Unrestricted free agency presents a major downside risk to a player’s current NBA team because of the distinct possibility the free agent chooses to leave for whatever reason, especially since it can happen without them receiving anything in return. This dynamic becomes even more severe when that current team does not have the flexibility or capacity to replace that departed free agent using cap space or another exception, making that potential departure extremely damaging for a competitive franchise even if the free agent is far from their best player.
This is the origin of the “Bird rights trap” that John Hollinger discusses, which often leads to the team in question overpaying that free agent since the alternatives are so much worse for them than offering enough money to ensure they stay.
However, there is another way to more proactively address the Bird rights trap which may shift this dynamic in some situations: an extend-or-trade decision point roughly a year earlier.
It is best to explain this concept with an example, and Andrew Wiggins and the Warriors are a perfect one that will loom large this offseason. The 27-year-old originally signed a five-year max extension with the Timberwolves back in 2017 that will expire in 2023. That makes Wiggins extension eligible this summer, and while there is plenty of variance in terms of what kind of contract he and the front office are willing to sign, there is at least an opportunity.
The Warriors also have plenty of motivation to figure the situation out ahead of the 2023 offseason, because their obligations to Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and likely Jordan Poole are significant enough that they would not be able to replace Wiggins in the rotation with a new addition using cap space.
With that in mind, let’s get back to a bigger-picture approach on how general managers can navigate this situation. Talented non-star players are typically on long enough contracts that the collective bargaining agreement allows extensions. The potential contract terms are often lucrative, and there is an allowable salary the player would accept. As such, even if they never ink an extension, there is an opportunity for each side of the negotiation to get a clear sense of what the other is looking for a year ahead of unrestricted free agency, which is extremely useful for everyone involved.
But a clearer picture also can point to a relationship that is on its last legs, especially if the player and team are far apart in terms of money or if one side is less enthusiastic about committing long term. Any of those potential pitfalls in these negotiations bodes poorly for unrestricted free agency a year from then, though it is important to note that dynamics can shift dramatically and closing the door prematurely could lead to worse outcomes. Even so, the downside risk of losing a player or even just that salary slot on your books without getting anything back hurts that team beyond the coming season.
That leads to a general plan of attack which could become pivotal this summer:
1. Negotiate in good faith. If the sides can iron out an agreement, great! If not, the player and team need to identify why a deal did not happen and the likelihood that changes before free agency.
2. Without an extension, listen to trade offers from other teams or actively shop the player.
3. Decide on the correct immediate course of action, whether that is a trade or keeping them around.
4. If the player is still on the team after step three, get ready to repeat this whole cycle near the trade deadline, since extension-eligible players in the final year of their contracts can sign new deals during that season. Keep in mind this does not apply to first-round picks on rookie-scale contracts, but it did in the case of second-rounders like Mitchell Robinson and Jalen Brunson.
There is a natural inclination to wait out these situations a bit and hope that everyone can come together on a deal, but a delay presents different risks and downsides that are important to consider. For the player, securing that new contract a year ahead of time mitigates a ton of risk and there is always the potential to make your way off that team down the line after securing that extension, which is becoming a more common path.
For the team, a big logistical problem created by waiting is the lack of flexibility in potential trade partners at the deadline versus during the offseason. Every franchise’s roster is in some form of flux during the offseason and general managers have enough wiggle room to consider acquiring a player on a significant but expiring contract, even if they overlap with someone they already have. There is time to balance their roster before games begin by making other moves.
At the trade deadline, many teams are set on their path and thus less interested in a move like one. The situation also becomes even less desirable because of the CBA’s “extend-and-trade” rules. Remember that these players are on expiring contracts, so they can agree to extensions in-season. But the current CBA specifically restricts what extensions players can sign with new teams for six months after a trade, longer than the amount of time between the trade deadline and them hitting unrestricted free agency.
Norman Powell is a great example in a few different ways. The Trail Blazers acquired him at the 2021 trade deadline but extend-and-trade rules made it impractical to negotiate a viable extension even if there had been fertile ground for an agreement without those restrictions.
