In a fantastic bit of reporting this week, Howard Beck of The New York Times broke the news regarding the NBA Players Association's recent attempt at better defining the terms surrounding Bird Rights and NBA players.
Let's take a brief moment and use the information available on Wikipedia to break down what exactly the Bird Rights entail: Named after Larry Legend, the rule was created to allow teams to re-sign their star veterans to maximum contracts (the "maximum" is a predetermined figure based on a player's number of years in the league) even if doing so puts them over the salary cap.
Its purpose was to help teams retain their stars and, therefore, remain marketable franchises.
Bird Rights only apply to players who either have been playing for the same team or under the same contract for three years—a player must not have signed a new contract with a new team for three consecutive years.
The loophole is this: When a player is traded, his Bird Rights remain attached to his contract. Therefore, if a player has a three-year deal in place and is traded after the first year, so long as he plays out the remainder of his contract for the new team, he retains his Bird Rights. This also applies if he chooses to sign three separate one-year contracts, all with the same team—as long as none of those deals involve him changing teams, the three years still hold.
What the NBAPA is arguing is that when a team places a player on waivers, and another team picks that player up, there is never a new contract negotiated, and therefore, his Bird Rights remain intact.
Let's evaluate Lin's case.
The Rockets placed Lin on waivers before the season began. Soon afterward, the Knicks claimed the rights to him off of waivers. None of this involved Lin signing a new contract with the Knicks. He was merely playing under the same terms he agreed to with the Golden State Warriors two seasons ago, of which the liability was transferred to the Knicks.
The NBAPA is claiming that is akin to the Rockets trading Lin to the Knicks for nothing in return.
Now that the case is undergoing independent arbitration, if the NBAPA wins, the Knicks will have full Bird Rights to Lin, meaning they can sign him to the maximum contract allowable for a player who has been in the league for as long as he has without it affecting their salary cap. The same goes for Steve Novak, who was also claimed off waivers.
As Beck mentions in his piece, the million-dollar question is: Why this has never been considered before?
The answer is simple: No player picked up off waivers has ever enjoyed the amount of success both Lin and Novak have this year. Their value far exceeded what generally comes with a player sent to waivers.
If this does go through, the Knicks will have considerably more flexibility with regard to re-signing free agents. They're already over the cap for the upcoming season. Instead of having to use up their mid-level exception (worth up to $5 million) or the bi-annual exception (worth up to $1.9 million) on these players, they can simply re-sign both Lin and Novak for as much as they need to and then use both of those bonuses elsewhere (perhaps on J.R. Smith or even to pursue someone like Steve Nash).
This could be a tremendous blessing for the Knicks, who would benefit greatly from a Nash-Lin duo. Once the decision is decided (and remember, free agency begins on July 1, so it must be finalized before then), we'll have a much better picture regarding the Knicks and their options this offseason.
Until then, all we can do is wait and hope.
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