A guide to NBA free agency

Some answers to a few basic questions about the league's offseason.

LeBron James and Kevin Durant during the 2018 NBA Finals. Both could become free agents this summer.
LeBron James and Kevin Durant during the 2018 NBA Finals. Both could become free agents this summer. –Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The NBA offseason is already awash with rumors, but the actual transactions are largely still to come. That will begin to change in the coming days.

The start of NBA free agency is July 1 (Sunday), though it’s a little more complicated than that. Player and team decisions have to be made beforehand, and a few more days will have to pass before transactions can officially be completed.

Given some of the intricacies of the NBA offseason, here’s a basic guide to some of the dates and terms.


June 29: Players and teams have until 11:59 p.m. to exercise or decline contract options for the coming season. This indicates who will either be in or out of free agency.


July 1: The new league year officially begins, and players and teams can agree to verbal deals. No official contracts can be signed or trades completed (with a few exceptions). It’s referred to as the NBA moratorium period.

July 6: The moratorium period ends, and contracts as well as trades can formally be signed or completed.


There are two types of NBA free agents. The first is an unrestricted free agent. These are players who reach the end of their contract and are free to sign anywhere, including their former team.

A restricted free agent is a player who can sign elsewhere, but whose team has “first right of refusal.” If a restricted free agent signs an offer sheet with another team, his current team has a period of time to match that offer and keep him if they choose.

Unlike the NFL, which has a “hard” salary cap, the NBA’s is “soft.” This means that teams can exceed the cap for varying reasons, known as exceptions.

The most notable salary cap exception has historically been attached to Larry Bird’s name. It essentially allows a team to circumvent the cap in order to retain a veteran player already on its roster by offering him more money than other bidders.


Though it’s probably apocryphal, as Bird likely wasn’t actually the first to be an example of his own rule, it’s become known as having “Bird Rights” on a player. Other variations also allow teams cap room flexibility.


There are more than a few potential big names on the free agent market, though some are still yet to decide whether they want to opt out. Here’s a quick look at a couple of notable names:

Paul George (opted out, unrestricted free agent)

LeBron James (player option)

Kevin Durant (player option)

Chris Paul (unrestricted)

DeMarcus Cousins (unrestricted)

Marcus Smart (restricted)

There are dozens of other players potentially in free agency (including Isaiah Thomas). Here’s a 50-player list.


NBA free agency only exists because of decades of efforts made by the players to attain fair bargaining rights with the team owners. Unrestricted free agency didn’t formally begin until 1988, when forward Tom Chambers signed with the Suns.

Prior to that, player movement was limited. Any free agent signings by a team had to be compensated (a tool which the Celtics used to great success).

Since 1988, free agency has fundamentally changed the league. It’s existence (and the protection of it) has been the cause of multiple clashes between the NBA Players Association and league ownership. That said, it’s undeniably helped to increase NBA competition and has coincided with a rise in league popularity to unprecedented levels.

And as Celtics fans can attest to, the league’s current system has the capacity to create some of the wildest off-seasons in any sport.