2. The Wizards MUST Void Gilbert Arenas' Contract

This is sort of in-depth and pedantic, so if you’re not a Wizards fan, feel free to move along…

If you’re a regular reader of NBA Talking Points, you may remember this post from a few weeks ago, when I rejoiced after Gilbert Arenas pled guilty to felony gun charges. At the time, I had this to say:

And because of this felony charge, and Gilbert’s impending guility plea, the franchise will likely be able to void Gilbert’s contract, and re-build about five years earlier than expected. Rather than five seasons of gritting our teeth, pretending that we can win with Gilbert, and gradually realizing the futility of it all, the Wizards get a fresh start. That’s not just lucky; it’s a freaking miracle.

Now, I thought that was the end of it. In the weeks leading up to that post, basketball folks all echoed a similar refrain. “It’ll be really, really hard to void that contract. But if he’s convicted of a felony… then, all bets are off.” So when Arenas pled guilty to felony two weeks ago, that was the end of it, as far as I was concerned. A void was a foregone conclusion, right? Done and done.

Except… There are still voices out there saying this cannot, or should not, be done. Which is just indescribably naive, masquerading as experienced “with the process” and “the way the league works” and blah blah blah. Uh uh. Whether the Wizards void Gilbert Arenas’ contract isn’t an option; it’s an imperative. For the franchise, first of all, but more than that, for the fans. Am I writing this in response to all the Wizards writers out there hemming and hawing over whether to make this move? Yes, yes I am.

It’s not a choice. When Gilbert Arenas pled guilty to that felony, he sealed his fate. Fair or not, them’s the breaks. There are some who contend that what Gilbert did “is not a $90 million mistake,” but then… What if none of this happened? The Wizards would have suffered through another five seasons with Gilbert Arenas as the face of the franchise, hobbling around and hoisting 3s with 22 seconds on the shot clock. Why? Because they made a bad business decision when they signed an injured Gilbert Arenas to a long-term max contract. It’s a business, and the Wizards would have had to live with their bad business decision.

And Gilbert—who made a really, really, really bad business decision when he decided to bring four guns to the Wizards locker room—will have to live with his. When he brought guns into their Washington D.C. locker room, Arenas was committing a felony, and leaving himself vulnerable to the whims of the Wizards. Is it fair that Arenas’ mistake gives the Wizards a “Get Out of Jail Free” card? Maybe not, but Gilbert Arenas has damaged his reputation beyond repair, and can never play for the Wizards again. Would it be fair for the Wizards to pay him 40 or 50 million in a buyout? No.

Which means voiding the contract is really the only option, here. Can they do it? Absolutely. I spoke with the New York Times’ Larry Coon yesterday, who penned a recent article outlining why the NBA might prefer that the Wizards don’t attempt to void Arenas’ current 6 year, $111 million contract. In his article, Coon mentions that the NBA's planning on including new language in a 2011 Collective Bargaining Agreement that would clearly outline circumstances that allow for teams to void player contracts. If the Wizards succeed here, it would be at a detriment to the league’s ultimate goal, to construct air tight language in the new CBA.

And while there may well be some credence to the NBA’s reasoning, that’s not a reason for the Wizards to care. This is about the future of the franchise, not the future of 29 others. The NBA’s collective bargaining negotiations are not Washington’s concern. Still, Coon expressed his reservations, both in the article and to me, yesterday.

He made the same mistake that virtually everyone has made so far in this process—citing Latrell Sprewell as the overriding precedent here.

He’s the only player in NBA history to have his contract terminated, and he eventually had that decision overrulled by an arbitrator, who cited a “double jeopardy” clause in the CBA. Basically, a player can only be punished once for a given offense. As Coon explained to SB Nation’s Wizards blogger Mike Prada yesterday:

I look at it this way. If it’s double jeopardy, then the only way a team could void is if there’s moral turpitude sans league penalty. But the more severe the action, the more likely there will be a league penalty. Voiding would therefore only be available for “lesser” offenses. The more severe the infraction, the more likely the league penalty, therefore the more severe the penalty the LESS likely the team voids.

And while Coon concedes that “this makes no sense,” he nevertheless told me that as far as double jeopardy is concerned, “Sprewell was precedent that it was.” And that’s the center of this. The flawed reasoning that’s governing this debate—not Coon’s, necessarily, he’s just relaying the NBA’s logic—is clouding the issue.

To reiterate Coon: “The more severe the infraction … the LESS likely the team voids.” … Huh?

If that’s indeed the logic that governs these proceedings, then it’s ripe for a challenge in the court of law. And in that case, Latrell Sprewell is hardly a precedent. Sprewell was never charged or convicted of any crime. Ultimately, his most severe infraction in the eyes of the law was violating terms of his employment contract, a transgression for which he was punished severely (68 games, about $6 million in salary). Double jeopardy makes sense there.

But Arenas was charged with a crime, and it was a felony, to boot. In the eyes of an independent arbitrator, that will be very difficult to ignore. He was punished for a violation of league rules, yes, but by committing a felony, he also left himself vulnerable to termination. It’s hard to definitively argue the morals of an altercation in an NBA practice (as with Sprewell), but it’s not hard to point to a felony and say, “Look! Moral turpitude.”

It seemed innocuous when it was just Wizards writers worried about voiding the contract, but when someone as brilliant as Coon—his website might be the most indispensable NBA resource on the internet—weighs in with a wrongheaded take, I get concerned. This shouldn’t be that complicated.

For now, the Wizards would be wise to wait until March 26th, when Arenas is sentenced. At that point, as a repeat offender, he’ll probably get jail time. And whether it’s 60 days, 30 days, or even 1 day, the Wizards will be able to show an arbitrator that not only did Arenas’ felony irreprably damage the team’s reputation and ability to employ him, but that at one point he was phsyically incacerated, and unable to fulfill the terms of his contract. Don’t be fooled by the bluster from NBA writers about this being a difficult process; it’s really quite simple, in legal terms.

There are those in the media who have speculated that the Wizards would damage their credibility with free agents should they move to terminate Arenas. To which I say… Can it get any worse? And if we buyout Gilbert’s deal, his salary remains on the books until 2014; what difference do free agents make? Plus, these are NBA players we’re talking about. Washington’s already among the most popular cities in the league as a road destination, and if we have money, nobody’s going to take less to go elsewhere. The entire premise is absurd.

But it’s more than that, and this isn’t about free agency or creating cap space. It’s about being a competent business organization, and serving fans that shell out thousands of dollars every year for tickets. The Wizards are at a crossroads with their ownership—if Ted Leonsis had taken over by now, we wouldn’t have to worry about management getting cold feet on Arenas. But even without Leonsis, somebody should be competent enough to recognize that voiding Arenas’ contract isn’t an option, but an imperative. The Wizards MUST void Gilbert Arenas’ contract.

Not for any free agents, but for the sake of fans that still have faith.

There, now I’ve said my peace. Promise, there will be no more Gilbert Arenas talk.

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