Post-trade deadline buyouts have exponentially increased in recent seasons with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams, Reggie Jackson and DeMarre Carroll four of the more prominent players to negotiate their freedom this season. This season we also even saw John Beilein give back more than $12 million in guaranteed money in order to walk away from the Cleveland Cavaliers as head coach.
Freedom isn’t free and the cost of freedom ranges wildly in NBA buyouts. As does its long-term consequences.
With the NBA moving up the trade deadline for the 17-18 season from the immediate Thursday following the All-Star Game to 10 days before the All-Star Game, they significantly extended the duration of buyout season. Those discussions and negotiations have more space and time to materialize and the buyout market has become its own secondary trade deadline.
The exchange of money has largely moved to one for one over time for most players, but Bird Rights are relinquished, and the lives of players are disrupted for what will likely be a short-term situation. The modifications to sign-and-trade rules that have made the receiving team hard capped in those scenarios have deflated the market for that transaction type, but the imperative remains whether players are depressing their future value and earnings by becoming minimum contract rentals.
For every Boris Diaw (bought out by Charlotte in 2012 and revived his career with the Spurs during that reappraisal), there’s a Mike Bibby (gave up the entirety of his $6.2 million salary for 11-12 to compete for a title with the Heat).
What’s one last shot at a ring worth to a player who made more than $100 million and nearly won one with Sacramento earlier in his career? It apparently was worth about $5 million to Bibby as he signed the following year with the Knicks for the minimum at $1.35 million. David Falk’s comments immediately following the buyout seemed to emphasize that the decision was one Bibby was determined to make on his own and that it belied common financial sense.
Stephon Marbury similarly gave $4.5 million of the $6.4 million left on his $20.8 million back to the Knicks in 2009 to play sparingly for the Celtics, and then never played in the NBA again as he established himself with a long career in China.
For every Joe Johnson (gave back $3 million to the Nets in 2016, had a resurgence with the Heat and then signed a two-year, $22 million deal with the Jazz), there’s a Nick Van Exel who had a situation that can’t be succinctly summarized. Van Exel allowed his $12.8 million guaranteed contract for the 05-06 season become a team option to facilitate a trade to the Mavericks in 2002. Van Exel was later traded to the Warriors and then to the Blazers. Portland unsurprisingly did not exercise the option on his final season and Van Exel signed with the Spurs for the minimum of $1.1 million and was out of the league that next season. Van Exel retired with just over $74 million in career earnings, meaning he gave back approximately 15 percent of his potential career salary to buy his freedom from the Nuggets for what essentially amounted to two playoff runs with the Mavericks.
Ty Lawson similarly acquiesced on making his $13.2 million salary for the 16-17 season non-guaranteed to facilitate a trade from the Nuggets to the Rockets during the 2015 offseason. Lawson didn’t revive his career with the Rockets and he was bought out by the team during that first and only season after he had already calamitously yielded that guaranteed season.
Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli each joined the 76ers in 2018 following buyouts with the Hawks, played exceptionally well and signed deals in the offseason that suggest their value increased in a meaningful way since Atlanta was unable to trade them at the deadline. Ilaysova signed a three-year, $21 million deal with the Bucks, while Belinelli signed a two-year, $12 million deal with the Spurs.
When Robin Lopez remained with the Bulls through the 2019 trade deadline, there were multiple reports indicating he would eventually end up with the title-contending Warriors if bought out. Neither Lopez nor the Bulls pressed too hard for a buyout and he signed a two-year, $9.7 million deal with the Bucks this past offseason without that playoff experience with the Warriors on his resume or on his body. We have no way of knowing if Lopez signed for more money or less money by not taking a buyout, but it was substantially more than the minimum he would have played for with the Warriors in the months of March through June.
Tristan Thompson is at a similar stage of his career as Lopez with a similar career profile and will put himself in a similar situation this coming offseason as an unrestricted free agent who did not agree to a buyout.
Mark Termini, the attorney/agent currently working as contract negotiator for the Klutch Sports Group, is perhaps the staunchest opponent of the buyout maneuver often pursued by NBA teams and players. Termini has not negotiated a buyout of an NBA contract during the course of his 30-plus years in the industry. It has been clear that Thompson wouldn’t be his first.
“Buyouts are usually misunderstood by the player, and many times by the agent as well,” Termini told RealGM. “I’m open-minded, but I have not yet been presented with a situation where the benefits of the buyout outweigh the current and potential negatives to the player. Maybe I will see something in the future that makes sense.
“If a team wants to move on from a player, they always have the right to waive that player.”
This obviously happens with regularity league-wide and even to Klutch clients as the Grizzlies initially pursued a buyout of Dion Waiters following their trade with the Heat, according to reporting from Chris Haynes. There were no discussions held by Klutch, and Waiters was waived by the Grizzlies with his $12.65 million for 20-21 to be paid in full.
Do players who sign for the minimum in the short-term following a buyout become primed to be a minimum player in the long-term?
"That's always a concern,” another agent who asked to remain anonymous told RealGM. “But I think for some players, that's where they are at in their career. For other guys, they don't want a buyout because they don't want to give up Bird Rights. Even if you are leaving in the summer, Bird Rights are good to have just in case."
“If he plays well, his stock can rise again,” said a Western Conference executive. “But we will use that in negotiations, especially if the player is older."
"Depends on the player,” replied an Eastern Conference executive. “A lot of the buyout players are at the end of their career, so they are minimum players. But if a player has good years left, he's not stuck as a minimum player.
Perhaps the waive-and-sign situation has never happened as advantageously as it did to Matt Barnes in 2017 when the Kings waived him a few months after signing him to a two-year, $12 million deal. Barnes subsequently won a ring with the Warriors and retired from the NBA.
Every player is on their own unique trajectory, but it behooves them to not completely abandon the financial objectives they adhere to in July just because it is February. After all, Peja Stojakovic is the only buyout player to appear in at least 100 playoff minutes for a title team over the past decade.
Circling back to Joe Johnson, he benefited from a buyout in 2016 with the Heat, but he was out of the league following a short stint with the Rockets in 2018 after he was bought out by the Kings upon his trade there from the Jazz. Johnson very nearly took the unprecedented path back to the NBA via the BIG3, earning a camp invite from the Pistons in 2019 before he was eventually waived.
The issue ultimately comes down to the advice of an agent and what the player values most. The benefit to the team negotiating a buyout is always clear while the new team gets a contributing player at a deeply discounted rate.
"(Expletive) yeah! I'm better than that, but I know how teams think,” a veteran player told RealGM when asked if he was concerned agreeing to a buyout would turn him into a minimum contract player for the rest of his career. “That's why I'm not giving back any money yet. I might not make that money back. It's a big worry."
It will always be a subjective exercise to determine whether players damage their future value by negotiating buyouts as every case is different. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Reggie Jackson should remain NBA players for many more seasons and are at an entirely different point in their careers than Marvin Williams and DeMarre Carroll. We do at least know that giving back a meaningful amount of guaranteed money for the potential of future greater earnings is a gamble where the house can’t be beat.