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The secret heroes of NBA free agency are the team of lawyers who worked around the clock to review $1.9 billion in contracts this summer

Scott Davis   

The secret heroes of NBA free agency are the team of lawyers who worked around the clock to review $1.9 billion in contracts this summer
  • A team of lawyers, called the salary cap team, presides over nearly every NBA transaction.
  • This team is crucial for reviewing contracts and enforcing rules in free agency, when teams spend billions on contracts.

At the center of the biggest transactions in the NBA is a team of erudite — if sometimes sleep-deprived — lawyers and capologists.

Referred to as the "salary cap" or "player matters" team, this group, to put it simply, makes sure NBA teams are abiding by the collective bargaining agreement (CBA).

Throughout the year, teams rely on them for compliance matters and salary cap questions, getting advice on how to go forward with transactions, whether it's trades or signings.

This group is especially crucial in the free agency frenzy from late June to early July. Teams call the salary cap group to make sure their contracts work financially, that the language is correct, and more.

"I would say 90% to 95% of the contracts that are signed in the league, we see a draft of them before they're actually signed by the team or the player," said Vice President & Assistant General Counsel Katelyn West. "And teams routinely send those in to us and ask us to take kind of a courtesy review to make sure that all looks okay.

"There's usually a lot of money on the line there."

Indeed, according to the NBA, this past summer alone, teams spent $600 million on contracts for the 2022-23 season alone and $1.9 billion over the total length of those deals.

NBA free agency is often a scramble, with teams rushing to sign available players and doing it in a particular order to abide by salary-cap restrictions. That rush puts the onus on the salary cap team to be on call.

During free agency, the team sets up in a war room, where it routinely fields calls from front offices. When they're not on the phone advising teams on the rules, they're reviewing contract after contract, often working long into the night. West, who joined the NBA in 2018, described working until 4:30 in the morning, going home to get a few hours of sleep, then returning to review more contracts.

During these reviews, the legal team is parsing for any mistakes or areas of confusion — does the math check out on the allowable raises per season? Is the language around incentive-based bonuses clear enough?

Precision is key here, and West said that although she may be guilty of over-editing at times, when it comes to contract language, it's warranted.

"There are a lot of nuanced rules," she told Insider. "A lot of times, teams don't sign all that many contracts a year. We see hundreds. So we have a lot more familiarity with some of the smaller rules that teams just might not be as familiar with."

There are occasional gray areas in this work. As West noted, the CBA outlines what is allowed, but can't possibly cover everything that is not allowed. Teams will occasionally call, apparently prodding about what they can get away with.

As Houston Rockets GM Rafael Stone told The New York Times in 2019: "People like me come along and start bunking with it because my job is different. My job is to try to take advantage of the loopholes."

West and her team then have to make a decision: "Is this more like X thing that we've allowed in the past or more like Y thing that we've not allowed in the past?"

"A big part of what we do in the trade context and in the contract context is try ... analogizing to things that have happened in the past," she said. "So we do, I think, a really good job of keeping precedent."

Never a dull moment

If practically memorizing a 600-page legal document and analyzing contracts doesn't exactly sound like a sports fan's dream, West insists the salary cap team has fun, even during those late nights.

A perk of the job is getting insight into what teams are planning. They're ultimate insiders, privy to the league's biggest news long before it breaks, and West said it is amusing to piece together clues of what's going down.

"We generally get a good chuckle out of, like, one team calling me and asking a question and five minutes later, another team calling a coworker of mine asking a similar question," West said. "And if it's trade-related, we sense that those two teams are in trade talks."

A little-known fact to some NBA fans: Before a trade is agreed upon, the teams must call the league office to discuss the parameters of the trade with the salary cap team to make sure everything complies with the CBA. Once they're clear, only then can they agree to it and make it official.

"So, if they're asking us about the same kind of protection on a certain [draft] pick, we have a sense that something's brewing there, even though neither has said anything to us yet."

Asked for a memorable transaction that wowed even the salary cap team, West offered a wry smile but said teams wouldn't appreciate her spilling the beans about how long certain moves were in the works.

"It's obviously really important in our group to maintain confidentiality," West said. "Our teams have a lot of trust in us, and we're super tight-lipped about what goes on."

Still, West said she's constantly surprised by the goings-on in the league.

"There are new questions that come up every day. I thought that with 30 teams and 450 players, basically any issue that could arise would have surfaced already," she said.

"I am truly surprised that we get new and interesting questions all the time — from teams, the Players Association, league office colleagues — and I think to myself, 'How has that not happened before? How has nobody asked us that in the past?' But it happens all the time."

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