NBA Offseason: Restricted free agency is too restrictive

Matisse Thybulle #4 of the Portland Trail Blazers NBA (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)
Matisse Thybulle #4 of the Portland Trail Blazers NBA (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images) /

There were reports today that Matisse Thybulle was upset that the Trail Blazers matched the offer sheet that he signed with Dallas. It seems like every season there is at least one player who returns to a team with which he has been unhappy via restricted free agency. Last year, it was Deandre Ayton and the Suns.

Restricted free agency is designed to be a way for a player who can’t agree on an extension with the team that drafted him to test the market while the team still retains some rights. It used to be the case that when a player signed an offer sheet, his original team had three options: match the offer, let the player walk, or negotiate a trade with the team that signed.

That third option has now been eliminated. If a team wants to do a sign-and-trade, it has to work it out before the offer sheet is signed. Once the offer sheet is signed, not only can there be no sign-and-trade, but if the original team matches the offer, it cannot trade the player to the other team for a year.

The problem with restricted free agency.

There are two problems with this, as I see it. First, the ability to match the offer sheet assumes that the player signed the offer sheet based solely on the money involved. Let’s face it, Thybulle would have been a rich guy even if he had signed for the minimum salary. Clearly, a player with his skill set was certain to get a multi-year deal that would set him up for life. When a player finds himself in that situation, maybe money isn’t the most important part of the deal.

Maybe Thybulle has some attachment to Dallas that we don’t know about. Maybe he would rather play with Luca Doncic than whatever is left in Portland after Damian Lillard gets traded. Maybe the fact that Oregon has a high income tax and Texas has none factored into his thinking. Maybe he just doesn’t like the weather in Portland, although, having grown up in Seattle, he should be used to it.

Here’s the other problem: You can divide the players in the NBA into three basic groups. There are the elite players, the top 100–150, who are going to help whatever team they land on. At the other end are the replacement-level guys, who are basically interchangeable with the best players in the G League and are just hoping to hang on from year to year.

That leaves the middle class—two or three hundred guys who have enough talent to help a team but need to find the right team to maximize their talent. These guys need a coach who knows how to use them, a system that fits their skills, a support staff that helps them be ready to play, and maybe a culture where they are comfortable.

For these guys, signing with the right team can be the difference between a ten-year career and flaming out much sooner. These considerations matter much more than how much a player will make next season. Thybulle has already been through this, as he was bumped to the back end of Doc Rivers’ rotation in Philadelphia before being traded to Portland, where he got more playing time and enhanced his value on the free agent market. Now Thybulle wants to play with Dallas. His reasons aren’t important; if that’s what he wants, the system shouldn’t make it so difficult.

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I know, restricted free agency is supposed to be restricted. That means the team has more power than the player, and that’s fine. Thybulle had the right to sign Portland’s qualifying offer and come back next year as an unrestricted free agent. But taking away the ability to work out a sign-and-trade after the offer sheet is signed creates the potential for a situation where nobody is.