How to fix the NBA buyout market

Nets big LaMarcus Aldridge, who took buyout with Spurs
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
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Step one: Don’t.

The buyout market has become the NBA’s hot-button issue. But fretting has been driven by small-market paranoia and misplaced big-name hype. The system could remain as is without issue.

Yes, LaMarcus Aldridge (Brooklyn Nets), Blake Griffin (Brooklyn Nets) and Andre Drummond (Los Angeles Lakers) chose big-market teams after buyouts this year. But bought-out players have chosen a variety of situations over a larger period of time.

In 2019, Enes Kanter signed with the Trail Blazers over the Lakers. Wesley Matthews signed with the Pacers. Wayne Ellington signed with the Pistons. Even this year, Gorgui Dieng signed with the Spurs.

Aldridge, Griffin and Drummond are also no longer stars. They could help their new teams in limited roles. But plenty of role players change teams without this much handwringing. See Dieng. The biggest difference is Aldridge, Griffin and Drummond carry a higher status because they used to be stars. Name recognition from years ago doesn’t affect winning in 2021.

Still, both teams and players have expressed issues with how things unfolded this year. When those factions align, the Collective Bargaining Agreement could change.

Current system

A quick reminder how buyouts work now: A team and player agree to reduce the amount of guaranteed money he’s owed in exchange for the team waiving him. The team saves money. The player, assuming he clears waivers, becomes an unrestricted free agent.

Too many solutions to the buyout “problem” fail to acknowledge that buyouts better allocate playing services. If the number of buyouts were reduced (either by capping the number of bought-out players a team could sign or moving up the playoff-eligibility date for waived players), more helpful players would be stuck wallowing on losing teams that don’t want them instead of on good teams that do.

That’s not good for the league. That’s not good for the players. That’s not good for the original teams. That’s not good for the potential new teams.

Buyouts should remain just as available to teams and players. If anything should change, it’s how bought-out players get to their next team.

The common ground between teams and players is wanting more competitive balance. Which means limiting player movement.

My proposal

Let teams – and bought-out players – bid.

When a player and team agree to a buyout, the amount of money the player is willing to give up becomes the opening bid.

Teams can bid with cap space or exceptions they have. If a team wins the auction, it acquires the player. The amount of the winning bid goes onto the new team’s payroll and gets removed from the prior team’s payroll.

The player can also bid. If he wins the auction, he becomes an unrestricted free agent. The amount of the winning bid is subtracted from his salary and removed from the prior team’s payroll.

Under this system:

  • The player’s original team would get maximum salary relief.
  • All other teams would have an opportunity to acquire the player.
  • If the player badly enough wants to enter free agency before his original contract ends, he can still do so (provided his team agrees to a buyout in the first place).

There are downsides to this plan – primarily for bought-out players. They wouldn’t get to choose their new team unless sacrificing more money.

But the highest-bidding team would tend to value the player and plan to play him more than other teams would. And the player would be under team control no longer than his contract originally specified. It’d be like he were traded.

The teams that would have signed bought-out players as free agents also suffer. But which teams are in that position varies. Even if big-market teams have an advantage, there’d be little sympathy for them, anyway.

This plan is inspired by amnesty waivers. So, there’s at least a chance the union – which reflexively defends freedom of movement for players – would go for it. Sometimes, the most directly affected players sacrifice for the desires of the greater union membership.

Again, players would remain under team control only as long as they originally agreed in their contracts. Buyouts would be a partial, not fully open, path to early free agency.

Admittedly, this is a solution is search of a problem. To that end, my plan specifically targets the buyout market.

The bigger issue is tanking. Bad teams would be less inclined to buy out their helpful players if they were incentivized to win rather than lose late in the season.

But tanking has been a problem for many years without adequate solutions. Buyouts are getting buzz now. There could be momentum for buyout-rule revisions – especially if Aldridge and Griffin or Drummond help their new team win a title.

Of course, no matter what happens in the playoffs, that perfectly reasonable alternative also remains:

Change nothing.