Why December 15 Is the Unofficial Start of NBA Trade Season

December 15 on the NBA calendar has enormous significance. That is the date each year when most players who signed new contracts during the offseason become trade-eligible. More than 100 players become trade-eligible this season on December 15 (though there many of them have additional restrictions).

These restrictions stem from the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association. The evolution of the December 15 deadline sprang primarily from the 2011 CBA when language in the agreement redefined trade eligibility.

Trade restrictions closed loopholes teams could exploit

The NBA instituted a salary cap in 1984 in part because the Cleveland Cavaliers and Indiana Pacers, along with the Utah Jazz, were in danger of folding.
The NBA instituted a salary cap in 1984 in part because the Cleveland Cavaliers and Indiana Pacers, along with the Utah Jazz, were in danger of folding. | Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The NBA instituted the salary cap in 1984–85 as part of the CBA negotiations in 1983. According to the Los Angeles Times, the players agreed to the cap to guarantee 53% of revenues. The NBPA was the first union in a major North American sports league to agree to a cap. They did so to preserve roster positions.

In 1983, payrolls varied widely, and three teams — the Cleveland Cavaliers, Indiana Pacers, and Utah Jazz — were in danger of folding. Negotiators for the NBA presented the cap as the only alternative to losing a minimum of 36 jobs.

The cap worked. Not only did the Cavaliers, Pacers, and Jazz survive, but the league expanded by four teams in 1988 and 1989, added two more clubs in 1995, and grew to its present 30 franchises in 2004. The process required periodic adjustments.

The term “base year compensation” entered the CBA to prevent teams from signing players to salaries intended to facilitate trades. When a team was over the cap and re-signed a player using Bird rights, the BYC clause all but eliminated the ability of clubs to negotiate salaries specifically for trade purposes.

The December 15 moratorium originated in the 2011 CBA

December 15 is a big day for the New York Knicks, as it's the first day under the NBA Collective Bargaining agreement they can look to move Kemba Walker in a trade.
December 15 is a big day for the New York Knicks, as it’s the first day under the NBA Collective Bargaining agreement they can look to move Kemba Walker in a trade. | Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

In 2011, the NBA locked the players out for more than five months. The BYC clause disappeared in the subsequent agreement. A system of conditions that prevented trades took its place.

According to Larry Coon’s NBA Salary Cap FAQ, the trade prohibitions include:

  • Teams can’t trade players acquired in a trade for two months if the trade aggregates the player’s salary with those of other players. The team can still trade such a player, but only by himself or without aggregating other salaries in the deal.
  • When the trade deadline has passed. The prohibition ends when the team’s season is over.
  • For 30 days after signing a draft pick. This clause caused the delay of the Kevin Love trade to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014. The Cavaliers needed the 30-day window to pass before including Andrew Wiggins.
  • For a year after signing a player to a supermax contract.
  • For 30 days after claiming a player off waivers.

The December 15 deadline applies to players signing contracts during the offseason. It’s three months or until December 15 (whichever is later) before those players are trade-eligible. Sign-and-trade arrangements are exempt from this.

This year, according to Hoops Rumors, 105 players become trade-eligible on December 15. But there are still some additional conditions. Of the 105 players, 19 must give permission because they signed one-year contracts and will gain Bird rights at the end of the season.

So while no one in the NBA has a negotiated no-trade clause in their contract, these 19 players can block a deal due to the nature of their contracts.

Exceptions to the December 15 moratorium

While many NBA players become trade-eligible on December 15, Joel Embiid can't be traded this season.
While many NBA players become trade-eligible on December 15, Joel Embiid can’t be traded this season. | Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

Some players will become eligible for trades later than December 15. If a player re-signed using Bird rights, their team is over the salary cap, and the player received a raise of more than 20%, the team can’t trade them until January 15. Per Hoops Rumors, there are 18 players in this category. Two of those also fall under the one-year contracts and upcoming Bird rights restriction and must approve a trade.

Six players signed who extensions last summer won’t become trade-eligible until after February 10, according to Marc Stein on Substack. They are Clint Capela of the Atlanta Hawks, Aaron Gordon of the Denver Nuggets, Malcolm Brogdon of the Pacers, Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers, Daniel Gafford of the Washington Wizards, and Terence Mann of the Los Angeles Clippers.

Additionally, the Milwaukee Bucks can’t trade DeMarcus Cousins. He signed on November 30 and won’t be with them long enough before the trade deadline.

Rumors are swirling around stars such as Ben Simmons, among others. Thus, the arrival of December 15 opens new avenues for potential deals that weren’t previously open. That’s why the unofficial opening of NBA trade season is December 15.

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