Does the NBA Have a Salary Cap? A Complete Guide

Jimmy Remland
By Jimmy Remland 8 Min Read
8 Min Read

The NBA salary cap is a crucial mechanism that influences team rosters, player contracts, and the overall competitive balance within the league. This article will explore the NBA salary cap, how it is determined, the various exceptions and penalties associated with it, and its impact on team operations.

Does the NBA Have a Salary Cap?

The NBA salary cap is a limit on the total amount of money that NBA teams can spend on player salaries. Unlike the NFL’s hard cap, the NBA uses a “soft cap” system, allowing teams some flexibility to exceed the cap under certain conditions. For the 2023-24 season, the salary cap is set at $136 million​.

Determining the Salary Cap

The salary cap is tied to the league’s revenue, specifically the Basketball Related Income (BRI). This is outlined in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between the NBA and the players’ union. The cap is calculated as a percentage of the projected BRI for the upcoming season, with adjustments made based on actual revenue from previous seasons.

Luxury Tax and Penalties

The luxury tax is imposed on teams that exceed the salary cap by a certain margin. For the 2023-24 season, the luxury tax threshold is $165 million. Teams that exceed this threshold face incremental tax rates based on how far they go over the limit. For example, spending $5 million over the threshold incurs a tax rate of $1.50 per dollar, while spending $20 million over incurs a rate of $3.25 per dollar​​.

Here is a breakdown of the luxury tax rates for the 2023-24 season:

Amount Over Threshold Standard Tax Rate Repeat Offender Rate
$0 – $4,999,999 $1.50 per dollar $2.50 per dollar
$5,000,000 – $9,999,999 $1.75 per dollar $2.75 per dollar
$10,000,000 – $14,999,999 $2.50 per dollar $3.50 per dollar
$15,000,000 – $19,999,999 $3.25 per dollar $4.25 per dollar
Over $20,000,000 $3.75 per dollar + $0.50 per $5M $4.75 per dollar + $0.50 per $5M

Salary Cap Exceptions

The NBA’s soft cap system includes several exceptions that allow teams to exceed the cap in specific situations. These exceptions include:

  1. Mid-Level Exception (MLE): Allows teams to sign players to contracts even if they are over the cap. The amount varies depending on the team’s cap status. For example, teams over the cap but under the luxury tax can use the full MLE, while teams over the tax can only use a reduced version​​.
  2. Bi-Annual Exception: Can be used to sign a player for up to two years at a set amount. This exception can be used once every two years by teams above the cap but not above the tax apron.
  3. Bird Rights: Allow teams to re-sign their own free agents at higher salaries than they could offer other teams, even if it pushes them over the cap.


Impact on Team Operations

The salary cap influences various aspects of team management, including free agency, trades, and contract negotiations. Teams must strategize to balance their payroll while aiming to build a competitive roster. Penalties for exceeding the cap, such as the luxury tax and trading restrictions, create a dynamic environment where financial planning is as crucial as on-court performance.

Salary Cap Aprons and Their Implications

The NBA salary cap system also includes two specific thresholds above the luxury tax level, known as salary cap aprons. These aprons introduce additional penalties aimed at restricting team flexibility.

First Salary Apron – $172 Million

At the first salary apron level, teams face several restrictions:

  • No Sign-and-Trade: Teams cannot acquire players via sign-and-trade if the trade keeps them above this threshold.
  • Salary Matching Restrictions: In trades, teams must ensure the incoming salary does not exceed 110% of the outgoing salary.
  • Limited Free Agent Signings: Teams cannot sign players waived during the regular season for more than the mid-level exception (MLE), complicating late-season roster enhancements​.

Second Salary Apron – $182 Million

The second salary apron, introduced in the 2023 CBA, brings even stricter penalties:

  • No Aggregating Salaries: Teams cannot combine the salaries of multiple players to match a higher-value player’s salary in a trade.
  • No Cash in Trades: Teams are prohibited from including cash considerations in trades.
  • No Trade Exceptions: Teams cannot use trade exceptions generated in previous transactions.
  • Future Draft Pick Restrictions: Teams cannot trade first-round picks more than seven years into the future​.

These restrictions make it increasingly difficult for teams to manage their rosters and maintain flexibility if they exceed these aprons, encouraging more prudent financial management.

Multiple Offenses and Repeat Offender Penalties

Teams that repeatedly exceed the luxury tax threshold face even harsher penalties. If a team exceeds the tax level for three out of four seasons, they are subject to increased tax rates and further restrictions on player acquisitions. For instance, the luxury tax rate for repeat offenders is significantly higher, creating a substantial financial burden​.

Practical Implications for Teams

Teams like the Golden State Warriors and Brooklyn Nets have often operated above the luxury tax and apron thresholds due to their high payrolls. For example, the Warriors’ payroll for the 2021-22 season was approximately $178 million, with an additional $170 million in luxury tax payments, making their total payroll cost around $348 million​.

Despite these high costs, teams with substantial financial resources might choose to pay these penalties to maintain a competitive edge. However, for smaller-market teams, these penalties can be prohibitive, making it crucial to manage their salary cap effectively to stay competitive.

Final Words

Understanding the NBA salary cap, its associated penalties, and exceptions is vital for teams to navigate the complexities of building a competitive roster while managing financial constraints. The dynamic nature of the cap system, with its annual adjustments and intricate rules, requires careful planning and strategic decision-making. By leveraging the available exceptions and adhering to the cap’s guidelines, teams can optimize their rosters and remain competitive in the ever-evolving landscape of the NBA.

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