At the beginning of this NBA season, the Washington Wizards featured an NBA Jams-worthy triumvirate -- Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler, and Antawn Jamison -- and had visions of a playoff run in the Eastern Conference. Fast forward to today, and the team has been gutted. Butler and Jamison (along with Brendan Haywood) were traded, more or less, for salary cap relief, and Gilbert Arenas is serving a league-imposed 50 game suspension for his gun play. Jamison was due $28.4 million through the 2012 season, and Butler was under contract for $10.5 million for next season, so the team-gutting has left the Wizards in a position to be able to sign one of the mega free agents that will be available next summer.
The Wizards would be in an even better position to remake their team if they could get rid of Arenas, his gimpy knee, and his, well, Gilbert-ness (Sports Illustrated referred to him was the "Wizard of Odd"). But, Arenas is due nearly $80 million over the last 4 years of his contract, making him virtually untradeable (though is it that hard to imagine the Knicks trading for Arenas if they can't sign Lebron/Wade/Bosh or any of the other big names next summer?). So, what are the Wizards to do? One option is to build around him and hope that he can stay healthy and on the court (perhaps he can follow the lead of his team's name change and shift his focus from guns to Harry Potter?). The other option -- and one that General Manager Ernie Grunfeld is reportedly considering -- is to void Arenas' contract based on his gun troubles, which would instantly rid the team of Arenas' salary and its cap implications.
The route the Wizards take may depend on the answer to a simple question: Can the Wizards terminate Arenas' contract? To answer that question, let's take a look at the relevant rules:
• Section 5 of the NBA Standard Player Contract ("Conduct"): Requires a player to "give his best services," "be neatly and fully attired in public," "conduct himself on and off the court according to the highest standards of honesty, citizenship, and sportsmanship," and not "do anything that is materially detrimental or materially prejudicial to the best interests" of his team or the NBA.
• Article 35 of the NBA Constitution ("Misconduct"): Allows the Commissioner to suspend or fine a player who, "in his opinion...shall have been guilty of conduct that does not conform to standards of morality or fair play, that does not comply at all times with all federal, state, and local laws, or that is prejudicial or detrimental to the Association."
• Article VI, Section 9 of the NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement ("Firearms"): Prohibits a player from possessing a firearm at any NBA facility or event. Any violation of the provision is considered "conduct prejudicial to the NBA" and thus subject to commissioner discipline under Article 35 of the Constitution.
• Section 16 of NBA Standard Player Contract: ("Termination"): Allows a team to terminate a player's contract if the player shall " at any time, fail, refuse, or neglect to conform his personal conduct to standards of good citizenship, good moral character (defined here to mean not engaging in acts of moral turpitude, whether or not such acts would constitute a crime), and good sportsmanship...."
Based solely on these provisions, two things seem pretty clear: First, the Commissioner has the authority to suspend Arenas for possessing multiple guns in an NBA locker room. Second, the Wizards have the right to terminate Arenas' contract. But, there is one more crucial provision in play here that has been overlooked in much of the coverage of this story.
The NBA CBA has a "double jeopardy" provision that prevents a team and the commissioner from disciplining a player "for the same act or conduct." The section states that "the NBA's disciplinary action will preclude or supersede disciplinary action by any Team for the same act or conduct." On its face, this provision would seem to prevent the Wizards from terminating Arenas' because the NBA has already suspended him. But, we're not done yet. The next subsection of the CBA provides an exception to the exception: "The same act or conduct by a player may result in both a termination of the player's Uniform Player Contract by his Team and the suspension of the player by the NBA if the egregious nature of the act or conduct is so lacking in justification as to warrant such double penalty."
So, the $80 million question comes down to this -- was the "egregious nature" of Arenas' conduct "so lacking in justification as to warrant" a league-imposed 50 game suspension and the termination of his contract? Past cases are not particularly helpful, as it has been rare for a team to void an NBA player contract based on improper conduct.
The closest precedent we have for this case is the infamous choking incident involving Latrell Sprewell, then a member of the Golden State Warriors. For those too young to remember, Sprewell choked (after threatening to kill him) then-head coach P.J. Carlesimo at a practice. In fairness, Sprewell was apparently angry at Carlesimo for yelling at him during practice (the coach allegedly told him, among other things, to "'put a little mustard" on his passes). The league suspended Sprewell for 82 games and the Warriors terminated the final three years (and $23.7 million) of his contract. Sprewell appealed, and an arbitrator reduced the suspension to 68 games and overturned the termination of the contract, holding that voiding the contract would constitute an impermissible "double punishment" under NBA rules.
So, at a minimum, for the Wizards to terminate Arenas' contract, they would likely have to convince David Stern (and perhaps an arbitrator) that Arenas' conduct was more egregious than Sprewell's. Would they have a compelling argument? Perhaps. Let's compare the two. Arenas violated a specific written NBA rule prohibiting the possession of guns on NBA property (on a team that changed its name from the Bullets to the Wizards to avoid an association with gun violence). Sprewell violated a rule that was so obvious ("don't choke your coach") the NBA did not feel the need to write it down. Arenas compounded the situation by joking about the incident on twitter and in a pre-game team huddle on the court. Sprewell, after being wrestled away from his coach by his teammates, retreated to the locker room to cool off, and then returned to the court 20 minutes later to throw a punch at Carlesimo (and was later charged with reckless driving and served three months under house arrest during his suspension). Arenas had a prior gun offense -- he was suspended in 2004 for failing to properly register a gun. Sprewell had a prior fighting offense -- two years before the choking incident, Sprewell fought with his teammate Jerome Kersey. After the fight, he threatened to return with a gun (fret not, he only returned with a two-by-four). (Each player has also had interesting things to say about salaries. Arenas agreed to take $16 million less than the league maximum in signing his current deal with the Wizards, explaining: "What can I do for my family with $127 million that I can't do with $111 million?" Sprewell had a different perspective. While making $14.6 million with the Timberwolves, he grew unhappy with negotiations over his new contract, telling reporters: ''Why would I want to help them win a title? They're not doing anything for me. I'm at risk. I have a lot of risk here. I got my family to feed.'')
So, which conduct was more egregious? It's a close call, but add in the fact that Arenas pleaded guilty to a felony and that the NBA has take a tougher stance on conduct in the last several years, and the Wizards can at least make a straight-face argument that Arenas' conduct warrants double punishment and permits them to void his contract.