What Is a Trade Kicker in the NBA?

New Orleans Hornets v Los Angeles Clippers

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A trade kicker—also called a trade bonus—is a contract clause that requires increasing an NBA player's salary in the event of a trade. Trade kickers are one of the issues that can make NBA trades difficult to complete.

Trade Kickers Kick In

During the 2009-10 season, Devin Brown of the New Orleans Hornets was able to block a trade because he refused to waive a kicker in his contract. The Hornets did eventually trade Brown to the Chicago Bulls, but Chicago had to pick up—and pay Brown—the $107,075 in bonus money he was owed. Concurrently, the Hornets were able to save that same amount against the salary cap, freeing up a bit of extra money to spend on other players.

Clearly, refusal to waive a trade kicker doesn't guarantee that a player won't be traded. Just before the trade deadline in January 2018, the Los Angeles Clippers dealt Blake Griffin to the Detroit Pistons, who agreed to pay his salary plus the trade kicker. Although Griffin's trade kicker was 15 percent, which would be more than $4 million. But Griffin had to settle for $215,000 per year because a trade kicker can’t increase a player’s pay to more than the maximum salary. Still, the trade guaranteed Blake a four-year total bonus of $860,000. 

Trade Considerations

New York Knicks player Carmelo Anthony had a huge trade kicker in his contract in 2015, when there was speculation that he might be traded to Brooklyn after the Nets posted a particularly poor record that season. But, his trade kicker made this almost impossible, as Dan Feldman of NBC Sports explained.

"Anthony’s contract contains a 15% trade kicker, which means if traded, he gets a bonus of 15% of the contract’s remaining value (including the season following his early termination option) from the Knicks," Feldman said. "That bonus is allocated across the remaining years of his contract."

The Poison Pill

It's not just about the money. Trying to trade Anthony would have necessitated paying him his trade bonus. "But there’s the major catch," Feldman noted. "Anthony’s compensation—salary plus trade bonus—in the season of the trade can’t exceed his maximum salary as defined by years of service or 105% his previous salary, whichever is greater."

This made trading Anthony essentially impossible—unless he waived his bonus—making the trade kicker the equivalent of a poison pill. The irony is that the bonus was so high not because Anthony was playing hardball but because he took a smaller raise that season to give the Knicks extra salary cap space.

Wild Speculation

Trade kickers have long provoked wide speculation when discussing trade rumors. For example, Hoop Rumors ran an article in 2016 listing 30 NBA players together with their trade kickers, which ranged from 5 to 15 percent. Ironically, it's the teams themselves that have come to see trade kickers as an effective bargaining strategy—blocking other franchises from acquiring their best players. Trade kickers "represent one of the tools teams have to differentiate their free-agent offers from the deals competing clubs put on the table," notes Hoop Rumors.

The trade kicker, which might have initially looked like a nice bonus for players, has instead become a means for teams to lock their best players in place—and keep them where they are.