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NBA buyout market: What is it and how does it work?

The trade deadline has passed, but teams still need to get better. Enter the buyout market, where players and playoff contenders court each other. Here’s how it works.

NBA: Miami Heat at New York Knicks Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Feb. 7 NBA trade deadline has come and gone. As the clock crept closer to 3 p.m. on Thursday, and even though Anthony Davis and Mike Conley weren’t moved, there was still some significant action that shook several teams around the league. Tobias Harris, Marc Gasol, Nikola Mirotic, Harrison Barnes, Kristaps Porzingis and many more players were dealt in the days and hours leading up to the deadline.

But we’re not done with the transaction madness. What’s next? The NBA’s buyout market.

What is a buyout?

Sometimes, for one reason or another, a player and his team just want to break up. This normally happens:

  • When teams take on players in a trade that don’t factor into their short- or long-term future. Usually, this is when a veteran joins a lottery team
  • When a team that acquired a vet earlier in an attempt to compete performs below expectations
  • When teams don’t find a trade at the deadline for a player that wants out

So what happens next?

When a team and player want to split, they mutually agree that the player will be waived. The player’s agent and the team negotiate what portion of a player’s contract will need to be forfeited to set him free. Sometimes, a player has to give everything up to leave. Other times, it’s just a portion of his salary. It’s a case-by-case basis.

When a player is waived, he becomes an unrestricted free agent eligible to sign with any team interested.

He just has to clear waivers first.

Wait, what are waivers?

Waivers is a 48-hour period where teams are allowed to bid on a player’s contract, and if they win the bid, that player no longer enters unrestricted free agency. Instead, he signs with the team that placed the winning bid. The team making the bid has to be able to fit the player’s existing contract into its payroll or an unused salary-cap exception.

This notably happened in 2000, when the Bulls acquired then waived Bruce Bowen as part of the Toni Kukoc trade.

Bowen never cleared waivers. Instead, both the Knicks and Heat put in waiver claims on the defensive stopper. When two teams put a waiver claim in on the same player, the player goes to the worst team of the two options. The Heat were a half-game worse than the Knicks at that point — coincidentally, the only time the entire season Miami was worse than New York — so Bowen spent a year in Miami before his decade in San Antonio.

If another team claims a player off waivers and wins the bid, they assume the remainder of his contract and the original team clears him off their payroll.

OK, so the player has cleared waivers. Now what?

When this happens, his remaining salary is either reduced or totally wiped clean from his old team, depending on what has been agreed upon. This is where things get fun. Now, the player becomes a free agent, free to join any team interested in signing him.

A team has to be able to sign a player with its own cap space or whatever exceptions they have available. For example, the Lakers, Sixers and Rockets are each expected to be players in the buyout market. The Celtics also traded Jabari Bird to the Hawks to clear a roster spot, as did several other teams.

Most playoff teams have a flooded payroll, so the most they can offer is the veteran’s minimum, which varies and caps at $2.3 million depending on a player’s experience.

Give me an example. A real-life example

Let’s take Wesley Matthews for instance, a player who was traded to the New York Knicks in the Porzingis deal.

The Knicks are far from real contention, and Matthews didn’t factor into New York’s short- or long-term future. So, many expect Matthews and New York to come to a buyout agreement. He will make more than $18 million this year, so New York will pay him a pro-rated negotiated portion of what he is owed for the remainder of the year — whatever the team and Rose’s agent agree on.

If Matthews clears waivers, he will then be free to sign a contract — either through the end of the year or a multi-year deal — with whichever team is interested.

Can a player ask for a buyout?

Yes, but that doesn’t always guarantee it will happen. For example, Jahlil Okafor asked for a buyout last season, but the 76ers rejected his request while holding out for a trade. Philadelphia eventually dealt Okafor to Brooklyn.

It’s possible something similar happens with Robin Lopez and the Bulls this season, though perhaps Chicago will set him free.

What happens to a player’s contract with their old team when they sign with a new team?

The old team is only on the hook to pay a player what they’ve agreed to. For example, Dwyane Wade was one of the highest-profile buyouts in recent memory when he and the Chicago Bulls agreed to part ways in September, 2018. Wade agreed to leave on the table just more than $8 million of the $23.8 million he was owed for this season.

23.8 - 8.3 = $15.5 million

That’s how much the Bulls paid Wade to walk away last season. That’s a hefty price for zero points per game, but it’s the price a team pays when it buys a near-max contract out.

Teams are sometimes allowed to save money by setting off a portion of whatever the player’s new contract is, but the right to set-off is usually waived as part of buyout negotiations.

How long does the buyout market period last?

