NBPA wins Jeremy Lin Bird Rights case in arbitration with NBA

Jeremy Lin. (Getty Images)

In a surprising legal twist, an arbitrator has sided with the National Basketball Players Association over the NBA in a dispute concerning whether players who are claimed off of waivers should have access to Bird Rights or early bird rights.

What's the big deal? The goal of Bird Rights, a staple of the NBA's collective bargaining agreement for decades, is to allow incumbent teams every right to keep their own players rather than watch them depart in free agency by making it significantly easier to retain their services, especially if the team is over the salary cap. 

The NBPA issued this statement regarding the ruling.

Arbitrator Kenneth Dam today affirmed the National Basketball Players Association’s position that players claimed off waivers retain their valuable “Bird” and “Early Bird” rights when they become free agents. As a result of the arbitrator’s decision, Jeremy Lin and Steve Novak of the New York Knicks will enter the 2012-13 free agency period with “Early Bird” rights, and Chauncey Billups of the Los Angeles Clippers and J.J. Hickson of the Portland Trailblazers will enter the 2012-13 free agency period with full “Bird” rights. Future players claimed off waivers will likewise benefit from today’s ruling.

“Bird and Early Bird rights are the lynchpin of our Soft Cap system, and we’re pleased that Professor Dam recognized that a player does not forfeit these important rights unless he makes an affirmative decision to sign with a new team as a free agent,” NBPA Executive Director Billy Hunter said. “Players fought hard for a Collective Bargaining Agreement that allows maximum flexibility for free agent players while also permitting teams to retain their core free agents, and today’s decision affirms both of these important principles.”

The New York Times reports that the NBA will appeal the ruling.

As noted in the NBPA's statement, the case affects four players: New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin, Knicks forward Steve Novak, Los Angeles Clippers guard Chauncey Billups and Portland Trail Blazers forward J.J. Hickson.

The Knicks are currently over the salary cap. This ruling allows them to re-sign Lin and Novak using "Early Bird Rights" without needing to use their mid-level exception. In other words, the Knicks are now free to spend real money to retain both players rather than trying to squeeze them into an exception. In turn, that exception can instead be used to add another free agent.

Billups, who was claimed in December 2011 after he was amnestied by the Knicks, is currently sidelined with a serious Achilles injury, so his future is not clear. However, the Clippers, who are also expected to be over the salary cap, would be able to re-sign him without using their exceptions.

Hickson, who was claimed by the Blazers after he was released by the Sacramento Kings, is in a slightly different situation. The Blazers are currently under the salary cap, meaning they can sign Hickson using their salary cap space. However, they could also sign free agents or execute trades that put them over the salary cap and then re-sign Hickson once that's complete, without needing to use their mid-level exception.

The ruling winds up being a huge win for the players, particularly Lin, who are now free to seek bigger-dollar deals from their incumbent teams. It's also a big win for the Knicks, in particular, because it gives them the ability to retain two key players and the flexibility to use their exceptions to add other free agents.

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