Bought-out players typically sign for a prorated portion of the minimum salary, allowing their new teams to add talent without regard for the salary cap. “It’s a definite concern,” says another team executive working in a small market. “Without a doubt, players that are entering the buyout market will only be looking at contending teams. And most of the time, historically, their preference has been to go to the teams in the bigger markets…. And it gives teams an opportunity to sit back and add players on minimum deals that they normally wouldn’t be able to acquire.”
Nevertheless, the Lakers just got a player recently valued at close to $30 million for relative pennies, despite being far over the cap and without having to trade a single player or draft pick. “The system is flawed,” says a third small-market GM. “You shouldn’t be adding to your team this deep in a season without giving things up.”
Aldridge (35) and Griffin (32) are both past their primes, but they are still solid players, and an incredible luxury for a Nets team already stocked with elite scorers. Aldridge’s contract with the Spurs paid $24 million this season (minus a reported $7.25 million buyout). Griffin’s contract was worth $36.8 million this season, and another $38.9 million next season (minus a reported $13.3 million buyout). The Nets just got them both for $2.1 million combined. “This is creating a competitive advantage for the large, destination markets,” says the first team exec. “And it’s another inequity for the small markets.”
When a player grows discontented, he pushes for a trade. When no trade materializes, he pushes to get released or bought out. Teams feel pressure to agree, out of fear of alienating agents or being perceived as indifferent to a player’s wishes. Those things can haunt a team, especially a small-market one, when free agency rolls around. “It’s very, very hard for the small markets or mid markets to say we’re not gonna buy you out,” said one small-market GM, “because you can’t get players there anyway. If you don’t do them favors, an agent will say, ‘I’m not gonna bring my guys to you.’”
But midseason buyouts used to be much rarer. The phrase buyout market was rarely used around the NBA until about 2016, according to a Nexis search, but it spiked two years later and has become a permanent part of the lexicon. Some team executives have pushed for reform, to no avail. One suggestion is to make buyout players ineligible for the playoffs unless they have been released at some date before the trade deadline—say, in early February—thus incentivizing teams to trade for the players. Another option would be to create a compensation system, in which the team signing the player has to send a draft pick (or possibly multiple picks, depending on the player) to the player’s former team.
A third proposal would be to give each team a cap exception specifically for buyout signings—and limit it to one per season, or even one every two years. A fourth option would be to have teams place a blind bid for bought-out players, using whatever cap room or cap exceptions they have available, with the player awarded to the highest bidder. The small-market execs hope the issue gets addressed in the next CBA, which would begin in 2024, after the current deal expires. But they are not particularly optimistic. As they see it, NBA officials are driven by marketing and money, and having marquee names congregate in glamor markets, or on title contenders, is good for ratings.
Many of 108 those players – the same ones who helped create the style of game that is today’s multi-billion-dollar NBA – are struggling, worn out and desperate. They are in their late 60s, 70s and 80s. Some are homeless, living under bridges. Some die alone with no money for a gravestone. Others can’t even afford dentures or a new suit to go to church. “They should have already done it,” McHartley said, of the NBA. “So many guys have missed out. Think of how many of us have passed and never got anything.”