The buyout market is technically always open, but it’s most active after the NBA trade deadline passes. That’s when contenders look for one last chance to bolster their rosters.

The buyout market period effectively ends on March 1, because that is the last day teams any bought-out player can find a new club to be eligible to compete in the playoffs. Buyout market free agents differ from regular free agents who never signed with a team during or ahead of the regular season.

What stops a team from trading a player, then re-signing him after the player is waived?

Been there, done that. Teams used to be able to do that, but not anymore.

Back in 2010, the Cavaliers traded club legend Zydrunas ‘Big Z’ Ilgauskas to the Wizards in a package for Antawn Jamison. When the Wizards waived the big fella, Cleveland re-signed him after 30 days.

But the NBA closed that loophole in the newest CBA by prohibiting teams from signing a player in the same season they traded him.

Why would any team let a guy out of their contract? What’s the benefit for them?

One reason? They can save money! Instead of paying a player his full year’s salary, a team and agent usually negotiate a reduced number that works for both sides. Sometimes, that number is zero. The Bulls were able to save money when they agreed to a buyout with Dwyane Wade in September, an example we’ll touch on again later.

Another reason: The player just might not fit a team’s timeline. Lottery-bound teams want to get a look at young players late in the season, and having a veteran who’d prefer to play on a contender would get in the way. Many times, teams take players back in trades with no thought of keeping them past the day. Those players get waived immediately after a deal, and if there’s interest, they get signed on the buyout market.

One more thing: Teams don’t want to hold players against their will. Most veterans are good locker room guys no matter where they are, but if a guy really wants to play winning basketball again, a team is best served letting him go, especially if winning isn’t in the cards any time soon. This player-friendly reputation could serve that team well in future free agent pursuits.

Are there any memorable contract buyouts?

Sure: The Thunder traded Carmelo Anthony to the Hawks over the summer. Anthony had one year left on his contract worth $27.9 million left on his deal. Atlanta bought his contract out at $25.5 million.

Buyout contracts became particularly popular during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season when Kenyon Martin, Patty Mills, and Wilson Chandler each exercised NBA-out clauses mid-season while playing in China. Other players signed on the buyout market that season were DeMarre Carroll (Jazz), Boris Diaw (Spurs), and Gilbert Arenas (Grizzlies).

Last season, the Cavaliers signed Deron Williams and Derrick Williams on the buyout market. The Knicks bought out the remainder of Brandon Jennings’s contract, and he signed a remainder-of-the-year contract with the Wizards. Minnesota signed Lance Stephenson to a 10-day contract, then let it expire, clearing the path for him to rejoin Indiana longer-term.

The most famous example was in 2008, when the Celtics signed free agent P.J. Brown — who stayed on the market all year after his contract expired in the summer — and Clippers buyout Sam Cassell to bolster their eventual title team. Brown hit a critical jumper in Game 7 of their second-round series against the Cavaliers and contributed as a backup big man throughout Boston’s playoff run.

How often do players signed on buyout contracts actually make a difference?

Sometimes, but not too often. It’s rare that a bona fide difference-maker isn’t traded for something in return before the deadline. Buyout candidates are the leftover scraps on the market.

There are exceptions. Brown was pivotal in the Celtics’ title run in 2008. More recently, the Heat signed Joe Johnson after Brooklyn bought his contract out in 2016, and he became a valuable contributor as they made a decent playoff push.

OK, so who’s getting bought out this year?

The trade deadline was wild. Here’s a snapshot of the buyout market:

  • Jeremy Lin: The Hawks bought Lin’s contract out and he has signed for the rest of the season with Toronto
  • Enes Kanter: The Knicks bought Kanter out of his contract, and he signed for the rest of the season with Portland. The Trail Blazers signed Kanter to four-year, $70 million offer sheet in 2015. The Thunder matched that offer before trading him to New York.
  • Carmelo Anthony: The Rockets traded Melo to the Bulls, who waited a while until waiving him. He’s been linked to the Lakers, but the Lakers are going to wait for bigger names to hit
  • Wesley Matthews: Welp. This one’s done. The Knicks bought-out Matthews contract, and he’s already headed to the Indiana Pacers. The 76ers and Rockets were also interested in Matthews.
  • Robin Lopez: The Bulls could buyout Lopez, but GM John Paxson says he has no plans to do so
  • Zach Randolph: Z-Bo is a culture-setter who can be an incredible locker room presence on the right team
  • Wayne Ellington: Ellington is a sharp-shooter at its finest.
  • Markieff Morris: Morris has been recovering from a neck injury, but he’s a tough-nosed stretch-four who can help a number of playoff teams
  • Marcin Gortat: The Clippers, surprisingly, set him free as well. He can still run a mean pick-and-roll, right?