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NBA Waivers Explained

The terms such as “on waivers”, “expiring contract”or “the buyout market” get thrown around alot in the NBA. But what do they mean, when do they happen and can they affect the ultimate destination of the Larry O’brien trophy? We answer all this and more.

What are NBA Waivers? NBA players can be placed on waivers if they are released by their team during a season. The other teams have 48 hours to put in a claim for the waived player. If multiple teams claim the same player then the team with the lowest win percentage has first priority. Players would usually only be waived during the final year of their contract after agreeing a buy out price with their current team.

NBA teams must have sufficient salary cap space, roster space and potentially an appropriate contract exception available in order to sign a player from waivers. The introduction of the 2nd Tax Apron for the 2023-24 NBA season has changed the dynamics of NBA waivers, we are yet to see what impact this will have on a season.

That’s the technicality of it covered, but why would a team or player want this to happen? What’s the benefit and what impact can it have on an NBA season?

 Why do NBA teams Waive Players?

During every NBA season players can be waived and claimed at any time. A good place to keep track of it is on the official NBA transaction tracker, linked here. Typically you will see players waived ahead of the season starting. In October 2023 the NBA saw 238 players waived, these were mostly low level players that teams were taking a look at over the summer many will never feature in an Regular Season NBA game. November saw just 5 players waived. To contrast, in total in October and November 2023 just 2 players were signed via waivers.

There will be another wave of Waivers towards the end of January, early February as teams start to jockey and position themselves ahead of the trade deadline. Teams who waive players ahead of the trade deadline will largely fall into one of 4 categories at this point.

  • Title contenders looking to make additions to their roster via Waivers ahead of the playoffs clearing roster space.
  • Title contenders looking to make additions to their roster via trade ahead of the playoffs.
  • Teams looking to gain best draft position, wishing to lose veterans who may play ahead of developing talent or increase the chances of winning more than is required (tanking).
  • Teams receiving a player via trade that is not required.

It is during this mid-season waiver activity that the NBA will see established players being moved out via waivers. This in turn creates the market for teams to sign these players for the season run in and playoffs. A good example of this is Kevin Love being waived by the Cleveland Cavaliers on February the 18th 2023. He cleared the waiver period, with no team claiming him in the 48 hour window and then signed with the Miami Heat as a free agent on February 20th. Love then became a huge part of their postseason run, which saw them go from Play-in team to the NBA finals.

If the Miami Heat had claimed Love directly from Waivers they would have been liable for the remainder of his $28 million salary. Instead they signed him as a free agent, using their bi-annual exception, which meant they only paid him $3.8 million for the rest of the season.

Kevin Loves mis-season signing with the Heat was widely reported

The 4th seeded Cavaliers who ended up struggling to a first round exit at the hands of the 5th seeded Knicks, on the surface could have done with a veteran big man who had played in 4 NBA finals, is prepared to put his body on the line and has a cold as ice 3 point shot. However, Love after years of service to Cleveland had fallen out of the rotation in the final year of his contract. The Cavs were prioritizing their young front court like Jarret Allen and Evan Mobley and expected to be more than a match for their first round opponents. Letting Kevin Love go, as reported on by Ryan Lewis in the Akron Beacon Journal was an act of mutual respect. Even if it meant he would end up on an east coast rival.

NBA teams will have a variety of reasons for choosing to waive players. Squad size, salary cap, chemistry, respect for a veteran servant, prioritizing youth, receiving a player in a trade package that is surplus to their plans or even a player being injured in the final year of their contract. Often NBA teams will have a host of reasons for waiving a player. It doesn’t often mean that a player no longer has anything to offer on the court, for the right team as Kevin Love proved, a Waived player can be a lethal addition.

 Why do NBA players want to be waived?

NBA players will have many different reasons why they might be open to entering Waivers during an NBA season. Usually this would require them to be in the final year of their contract and open to giving up a portion of their guaranteed salary. Often this would be veteran players, on a team that either isn’t using them or doesn’t have plans to challenge for the playoffs.

In the NBA, teams aren’t always trying to “win now”. Often an NBA team will have a multi year plan to get to a place where they can challenge for an NBA title. This will often mean they have young players on their roster who they want to give game time to in order to push their development, regardless of results. This can be at the expense of veteran players getting the minutes their on court output commands. Usually there are no hard feelings in this situation, maybe the player is a long time servant of that team and both parties are happy with the split. It could be that the player arrived as a “salary addition” in a trade and the team never had any intention of using them as part of their core roster. This is known as an expiring contract. A team might have traded away a player with multiple years on their contract in order to get draft picks and “expiring contracts” they could waive to clear salary cap room and roster space for younger players. Veteran players who get waived mid-season are usually in the position where they need to be playing regular NBA basketball in order to secure their next contract as they are in the last year of their current one

 Common reasons an NBA player might wish to be waived by his team are listed below:

  • More playing minutes to earn their next contract.
  • Join a team contending for a title.
  • Arrived via trade and have no intention of relocating there.
  • Unhappy with the current playing situation.

