Basketball Free Agents

A free agent in basketball is a player that does not have an existing contract with a team and seeks to sign a new one, either with the same team that offered the previous contract or a new team. Generally speaking, players prefer deals that offer the most money over a specified number of years.

Becoming a Free Agent

Players usually become free agents because their contracts have expired. For example, a player that signed a four-year agreement with a team prior to the 2015 season would be a free agent in the 2019 offseason. Another situation in which a player may become a free agent is when a team opts for early termination, effectively ending the player's contract before it was originally set to expire. In these cases, the team still has to pay the player at least half of the dollar amount that was left on the contract, even though the player is no longer a member of the team.

Types of Free Agents

There are two different classifications used to describe a free agent called restricted free agents and unrestricted free agents.

Restricted Free Agents

Restricted free agents are permitted to accept a contract offer from a new team, however, their former team has first priority over the player. Should the former team decide to match an offer from another team, the player must return to that team on the terms spelled out in the contract. For example, if a free agent has just finished a contract with the Boston Celtics and accepts a four-year, $100 million deal with the Denver Nuggets and the Celtics elect to match the offer, the player remains on the Celtics for another four years. If the Celtics are not willing to pay the player $25 million a season for the next four seasons, the player can then become a member of the Nuggets.

Whether or not a free agent has to abide by the restrictive clause described above is based on service time. Service time refers to how many seasons a player has logged in the NBA. Players that have been in the league for less than four years automatically become restricted free agents once their contracts expire. The rule is designed to give teams that drafted a young player first priority in retaining the player.

Unrestricted Free Agents

Unrestricted free agents are free to leave their former teams and join a new team once their contracts expire. Unlike restricted free agents, players are not required to return to a team if a contract offer is matched. This is generally the preferred designation amongst free agents because it allows them to leave a team if they are unhappy with their current situation. In order to become an unrestricted free agent, a player must have completed a minimum of four seasons in the league.

Signed and Traded As A Free Agent

Many times, there is mutual interest in a change of scenery between a restricted free agent and a team. Rather than letting a talented player sign with a new team and receiving nothing in return, teams will often organize "sign and trade" deals, in which the player's former team matches a contract offer and immediately trades the player to a new team in exchange for other players.

Free Agency Max Contracts

The NBA's very best players often seek a huge payday once their current contracts have expired. Bidding teams may elect to offer a 'max contract' a superstar player's services, which entitles the player to a fairly significant percentage of the league's salary cap (the total amount of money each team is allowed to spend on their roster). Similar to regular contracts, the rules that dictate what portion of the salary cap a team is permitted to offer a free agent are based on how long the player has been a member of the league.

Terms of Contracts

Below are the terms of a typical free agency contract:

  • 25% of the salary cap for players that have been in the league for 6 or fewer years
  • 30% for 7-9 years
  • 35% for 10 or more years

Notable Free Agent Contracts

PlayerPositionOld TeamNew TeamContract Terms
Kawhi LeonardSmall ForwardToronto RaptorsLos Angeles Clippers4 Years, $142 million
Kevin DurantSmall ForwardGolden State WarriorsBrooklyn Nets4 Years, $164 million
Kyrie IrvingPoint GuardBoston CelticsBrooklyn Nets4 Years, $141 million
Jimmy ButlerShooting GuardPhiladelphia 76ersMiami Heat4 Years, $142 million
Kemba WalkerPoint GuardCharlotte HornetsBoston Celtics4 Years, $141 million
Klay ThompsonShooting GuardGolden State WarriorsGolden State Warriors5 Years, $190 million