NBA Salary Cap

NBA Salary Cap

The NBA Salary Cap is the limit to the total amount of money that National Basketball Association teams are allowed to pay their players. While this seems simple enough in concept, the salary cap is in actuality extremely complex, and contains many obscure rules and loopholes.

The actual amount of the cap varies on a year-to-year basis, and is calculated as a percentage of the League's revenue from the previous season; for instance, in 2006-07, the NBA's salary cap was approximately US$53.135 million per team, and for the 2007-08 season it was $55.63 million [ [ NBA Sets Cap] Chris Sheridan,, July 11, 2007] . Like many professional sports leagues, the NBA has a salary cap to keep teams in larger markets (with more revenue) from buying all of the top players and extending their advantage over smaller-market franchises. The 2008-09 salary cap has been set at $58.68 million.


The NBA had a salary cap in the mid-1940s, but it was abolished after only one season. The League continued to play without such a cap until 1984-85, when the current incarnation of the salary cap was instituted in an attempt to level the playing field among all of the NBA's teams and ensure competitive balance for the League in the future. Before the cap was reinstated, teams could spend whatever amount of money they wanted on players, but in the first season under the new cap, teams were limited to $3.6 million in total payroll.

oft vs. Hard Caps

Unlike the NFL and NHL, the NBA features a so-called soft cap, meaning that there are several significant exceptions that allow teams to exceed the salary cap to sign players. This is done to allow teams to keep their own players, which, in theory, fosters fan support in each individual city. By contrast, the NFL and NHL caps are considered hard, meaning that they offer relatively few (if any) circumstances under which teams can exceed the salary cap.

Collective Bargaining Agreement

The Collective Bargaining Agreement, or CBA, is the contract between the NBA (the commissioner and the 30 team owners) and the NBA Players Association that dictates the rules of player contracts, trades, revenue distribution, the NBA Draft, and the salary cap, among other things. In June 2005, the NBA's 1999 CBA expired, meaning the League and the players' union had to negotiate a new agreement; in light of the fiasco that was the 2004-05 NHL lockout, the two sides quickly came to an agreement, and ratified a new CBA in July 2005. The new agreement will expire following the 2010-11 season, but the League has the option to extend it through the 2011-12 season if they wish. If so, the League must exercise its option to extend the agreement by December 15, 2010.

Little changed in terms of the salary cap between the 1999 and 2005 versions of the CBA. In exchange for agreeing to the controversial player age minimum, the players will receive a slightly higher percentage of the League's revenues over the course of the new agreement. Additionally, the League's maximum salary decreased slightly in comparison to the 1999 CBA.


Because the NBA's salary cap is a soft one, the CBA allows for several important scenarios in which a team can sign players even if their payroll exceeds the cap. The exceptions are as follows:

Mid-level exception

A team is allowed to sign one player to a contract equal to the average NBA salary, even if the team is over the salary cap already, or if the signing would put them over the cap. This is known as the Mid-level exception (MLE). The MLE may be used on an individual free agent or split among multiple free agents, and is available regardless of where a team stands with respect to the salary cap. The Mid-Level Exception for the 2007-08 NBA season was $5.36 million. The MLE is $5.585 million for the 2008-09 NBA regular season.

An example would be the Toronto Raptors' acquisition of three-point specialist Jason Kapono during the 2007 off-season.

Bi-annual exception

The bi-annual exception may be used to sign any free agent to a contract starting at $1.672 million in 2005-06, but cannot be used two years in a row (and if the $1 million exception from the previous CBA was used in 2004-05, the bi-annual exception cannot be used in 2005-06). Like the mid-level exception, the $1 million exception can also be split among more than one player, and can be used to sign players for up to two years, with raises limited to 8% per year. This exception was referred to as the "$1 million exception" in the 1999 CBA, although it was only valued at $1 million for the first year of the agreement.

An example of the $1 million exception was when the Los Angeles Lakers signed Karl Malone to a contract before the 2003-04 season.

Rookie exception

The CBA allows teams to sign their 1st-round draft choices to rookie "scale" contracts even if their payroll exceeds the cap.

