What Does an NBA Free-Agency Contract Look Like?

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What Does an NBA Free-Agency Contract Look Like?
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NBA free agency arrives in the heat of summer, marked by endless what-ifs, pipe dreams and possibilities. It's a time for fantasizing—for envisioning team-and-player pairings that seem too good to be true.

When those previously imaginary scenarios actually play out, what comes next isn't quite as exciting in a speculative sense, but it's a necessary component to the frenzied player movement we all love to watch every July.

What comes next is the contract.

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The NBA has a uniform player agreement you can view here, on the NBA Players Association website. The stripped-down version is 27 pages long, and it covers everything you could possibly imagine about life as an NBA player.

Now, nobody likes reading contracts. In fact, you probably clicked through four or five user-license agreements in the past couple of weeks without so much as glancing at the terms. These NBA player contracts are different, though.

If you're only skimming them, you'll miss the good stuff.

So, with loads of players itching to sign on the dotted line this July, it makes sense to go over the basics of those agreements—with special emphasis, of course, on the weirdness and occasional hilarity they include.

 

Exhibits Are Fun

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The devil's in the details, and so are all the best parts about NBA contracts. Remember, these are additions to the basic deal, and a handful of them are extremely common.

Exhibit 1 in the uniform agreement deals with compensation—base numbers, deferred money, signing bonuses and, most entertainingly, incentives.

Here's an example of what Exhibit 1 looks like in the uniform player contract, though the parties, conditions and dollar amounts are all totally fictitious:

Grant Hughes

The incentives you're probably most familiar with came into being during the last collective bargaining session. They're broadly known as the "Derrick Rose Rule," and they allow certain players to cash in on their first extensions if they meet a few lofty standards.

If a player on a rookie deal makes an All-NBA team twice, starts the All-Star Game twice or wins an MVP, he's entitled to as much as 30 percent of his team's cap figure in his next deal. That's a perfectly fair way to reward transcendent talents for early production.

But it's not as fun as some of the lesser-known incentives we've seen in the past.

Dave D'Alessandro of The Star-Ledger collected a couple of gems from previous contracts that offer a glimpse into the oddities of NBA incentives. Nick Collison once had a $100,000 bonus built into his contract, to be awarded if he won the league's MVP award. Former Golden State Warriors center Adonal Foyle would have received $500,000 for winning the MVP and another $500,000 for winning the Finals MVP.

Most of these potential payment boosts (especially the ones listed above) were comically unreachable—unless Foyle somehow sneaked in a Finals MVP when we weren't paying attention. So, why would teams even bother to include them?

The answer, per D'Alessandro, is pretty simple: "We've seen a lot of weird contracts in our day, and you learn that the fine print contained within these documents are limited only by the greed-mongering imagination of the agent."

Granted, some of these exhibits feel like long-odds money grabs. Others, though, are designed to keep players from getting too comfortable when they sign new deals.

Exhibit 7 is one such example, and it features this language, which can be used to replace a similar section of the basic player contract:

The Player agrees, notwithstanding any other provision of this Contract, that he will to the best of his ability maintain himself in physical condition sufficient to play skilled basketball at all times. If the Player, in the reasonable judgment of the physician designated for that purpose by the Team, is not in good physical condition at the date of his first scheduled game for the Team, or if, at the beginning of or during any Season, he fails to remain in good physical condition, in either event so as to render the Player unfit in the reasonable judgment of said physician to play skilled basketball, the Team shall have the right to suspend the Player for successive one-week periods until the Player, in the reasonable judgment of the Team’s physician, is in good physical condition.

In other words: No fatties.

We hear about guys coming into camp and playing themselves into shape all the time. Shaquille O'Neal made a career out of that very practice. But for others, carrying extra flab into the season has had real consequences.

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Antoine Walker and James Posey, for example, earned infamous in-season suspensions for failing to meet the Miami Heat's stringent fitness requirements.

Per an Associated Press report (via ESPN.com), here's what then-Heat coach Pat Riley had to say on the matter back in 2007:

There's been an ongoing conditioning goal that our team has had to make since the summer. ... January was the deadline, they haven't made it, and they knew this was going to happen if they didn't make it. By the way, both of them are in the best condition of their lives. They're very close. But a deadline is a deadline.

The lesson: Develop a carbohydrate allergy if you ever want to play for Riles.

 

Staying out of Trouble

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Next come the excerpts from the NBA's constitution and bylaws.

Only the most relevant (read: serious) sections are included, of course, as the entire constitution numbers 79 pages and covers everything from arena relocation (Article 7) to protesting games (Article 38) to the physical protection of referees (Bylaw 8.04).

Article 35 is reproduced in full, and it gets special treatment because it covers player conduct.

It lays out the commissioner's broad powers to suspend and fine players who get out of line, but the most interesting bits come when the option of full-on, no-reprieve expulsion suddenly makes its way into the contract's language.

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Under Article 35(b), players who "cause any game of basketball to result otherwise than on its merits" can be booted from the league for good. And here you thought match fixing was only a topic during World Cup soccer.

Even more emphatic is the punishment for gambling on games. Pursuant to Article 35(f), the commissioner can expel a player forever if he's convinced that player was wagering on NBA contests. Critically, that player doesn't even get a chance to appeal the decision.

Gambling equals "game over."

The fact that Article 35 is the only section commonly reproduced in every player contract speaks to its seriousness.

Playing in the NBA means agreeing to the code of conduct laid out in the league's constitution, but by conditioning every contract and having each player expressly consent to those specific rules, the league removes any possible "I didn't know I couldn't do that" excuses for players who run afoul of the constitution.

 

Who Inks What?

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Backing up a bit, the first paragraph on the first page of every NBA free-agent contract provides blank lines for team and player. That makes sense, as getting the two parties involved in the deal to affix their names to the contract is, you know, kind of an important step in a formal agreement.

Those same parties sign again on page 13, at the end of the section laying out the contract's basic terms. This time, though, the signatures come beneath a bold, italicized, all-caps heading that reads: "EXAMINE THIS CONTRACT CAREFULLY BEFORE SIGNING IT."

In other words, that piece of paper is screaming: "This is the point of no return. Sign here and you're stuck."

No word on whether Kevin Love's contract had different phrasing, though based on what we've seen over the past few months, it sure doesn't seem like he's locked in to much of anything.

Here's what this particular section of Kobe Bryant's latest contract actually looks like:

After EXAMINING THE CONTRACT CAREFULLY, including the exhibits attached afterward, team and player sign the deal. Then, the player's representative (if he has one) also scrawls his name. Once a notary signs and approves the document: Bam! That's an official contract.

 

The Art of the Deal

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If you think about it, NBA contracts are basically the end stage to the flurry of unpredictable, tension-filled action that precedes them. For high-profile players, signing that dotted line usually concludes a couple of jet-lagged, rumor-laden weeks.

And as fun as being the subject of constant courtship and never-ending speculation might sound, I'm guessing the first thing somebody like Carmelo Anthony will feel when he signs his next contract will be an overwhelming sense of relief.

Anthony—along with big-time free agents like LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Luol Deng and Pau Gasol—are all looking to find the best landing spots and the most favorable deals they can. No doubt, teams are offering them loads of cash, strange incentives and plenty of other perks we probably won't ever hear about.

Call it boring if you like, but those 27 pages of fine print and caveats are the official starting points for new eras. None of that summertime free-agent enthusiasm actually means anything until the deal's done.

July 1 rolls around every year and creates a wild, fantasy-filled environment. And every July 10, contracts make those fantasies real.

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