature of this year’s off-season, we’ll have to settle for what promises to be a whirlwind of a weekend.

What is a max contract and how is it determined? How does it differ from a “supermax”?

Put simply, a max contract is exactly what it sounds like: A contract signed that will give the player the maximum amount of money he is allowed under the rules of the collective bargaining agreement.

Where things start to get a little more complicated, however, is the “allowed under the rules of the CBA” part of that definition.

There are three tiers of max salaries that a player is eligible for determined by service time. The first tier allows players with zero to six years of NBA service time to command up to 25 per cent of a team’s cap in their starting salary, while the second tier allows players with seven to nine years 30 per cent, and the third tier requires 10 or more years of service for 35 per cent of the cap.

An important thing to take note of when discussing max salaries is the term “starting salary.”

The reason why this is specifically mentioned is because max salaries are tied to the salary cap only in the first year of the deal. For multi-year deals, players will still receive raises year-over-year, with those raises connected to the initial value – usually up to five per cent, with a maximum of eight per cent in special cases, such as when a team uses the Larry Bird exception to re-sign a player (more on this in the next question).

And in regards to a “supermax” contract, the actual name of this deal is called the “designated veteran extension/contract,” with “supermax” just its nickname.

Essentially, this kind of deal gives players in that 30-per cent tier an opportunity to leapfrog straight into the 35-per cent range without needing to have played in the league for 10 years – provided that player meets certain steep criteria.

First of all, a player can only qualify as a “designated veteran player” if they meet one of the following criteria, per Larry Coon’s CBA FAQ:

• The player was named to the All-NBA First, Second or Third team in the most recent season, or both of the two seasons that preceded the most recent season.

• The player was named the Defensive Player of the Year in the most recent season, or both of the two seasons that preceded the most recent season.

• The player was named the NBA Most Valuable Player in any of the three most recent seasons.

As an example, this is a situation that Giannis Antetokoumpo is in with the Milwaukee Bucks now. Being the defending two-time MVP puts him in line for a “supermax deal.”

Specifically, Antetokounmpo is in line for the designated veteran extension. Normally, in addition to those lofty performance goals, the player would also have to have completed eight or nine seasons continuously with the team who had their rookie contract to be eligible for the designated veteran contract, but for the extension, they need to only have seven or eight seasons under their belt and Antetokounmpo just completed his seventh.

So the only difference between the extension and the contract is that a player could potentially be eligible for the former sooner, as is the case with Antetokounmpo.

Lastly on the “supermax,” this kind of salary-tier jumping isn’t just possible for more seasoned players, there’s also one that’s formally called the “fifth year, 30 per cent max criteria” that’s available to players about to come off their rookie-scale deal that’s more commonly referred to as the “Derrick Rose Rule.”

More specifically, this Derrick Rose Rule is an addendum to something called the “designated rookie extension/free-agent contract after rookie-scale contract.”

Normally, a player on a rookie-scale contract who’s entering their fourth year will be up for an extension worth up to 25 per cent of the cap in the first year of that deal. But, like with a designated veteran extension, if a player meets any one of those lofty goals you can refer to above (like Rose did by winning MVP in 2011) that player would then be eligible to sign an extension to jump them into the 30-per cent tier earlier than usual.

What are Bird rights?

Among the most common sources of confusion, in order to understand what “Bird rights" are, you need to first understand how exceptions work in the NBA.

An exception is a mechanism in a soft-cap system, such as the NBA’s CBA, that allow teams to function and still make moves even while above the salary cap. The term “Bird rights” comes from the “Larry Bird Exception.”

Obviously named after the legendary Boston Celtics forward, there are three kinds of Bird exceptions: The regular “Larry Bird exception,” the “early Bird exception” and the “non-Bird exception.”

For simplicity’s sake, we’ll only focus on the regular Larry Bird exception because this is where the term 'Bird rights' actually comes from.

This exception allows a team to exceed the salary cap to re-sign their own free agents, provided they own that player’s Bird rights. In order for a team to own a player’s Bird rights, that player must play three seasons for them without clearing waivers or changing clubs as a free agent. It doesn’t matter if a player signed a three-year deal or three separate one-year deals — as long as they remain with the team for three seasons, they will retain their Bird rights.

Additionally, when a player with Bird rights gets traded, those Bird rights go with them.

Once again using Anteotkounmpo as an example, the Bucks own his Bird rights and thus have advantages to retain him over outside suitors should he hit free agency next off-season.

The Bucks will be able to offer the Greek superstar an additional year of maximum term (five years total compared to the four a team that doesn’t own his Bird rights could offer) as well as higher annual raises.

The standard maximum year-over-year raise an NBA team can offer on a free-agent contract is five per cent, but when using the Larry Bird exception to re-sign a player, a team can offer up to eight-per cent raises.

What are player options, club options and qualifying offers? How do they work?

Here’s a look at each one of these “options clauses,” individually:

Team option: Also known as a “club option,” this generally gives the team control over the final year of the contract. For example, if a player signs a three-year deal with a team option, that means in the third year it’s up to the organization to decide to pick it up and move forward with the player.

There can normally only be one option year, but there’s a special exception for rookie-scale contracts, which feature club options on the third and fourth years.

Player option: Like the name suggests, this gives the player the right to invoke the option. Using the Raptors as an example, the reason why a player like Stanley Johnson is getting paid about $3.8 million this season is because he had a player option that he invoked for the 2020-21 campaign with Toronto.

Like the team option, there can only be one option year attached to a contract (with no special circumstances for player options like there are with team options in a rookie-scale contract).

Qualifying offer: This isn’t an option clause, but we’ll talk about it anyway as it’s somewhat similar.

A qualifying offer is a mechanism that allows a team to make their free agent a restricted free agent and is a standing offer for a one-year guaranteed contract.

If a player is a restricted free agent, this means the team they're currently on holds the right to keep the player by matching any contract they might sign with another team.

The most common occurrence of restricted free agency comes with players entering the fifth year of their rookie-scale contracts, provided they don’t sign a contract extension before this. For example, the Raptors’ OG Anunoby is projected to have a qualifying offer worth about $5.6 million in the 2021 off-season – if he doesn’t sign a contract extension with the Raptors by Dec. 21.

Player early termination option: Finally, there’s one other kind of option clause — a player early termination option (ETO). This functions exactly as it sounds, it allows a player to terminate a contract early.

This is pretty similar to a player option, but it comes with less stability for the player to exercise their option to remain with a club in the event unrestricted free agency may not be as enticing an option as it seemed when the contract was first signed.

What is a rookie-scale contract?

A rookie-scale contract is something that was established in 1995 to determine salaries for first-round draft picks according to a strict scale depending on draft position, with the money tied very closely to the salary cap.

These contracts are always five-year deals with a team option on the third and fourth years and a qualifying offer on the fifth that will cue up that player’s restricted free agency.

What is the salary cap? How does the luxury tax work?

For more detailed information on the coming season’s salary cap and luxury tax please refer to this post from earlier in the week.

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