We will look at some real examples of veteran NBA players who were waived mid-season to see the reasons the player might have been happy with it.

Ahead of the trade deadline in 2020 Markieff Morris was waived by a struggling Pistons team. The versatile forward was picked up by the Lakers who were pushing for a title powered by Lebron and Anthony Davis. Morris had started only 16 games for the Pistons who finished the season with just 20 wins. He went straight into the rotation for the Lakers and while he averaged less minutes was a massive contributor as the Lakers powered to the 2020 NBA title in the Orlando Bubble. For Morris, being waived by the Pistons was 100% about getting to a better basketball situation, he found it in LA winning his first and only NBA title.

5 time NBA champion Derek Fisher almost grabbed his sixth title in 2012 after being waived by the Houston Rockets. The long term Laker who had won 5 titles with Kobe Bryant was traded in March 2012 along with a 2012 first round draft pick to the Houston Rockets for Jordan Hill as the Lakers looked to retool with youth. Fisher never landed in Houston, hitting Waivers and ending up with the young OKC team alongside future MVPs Durant, Harden and Westbrook. This was a much better situation for the veteran point guard. He helped stabilize the Thunders second unit as the young side charged to the NBA Finals where they would run into the Heatles Buzz saw, losing in 5 to Lebron, Wade and Bosh. For Fisher he was traded from his long term franchise, he wouldn’t have been able to have an impact on the 9th seeded Rockets. A waiver buyout and joining a genuine contender was a great decision that almost netted him a 6th title!

Boris Diaw made a great career choice getting waived by Charlotte

Boris Diaw started the 2011 season just like he had the previous 3, playing for the hapless Charlotte Bobcats. Ahead of the trade deadline in 2012 he was waived by the Charlotte Bobcats and picked up after clearing Waivers by the San Antonio Spurs. He finished the 2012 season “playing for his supper” as he looked to impress teams ahead of signing a new contract for the following season. He was rewarded for his efforts as he signed a 4 year $17.5 million contract with the Spurs. He would feature for the Spurs in the next 2 NBA Finals, eventually winning a title in 2014 as the Spurs toppled the Heat. If Diaw had stayed with the Bobcats for the remainder of the 2011-12 season instead of getting waived he may never have had the second act of his career at the Spurs that he is now known for.

The experts at Clutch Points have a great breakdown of the 10 most successful NBA Waiver signings of all time.

Do waivers exist in sports other than the NBA?

A waiver system of some kind exists in all of the major North American sports leagues. NHL, NFL and MLB. The rules and terms differ slightly to the NBA, but essentially they work the same.

An interesting comparison to look at is European Football. In European Football player contracts work differently as the players sign a unique contract with each club they play for. If a player is sold (traded) then their old contract is terminated and they are free to sign a fresh contract with the team they are joining. This system means there is no need for a “Waiver” set up. Players that are no longer required by a team are usually sold on, depending on their age, ability and contract length the transfer fee paid for them can vary significantly.

There is another quirk in European football that negates the need for Waivers. Where an NBA team would need to play a young player themselves in order to  get them precious elite level experience, a European Football team can “loan them out”. This means that another team, often in a different league, would take on their contract for a short amount of time and deploy them within their squad. Usually this is used for young players to develop, however sometimes it is used for veteran players or big signings that have failed to make the impact that was expected. Loaning them out would have the purpose of either helping them regain their form so they can return, or boosting their transfer value so they can be sold on in the next transfer (trade) window.

How will the new 2nd Tax Apron affect the NBA waiver market?

The 2023-24 NBA saw the introduction of the NBA’s second tax apron. This Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) mechanism is designed to limit teams blowing past the salary cap and going deep into the luxury tax. It does more than simply increase the costs for owners (although it certainly does that as well!) It aims to restrict a teams ability to keep adding players and salary to their squad once past the second apron. One of the ways it does this is to prevent teams over the second tax apron from signing players from Waivers. 

Picking up playoff hardened veterans late in the season on cheap contracts has been a key way title chasing franchises have looked to bolster their rosters for the final push. They aren’t looking to fill the starting spots with these players, but as rotations shorten in the Playoffs having experience coming off your bench can be vital.

Going forward teams over either tax apron will be prevented from signing a player waived during the regular season if that player’s pre-waiver salary was larger than the non-taxpayer mid level exception which is $12.2 million for the 2023-24 season.

This means no more cut price bargain waiver players for the post season for teams over the first tax apron. Teams could still pick up players whose annual salary was below the mid-level exception, however this would limit the experience and talent they were looking for.

ESPNs Zach Lowe and NBA CBA expert Bobby Marks discussed this in length on the Lowe Post Podcast ahead of the season.

We wrote extensively about the potential impact of the NBA’s second tax apron at Basketball Noise, which can be found here.

The team over at Spotrac keep all teams salary position up to date, so you can see as the mid-season waivers period approaches, what teams will and won’t be able to pick up key veterans for the playoff push.

Click image to view Sportrac salary cap data in full