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.