We know Gilbert Arenas' post-incident behavior was wrong, but so was the Wizards'

My opinion about the Gilbert Arenas saga remains pretty much unchanged from what it was a couple weeks ago. Gilbert Arenas is not a menace to society and he shouldn't lose his entire livelihood over what basically amounts to a terrible practical joke and a lack of visible remorse, but there's no reason to believe a return to the Wizards on the court was ever going to work.  Call it bad timing, call it whatever you want, but the Wizards already had enough problems to deal with before this, so they're under no obligation to bring another potential problem back on the court.

(In other words, the whole "if they were 26-12 instead of 12-26 argument" doesn't hold water.  That's just how it is.  You're far less likely to get fired from your job for breaking a rule if you're one of the keys to your company's success).

Here's what has changed: I'm annoyed with how the Wizards have distanced themselves from Gilbert Arenas.  To be quite honest, it appears like they didn't think this through.  Fair or unfair, the whole incident reflects on the organization as much as it reflects on Gilbert Arenas.  Kyle made a good analogy yesterday  -- Gilbert Arenas is the spoiled child and the organization is the bad parent.  Kyle talked all about the spoiled child (and he's right), so let's talk about the bad parent.

Throughout this whole process, the Wizards have done everything they could to say to the world "This isn't our fault!"  If TMZ is to be believed (which is debatable), the very first thing Ernie Grunfeld told Arenas wasn't "what were you thinking?" or "we need to talk and get to the bottom of this," but rather, it was "you know we can void your contract, right?"  When Arenas got suspended, the Wizards didn't slowly distance themselves from him in a way to display some tact, they literally got rid of everything and pretended Arenas never existed.  Finally, when Arenas plead guilty yesterday, the Wizards felt the need to spell out for everyone that Arenas "is responsible for his own actions," a line that is so obvious that it doesn't need to be said ... unless you're trying to put this image in people's heads that you shouldn't carry any responsibility for something that happened within your own organization. 

The Wizards are trying to run away from what still remains their problem.  When you try to do that, the problem doesn't just go away.  It gets worse.  Because of all of this, the Wizards now have an even bigger public relations and public opinion nightmare on their hands.  The Wizards couldn't afford to make themselves seem worse, yet that's exactly what they've done.  

Let's explore how this reaction makes things worse and what ways this could have been approached differently below the jump.

Before we get started, I want to be very, very clear: Gilbert's claim that the Wizards should have "supported" him more doesn't hold water.  If you look at this latest action as the last straw rather than on its own, it makes sense for the Wizards to be upset.  This is coming on the heels of Arenas throwing the entire training and medical staff under the bus and getting the organization a $25,000 fine for not talking to the media, not to mention all his previous pranks.  

However, bringing this up kind of underscores the real issue here.  The Wizards know that Gilbert Arenas is not a totally rational actor in the same way most NBA players are.  They knew back in 2008, when they offered him a max contract in hopes he would take back less because they were worried he'd flip out if he was offered less and go sign somewhere else for the mid-level exception.  Let's assuming the goal here is an amicable breakup that allows the Wizards to move on as quietly as possible (if that wasn't the goal, then the Wizards messed up far worse than this).  Knowing that you were so worried about "threatening" him in that situation, why would you threaten him like this in this one right off the bat?  What incentive does Gil have now to make your life easier? 

The void threat is the Wizards biggest negotiating tactic in all of this.  It's the one thing you use only after you try to end things amicably.  It's a dangerous thing to use, a last resort when all other options fail.  Why?  Here are all the reasons:

  • Oh, I don't know, you're taking away someone's livelihood, perhaps?  Gilbert Arenas shouldn't be compared to the average Joe, of course, but for an athlete that has only a limited number of years to essentially make a living at his craft, taking away $80 million dollars of future earnings is an incredibly serious thing to do, even for someone who has committed an egregious lack of judgement.  There's a reason teams almost never succeed in voiding a contract and rarely even try.  The player is sure to contest the decision to the bitter end, and the thought of taking away something like that just won't sit well with them if it doesn't work.
  • You're eliminating any possibility that things end well.  Look, it's extremely unlikely that Gilbert Arenas was going to play for the Wizards again regardless.  But what if Arenas goes above and beyond the duties of a model citizen in the next few months?  What if he finally realizes the gravity of his situation, does a ton of public service announcements everywhere and accepts full responsibility for his actions?  Unlikely, I know, but in that event, wouldn't you at least have to consider bringing him back?  But because you've brought the void threat in early, Arenas wants no part of your organization, so he's not going to want to play for you again. 
  • You get the Players Association involved when they wouldn't get so involved otherwise.  I believe Gary Washburn when he writes that the Players Association is worried about fighting too hard for Arenas because of the backlash they'll get during the next collective bargaining agreement negotiations.  Washburn writes that the Players Association won't contest anything less than a 30-game suspension, for example.  However, once you start talking about taking away $80 million plus from a professional athlete, the NBPA has no choice but to get involved.  Billy Hunter told the Washington Post that "you don't use a sledgehammer to drive a tack," and that he's "never heard" of a team voiding a deal like this, which are two telltale signs that they'd fight a void bitterly. 