Larry Bird exception

Perhaps the most well-known of the NBA's salary cap exceptions, it is so named because the Boston Celtics were the first team permitted to exceed the salary cap to re-sign one of their own players (in that case, Larry Bird). Free agents who qualify for this exception are called "qualifying veteran free agents" or "Bird Free Agents" in the CBA, and this exception falls under the auspices of the Veteran Free Agent exception. In a nutshell, the Larry Bird exception allows teams to exceed the salary cap to re-sign their own free agents, at an amount up to the maximum salary. To qualify as a Bird free agent, a player must have played three seasons without being waived or changing teams as a free agent. This means a player can obtain "Bird rights" by playing under three one-year contracts, a single contract of at least three years, or any combination thereof. It also means that when a player is traded, his Bird rights are traded with him, and his new team can use the Bird exception to re-sign him. Bird-exception contracts can be up to six years in length.

Early Bird exception

This is the lesser form of the Larry Bird Exception. Free agents who qualify for this exception are called "early qualifying veteran free agents," and qualify after playing two seasons without being waived or changing teams as a free agent. Using this exception, a team can re-sign its own free agent for either 175% of his salary the previous season, or the NBA's average salary, whichever is greater. Early Bird contracts must be for at least two seasons, but can last no longer than five seasons.

A much-publicized example for this would be Devean George, who vetoed his inclusion into a larger trade during the 2007-08 that would have sent him from the Dallas Mavericks to the New Jersey Nets because he would have lost his Early Bird rights.

Non-Bird exception

Free Agents who qualify for this exception are called "non-qualifying free agents" in the CBA, meaning they do not qualify under either the Larry Bird Exception or the Early Bird Exception. Under this exception, teams can re-sign a player to a contract beginning at either 120% of his salary for the previous season, or 120% of the league's minimum salary, whichever amount is higher. Contracts signed under the Non-Bird exception can last up to six years.

Other exceptions

Minimum Salary Exception: Teams can sign players for the NBA's minimum salary even if they are over the cap, for up to two years in length. In the case of two-year contracts, the second-season salary is the minimum salary for that season. The contract may not contain a signing bonus. This exception also allows minimum-salary players to be acquired via trade. There is no limit to the number of players that can be signed or acquired using this exception.

Traded Player Exception: If a team trades away a player with a higher salary than the player they acquire in return (we'll call this initial deal "Trade #1"), they receive what is called a Traded Player Exception, also known colloquially as a "Trade Exception". Teams with a trade exception have up to a year in which they can acquire more salary in other trades (Trade #2, #3, etc) than they send away, as long as the gulf in salaries for Trade #2, #3, etc are less than or equal to the difference in salary for Trade #1. This exception is particularly useful when teams trade draft picks straight-up for a player; since draft picks have no salary value, often the only way to get salaries to match is to use a trade exception, which allows trades to be made despite unbalanced salaries. It is also useful to compensate teams for losing free agents as they can do a sign and trade of that free agent to acquire a trade exception that can be used later. Note this exception is for single player trades only, though additional cash and draft picks can be part of the trade.

Disabled Player Exception: Allows a team that is over the cap to acquire a replacement for a disabled player who will be out for either the remainder of that season (for in-season injuries/deaths) or the next season (if the disability occurs during the offseason). The maximum salary of the replacement player is either 50% of the injured player's salary, or the average salary, whichever is less. This exception requires an NBA-designated doctor to verify the extent of the injury.

Note that while teams can often use one exception to sign multiple players, they cannot use a combination of exceptions to sign a single player.

Types of free agency

There are two types of free agency under the NBA's Collective Bargaining Agreement: Unrestricted and Restricted. An unrestricted free agent is free to sign with any team, but a restricted free agent is subject to his current team's Right of First Refusal, meaning that the player can be signed to an offer sheet by another team, but his current club reserves the right to match the offer and keep the player. An offer sheet is a contract offer of at least 2 years made to a restricted free agent. The player's current club has 7 days to match the offer or loses the player to the new team. For 1st-round draft picks, restricted free agency is only allowed after a team exercises its option for a fourth year, and the team makes a Qualifying Offer at the Rookie-scale amount after the fourth year is completed. For any other player to be a restricted free agent, he must be at most a three-year NBA veteran, and his team must have made a Qualifying Offer for either 125% of his previous season's salary or the minimum salary plus $150,000, whichever offer is higher.