Instead, Powell hit unrestricted free agency but re-signed with the Blazers using full Bird rights. The move was not a surprise, because presumably, Portland and Powell had an understanding (wink wink, nudge nudge) of what a new contract would look like before the trade even if the CBA functionally prevented them from putting pen to paper at that juncture.
After all, that would have been a lot for Portland to give up in exchange for a player who could walk away mere months later. That dynamic makes the extend-and-trade rules an impediment at the deadline but not an insurmountable one if the player and his prospective new team have confidence they can make a deal happen in the summer.
While that eventual re-signing process makes delaying until the deadline more possible for potential trade partners, waiting also makes it challenging for the player’s current team to maximize that season. Narrowing the field of suitors and taking any free-agent replacements for the player in question off the board means it will be difficult to make that move and replace them in the rotation unless the exact right deal comes along.
Let’s go back to the Warriors and Wiggins. With Curry, Thompson and Green in place for their starting and closing fives (and Poole potentially joining them), Golden State would presumably want a forward in a Wiggins trade, but wings are in short supply around the league and far fewer are available in-season. There is a notable exception: the aforementioned Powell and Robert Covington going to the Clippers at the 2022 deadline less than a year after Powell went through this whole process himself in Toronto/Portland. That means Bob Myers would be wise to assess Wiggins’ fit with the Warriors in the long term right now and move quickly in the offseason. The four-step process takes time, and the faster each side recognizes where the other stands, the more likely it is they end up with a better resolution for everyone.
The Wiggins dilemma is somewhat unique because of his high salary, the Warriors’ status as title contenders and the balance of their roster, but he’s not the only player whose team could face this predicament in a few months.
2022 extend-or-trade candidates
Caris LeVert, Cavaliers: LeVert only having one year left on his contract made Cleveland acquiring him at the deadline fascinating, especially with the added complication of Collin Sexton’s restricted free agency also occurring this offseason. Typically, recently acquired players wield additional leverage in these negotiations because they know their new team does not want to risk letting them walk so soon. That is likely the case here, but it also makes failing to reach an agreement a more perilous path for president of basketball operations Koby Altman.
Myles Turner, Pacers: This one is a little different because the Pacers just made significant roster changes and may want to see how the team looks before committing long term to Turner, but that delay would create a significant risk since he would be a top free agency target if he hits the open market in 2023. The other major challenge in negotiations with Turner is that a 20 percent raise on his current salary only works out to $21.6 million in the first year of an extension, which is significant but far less than his absolute maximum, should Turner think he can secure something even close to that in free agency next summer.
Fred VanVleet, Raptors: Masai Ujiri’s recent approach of offering shorter-term contracts with final-season player options faces its first test in 2022, as first-time All-Star VanVleet can hit unrestricted free agency next summer without an extension. The extend-or-trade choice does not appear as stark considering VanVleet’s rise and deep connection to the organization, but the player and team will learn a lot about what the other side is thinking in their negotiations. Also, while fellow starter Gary Trent Jr. also has a 2023-24 player option, he is ineligible for an extension this offseason since he signed his current contract in 2021.
Nikola Vucevic, Bulls: Another fascinating negotiation that shifts based on the Bulls’ expectations for the future. If Zach LaVine returns, the Bulls would not have the spending power to replace Vucevic, but the timing could be a challenge as the center turns 33 right around the time an extension would kick in. Chicago would be committing to a veteran who likely ages out of being a starter over that next contract. Is executive vice president Arturas Karnišovas willing to take that plunge, and if not, what are his other options?
Dillon Brooks, Grizzlies: When I broke down Memphis’ fascinating 2022 offseason recently, one wrinkle I did not include was negotiating an extension with Brooks. The 26-year-old has an important role on this rising young team, but executive vice president of basketball operations Zach Kleiman already has another option at the position in Ziaire Williams. Small forward also could be the clearest major upgrade to their long-term foundation alongside Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. A Brooks return and a departure are plausible this offseason depending on how negotiations go and what other possibilities are out there.
Harrison Barnes, Kings: A frequently rumored trade candidate at each of the last two deadlines, Barnes is now just one season away from unrestricted free agency. In normal circumstances, one would have expected a capable veteran at a scarce position on a non-playoff team to already have changed franchises, but the Kings’ presumed postseason push for 2022-23 could make this a high-variance exception to this dynamic that would create a fascinating 2023 free agent whether Barnes stays in Sacramento or heads elsewhere.