Rookie scale salary

1st-round draft choices are assigned salaries according to their draft position. The first overall pick receives more than the second pick, the second more than the third, and so on. Each contract is for two years, with a team option for the third and fourth seasons (the previous CBA provided for three year contracts with an option for the fourth season), with built-in raises every year to compensate for increases in the average salary. In 2005, the scale went like this for lottery picks:DateFormat=x.yImageSize= width:300 height:auto barincrement:20Period = from:0 till:4TimeAxis = orientation:horizontalPlotArea = right:10 left:5 bottom:50 top:5

Colors = id:barcolor value:rgb(0.99,0.67,0.7) id:line value:black id:bg value:white

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bar:1 from:0 till:3.6171 color:barcolor text: "1st (Andrew Bogut) 3,617,100 " bar:2 from:0 till:3.2366 color:barcolor text: "2nd (Marvin Williams) 3,236,600" bar:3 from:0 till:2.9062 color:barcolor text: "3rd (Deron Williams) 2,906,200" bar:4 from:0 till:2.6062 color:barcolor text:"4th (Chris Paul) 2,606,200" bar:5 from:0 till:2.3728 color:barcolor text:"5th (Raymond Felton) 2,372,800" bar:6 from:0 till:2.1551 color:barcolor text:"6th (Martell Webster) 2,155,100" bar:7 from:0 till:1.9674 color:barcolor text:"7th (Charlie Villanueva) 1,967,400" bar:8 from:0 till:1.8024 color:barcolor text:"8th (Channing Frye) 1,802,400" bar:9 from:0 till:1.6568 color:barcolor text:"9th (Ike Diogu) 1,656,800" bar:10 from:0 till:1.5739 color:barcolor text:"10th (Andrew Bynum) 1,573,900" bar:11 from:0 till:1.4952 color:barcolor text:"11th (Fran Vasquez) 1,495,200" bar:12 from:0 till:1.4204 color:barcolor text:"12th (Yaroslav Korolev) 1,420,400" bar:13 from:0 till:1.3494 color:barcolor text:"13th (Sean May) 1,349,400" bar:14 from:0 till:1.2820 color:barcolor text:"14th (Rashad McCants) 1,282,000"

ScaleMajor = gridcolor:line unit:year increment:1 start:0

TextData = fontsize:S textcolor:black pos:(70,30) # tabs:(100-left) text:"Rookie "scale" salary (US Dollars)


Many NBA contracts are structured with options for either the player or the team. An option simply gives the party that controls it the right to extend their contract for one more season at a salary no less than the prior year's amount.

ign and trade agreements

When a team is willing to sign an upcoming free agent, but the player's current team wants something in return, it might be in the best interest of both clubs to execute a sign-and-trade deal. This occurs when one team signs one of its free agents and immediately trades that player to another team. A sign-and-trade is beneficial to both the player and the teams; the player receives a bigger contract than he might ordinarily get from a team that he would like to play for, while the trading club gets something in return for a free agent, and the recipient of the trade, obviously, gets the player they desire. Sign-and-trades are a reality in the NBA because of the CBA's rules: unlike baseball, where teams losing free agents are compensated with draft picks or cash, NBA teams that lose free agents receive no compensation.

When a team initiates a sign-and-trade agreement, it "must" trade the signed player immediately; teams cannot renege on the arrangement and keep the player for themselves, using the other team's financial situation to leverage the signee into a more favorable deal for themselves. Also, the contract signed before the trade must be for at least 3 years, with the first year guaranteed.

If a newly-signed player is not immediately traded away in a sign-and-trade, his new team must wait until December 15 of the calendar year in which he was signed or three months after the date on which he signed, whichever arrives later, before they can trade him again.

Trading and the Salary Cap

* Teams below the salary cap may trade without regard to salary, as long as they don't end up more than $100,000 above the cap following a trade.
* Teams above the cap (or teams below the cap but would end up more than $100,000 over the cap following a trade) cannot acquire more than 125% plus $100,000 of the salary they trade away. There is no lower limit -- teams may divest themselves of as much salary as they wish in a trade.
*No free agent signed in the offseason can be traded until December 15 of that year or until three months have passed (whichever comes later), a rule that prevents teams from signing free agents with the intent of using them strictly as trade fodder. For draft picks this moratorium lasts 30 days.
*If a team acquires a player in a trade, they are allowed to trade that player straight-up for another individual player immediately. However, if they wish to package that player with another and make a trade, the team must wait 60 days before doing so.