Luguentz Dort, Thunder: Dort could be another exception to this extend-or-trade concept for the basic reason that the CBA’s extension rules are frustratingly insufficient for low-salaried players. After all, the 23-year-old wing could justifiably want more than the $12-14 million a year the Thunder are permitted to offer right now. It is possible but unlikely that understanding leads general manager Sam Presti to decline the Thunder’s 2022-23 team option on Dort to make him a restricted free agent this offseason, but the more reasonable outcome is working something out in 2023 free agency, even though waiting until then adds significant risk for both Dort and the Thunder.
Jakob Poeltl, Spurs: Potentially another situation where the CBA’s extension rules cause problems, as the Spurs can only offer an $11.2 million starting salary on the first year of an extension since Poeltl’s current salary is so low. The Austrian center could want to mitigate risk a year early, but that next contract will start right around his 28th birthday and likely represents his last real shot at a big payday, so aiming high would be defensible, though an extension feels possible as well.
D’Angelo Russell, Timberwolves: This would be a more straightforward negotiation than Dort or Poeltl because Russell’s massive current contract means the Timberwolves can offer terms that are acceptable to him … if they are willing to go there. Minnesota’s success this season surely motivates them to get a deal done, but the possibility of functionally replacing Russell with a max salary slot for a signing or trade target, combined with Anthony Edwards’ improvement and evolving role, makes waiting much more palatable for the Wolves than it normally would be in this circumstance.
Kyle Kuzma, Wizards: Like fellow former Lakers player Russell, Kuzma had a nice season on a team with a lot on its plate in both the short and long term. The 26-year-old started 66 games for Washington but shares an overstuffed frontcourt with Kristaps Porzingis, Deni Avdija, Rui Hachimura, Daniel Gafford and possibly Corey Kispert and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, depending on how the front office sees the rotation shaking out. That — plus a $13 million player option for Kuzma, rather than straightforward unrestricted free agency — might make president and general manager Tommy Sheppard more comfortable delaying the decision, but it would still be a great idea for both sides to negotiate in good faith this summer to see if a deal is possible.
Jerami Grant, Pistons: A frequently rumored trade target already, Grant fits the rules of this list but it appears the Pistons and Grant may have already had these discussions, and that is part of why a move may happen. On top of that, Grant serves as a reminder that acquiring a pending free agent a year ahead of time opens up an extension negotiation window in January/February when the CBA’s “extend-and-trade” restrictions expire, depending on when the transaction happens. That, as well as having Grant for a full season and the playoffs, should motivate potential trade partners to offer more in June than they would in February 2023.
Christian Wood, Rockets: Like Grant, it appears that Wood is more likely to sign an extension with another franchise rather than the Rockets, as the 26-year-old is an awkward fit on a rebuilding squad, especially since he may be looking for something different at this stage in his career. Another challenge in Wood’s negotiations is his potential expectation (or demand, even) that he is their center of the future. Alperen Sengun is already in place and Houston could be in a position for an elite big man prospect in the next two drafts. Still, negotiating and moving early rather than late will prove extremely helpful for both Wood and the Rockets, since it gives them the chance to maximize the situation.
Seth Curry, Nets: Three years and two teams ago, Curry and the Mavericks inked a four-year, $32 million contract. After a trade, a successful tenure in Philadelphia, another trade and a few months with the Nets, Brooklyn now faces a major decision point deeply complicated by the CBA’s rules, since extend-and-trade rules prevent them from adding more than two new seasons or more than a five-percent raise until August 10. Even then, his $8.5 million salary means an extension cannot go higher than $12-14 million per season, which may not be enough. Is the front office willing to roll the dice on one of their few players making more than the minimum but less than the max leaving without being able to replace him? Would Curry accept a deal like that, forgoing what appears his best opportunity to secure a significant contract? It will be an incredibly complicated negotiation.
Expect the extend-or-trade story to continue into 2023, as front offices appreciate the value of mitigating risk and the value of moving early rather than late.
(Photo of Andrew Wiggins: Noah Graham / NBAE via Getty Images)