Base year compensation

Certain players in the first few months of a new contract are subject to base year compensation (BYC). The intent of BYC is to prevent teams from re-signing players to salaries specifically targeted to match other salaries in a trade (in other words, salary should be based on basketball value, not trade value). A BYC player's trade value as outgoing salary is 50% of his new salary, or his previous salary, whichever is greater. BYC applies only to players who re-sign with their previous team and receive a raise greater than 20%. It also applies only when (and as long as) the team is over the salary cap.


NBA teams can release a player to the waiver wire, where he can stay for 48 hours (during the regular season). While he is on waivers, other teams may claim him, for his existing salary. If he is not claimed, he is said to have "cleared waivers," and is treated like any free agent, able to sign with any team.

Released players

Released/waived players with guaranteed contracts continue to be included in their former team's payroll. Players whose contracts are not guaranteed are included in team salary in the amount they made while they were with the team. Players on non-guaranteed "summer contracts" are not included in team salary unless they make the regular season roster.

If another team signs a released player who had a guaranteed contract (as long as the player has cleared waivers), the player's original team is allowed to reduce the amount of money they still owe the player (and lower their team payroll) by the right of set-off. Note that this is true if the player signs with any professional team — it does not even have to be an NBA team. The amount the original team gets to set off is limited to one-half the difference between the player's new salary and the minimum salary for a one-year veteran (if the player is a rookie, then the rookie minimum is used instead).

Luxury tax

While the soft cap allows teams to exceed the salary cap indefinitely by re-signing their own players using the "Larry Bird" family of exceptions, there are consequences for exceeding the cap by large amounts. A luxury tax payment is required of teams whose payroll exceeds a certain "tax level," determined by a complicated formula, and teams exceeding it are punished by being forced to pay one dollar to the League for each dollar by which their payroll exceeds the tax level.

While most NBA teams hold contracts valued in excess of the salary cap, few teams have payrolls at luxury tax levels. The tax threshold in 2005-06 was $61.7 million dollars. In 2005-06, the New York Knicks' payroll was $124 million, putting them $74.5 million above the salary cap, and $62.3 million above the tax line, which Knicks owner James Dolan paid to the league. Tax revenues are normally redistributed evenly among non-tax-paying teams, so there is often a several-million-dollar incentive to owners not to pay the luxury tax.

In the summer of 2005, the new CBA provided an amnesty clause: a one-time opportunity for each team to waive one, and only one, player and avoid having him count against the team's luxury tax calculation. The amnesty provision only affected the team's luxury tax status, though. The waiving team must continue to pay the player, his salary continues to count against their salary cap, and all other salary calculations are unaffected. However, the team may not re-sign or re-acquire the player for the length of the terminated contract. In all other respects, the player is treated just like any other waived player.

The amnesty provision was derisively named the Allan Houston Rule (with Houston being symbolic of a free-agent class that was signed to ill-advised maximum contracts before the luxury tax was initiated), but the Knicks chose not to waive Houston under its terms, instead releasing Jerome Williams. Other players who were waived using the amnesty provision included Michael Finley, Brian Grant and Derek Anderson.

The luxury tax level for the 2008-09 season, is set at $71.15 million.

NBA Salary Cap history

NBA Salary Cap and average player salary since the introduction of the cap in 1984. [cite web |url= |title=NBA - Salary cap for 2006-07 season set at $53.135 million |last=Ford |first=Chad |date=2006-07-11 | |accessdate=2007-03-22]

Salary CapDateFormat=x.yImageSize= width:350 height:auto barincrement:20Period = from:0 till:60TimeAxis = orientation:horizontalPlotArea = right:10 left:5 bottom:50 top:5

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PlotData= width:15 textcolor:black shift:(5,-5) anchor:from fontsize:s

bar:84 from:0 till:3.6 color:barcolor text:"84-85 3.6 million" bar:85 from:0 till:4.2 color:barcolor text:"85-86 4.2 million" bar:86 from:0 till:4.9 color:barcolor text:"86-87 4.9 million" bar:87 from:0 till:6.2 color:barcolor text:"87-88 6.2 million" bar:88 from:0 till:7.2 color:barcolor text:"88-89 7.2 million" bar:89 from:0 till:9.8 color:barcolor text:"89-90 9.8 million" bar:90 from:0 till:11.9 color:barcolor text:"90-91 11.9 million" bar:91 from:0 till:12.5 color:barcolor text:"91-92 12.5 million" bar:92 from:0 till:14.0 color:barcolor text:"92-93 14.0 million" bar:93 from:0 till:15.1 color:barcolor text:"93-94 15.1 million" bar:94 from:0 till:15.9 color:barcolor text:"94-95 15.9 million" bar:95 from:0 till:23.0 color:barcolor text:"95-96 23.0 million" bar:96 from:0 till:24.4 color:barcolor text:"96-97 24.4 million" bar:97 from:0 till:26.9 color:barcolor text:"97-98 26.9 million" bar:98 from:0 till:30.0 color:barcolor text:"98-99 30.0 million" bar:99 from:0 till:34.0 color:barcolor text:"99-00 34.0 million" bar:00 from:0 till:35.5 color:barcolor text:"00-01 35.5 million" bar:01 from:0 till:42.5 color:barcolor text:"01-02 42.5 million" bar:02 from:0 till:40.3 color:barcolor text:"02-03 40.3 million" bar:03 from:0 till:43.8 color:barcolor text:"03-04 43.8 million" bar:04 from:0 till:43.9 color:barcolor text:"04-05 43.9 million" bar:05 from:0 till:49.5 color:barcolor text:"05-06 49.5 million" bar:06 from:0 till:53.1 color:barcolor text:"06-07 53.1 million" bar:07 from:0 till:55.6 color:barcolor text:"07-08 55.6 million" bar:08 from:0 till:58.68 color:barcolor text:"08-09 58.68 million"

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TextData = fontsize:S textcolor:black pos:(130,30) # tabs:(100-left) text:"NBA Salary Cap

Avg. Player SalaryDateFormat=x.yImageSize= width:350 height:auto barincrement:20Period = from:0 till:6TimeAxis = orientation:horizontalPlotArea = right:10 left:5 bottom:50 top:5

Colors = id:barcolor value:rgb(0.99,0.7,0.7) id:line value:black id:bg value:white

PlotData= width:15 textcolor:black shift:(5,-5) anchor:from fontsize:s

bar:84 from:0 till:0.33 color:barcolor text:"84-85 330,000" bar:85 from:0 till:0.382 color:barcolor text:"85-86 382,000" bar:86 from:0 till:0.431 color:barcolor text:"86-87 431,000" bar:87 from:0 till:0.502 color:barcolor text:"87-88 502,000" bar:88 from:0 till:0.575 color:barcolor text:"88-89 575,000" bar:89 from:0 till:0.717 color:barcolor text:"89-90 717,000" bar:90 from:0 till:0.927 color:barcolor text:"90-91 927,000" bar:91 from:0 till:1.1 color:barcolor text:"91-92 1.1 million" bar:92 from:0 till:1.3 color:barcolor text:"92-93 1.3 million" bar:93 from:0 till:1.5 color:barcolor text:"93-94 1.5 million" bar:94 from:0 till:1.8 color:barcolor text:"94-95 1.8 million" bar:95 from:0 till:2.0 color:barcolor text:"95-96 2.0 million" bar:96 from:0 till:2.3 color:barcolor text:"96-97 2.3 million" bar:97 from:0 till:2.6 color:barcolor text:"97-98 2.6 million" bar:98 from:0 till:3.0 color:barcolor text:"98-99 3.0 million" bar:99 from:0 till:3.6 color:barcolor text:"99-00 3.6 million" bar:00 from:0 till:4.2 color:barcolor text:"00-01 4.2 million" bar:01 from:0 till:4.5 color:barcolor text:"01-02 4.5 million" bar:02 from:0 till:4.5 color:barcolor text:"02-03 4.5 million" bar:03 from:0 till:4.9 color:barcolor text:"03-04 4.9 million" bar:04 from:0 till:4.9 color:barcolor text:"04-05 4.9 million" bar:05 from:0 till:5.0 color:barcolor text:"05-06 5.0 million" bar:06 from:0 till:5.2 color:barcolor text:"06-07 5.2 million" bar:07 from:0 till:5.2 color:barcolor text:"07-08 5.2 million"

ScaleMajor = gridcolor:line unit:year increment:1 start:0

TextData = fontsize:S textcolor:black pos:(130,30) # tabs:(100-left) text:"Avg. Player Salary

ee also

* National Basketball Association
* Salary cap
* David Stern


External links

* [ NBA salary cap FAQ]
* [ NBA Salary Cap 101]
* [ NBA Players' Association CBA page]

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