All in all, I share Adrian Wojanrowski's feelings on the void matter.  On the off chance it works, the positive is that Arenas is gone and the Wizards have more cap flexibility, while the negative is that it hurts their viability as a free agent destination (yes, players go to where the money is, but what if that places is known to work hard to avoid paying a contract because of one possible "moral turpitude" violation?  You don't think players will notice that?).  If it doesn't work?  You have a pissed off Arenas that will be totally unwilling to work with you on a buyout or potential trade, a screwed up cap situation, a bitter fight from the Players Association, a situation where NBA teams won't bother offering anything for Arenas in a trade and the prospect of possibly throwing Arenas back onto the court in the face of all this.  In short, you have a complete mess of a situation, a circus that won't go away anytime soon.  For an organization that clearly should be focused on moving on, they'll instead be forced to deflect and deal in the past.

One response I've gotten from people is that the void threat won't carry weight going forward.  I don't buy this.  This is a legal issue, not a public opinion issue, so timing doesn't matter.  The Wizards would void Arenas because they feel he violated one of two clauses in an NBA contract -- the moral turpitude clause or the pleading guilty to a felony clause (which is more cut-and-dry, but I've had trouble finding the language).  No matter how much time passes by, now that he has actually pled guilty, the Wizards can build a case that he violated the standard contract.  They can build a case next week, next month or next year and it still means the same thing legally.

Were there other options, you might ask?  Absolutely.  One would be to treat Arenas like Stephon Marbury or Jamaal Tinsley and pay him not to play.  The easy way to do this is to keep him on the inactive list and tell him to stay away as you work on a buyout or a trade.  This allows you to distance yourself from Arenas while still not drawing the ire of the NBA Players Association.  Yes, the NBPA intervened eventually in the Tinsley case, but with the labor agreement looming, intervening in a case where the player is getting paid anyway would be dangerous.  Were the NBPA to get involved and say "You're costing this guy future earnings," the owners would simply say "Look what he did!  If we wanted to, we could cost him current earnings too and void his contract."  The NBPA would then have to step down.

The other benefit of the Tinsley-like situation is that you leave two palatable options open - a buyout or a trade.  We've seen so many cases of players who are seemingly untradeable get traded, so don't rule the trade option out.  Already, we've seen Arenas linked to the Magic and the Knicks.  More suitors will come in the offseason, when elite teams suffer disappointing playoff losses.  As Donnie Walsh said, you can always move talented players, and I trust him because he's done it.  Plus, if you're really worried about his tanking trade value in this scenario (which I think it overblown - people know he can play and he's healthy), you can let him play.   

As for a buyout - it might happen anyway, but you've given Arenas more incentive to cooperate and take less money up front.  A buyout basically is an agreement between two parties to be paid a certain sum of money rather than the stated value of the contract in return for the player being able to find another team.  It stays on your cap, but only at the dollar figure to which you agree.  Even with his legal problems, Arenas could recoup a lot more money than most buyout guys, so he could very easily be willing to settle for taking way less money.  That is, until you piss him off so much by playing the void card right away.  

The negative of a buyout is that you don't get the cap flexibility you'd get by voiding the deal.  I can't argue too much with that one.  However, I do think that, assuming you're demolishing the team (i.e. trading Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison for expiring contracts) and starting a gradual rebuild anyway, Arenas' salary won't matter as much.  Basically, your payroll is going to be made up of guys on rookie contract (your "building blocks") and cheap guys like Andray Blatche or other MLE types.  By the time those rookies have to be extended, Arenas' contract is off the books anyway.  There's also the scenario Tom Ziller describes, which basically is having a handshake agreement that Arenas will opt out of his contract in two years so he can get future money sooner.  In other words, the negative fallout from voiding the contract is far worse than the slight loss of cap flexibility going forward. 

Those are two other options other than pushing the void finality forward from the start.  Again, the goal here is to move on as quietly as possible from the Gilbert Arenas era.  We aren't getting those six years back at this point, and while that's sad, it's a reality we must face.  But those six years did happen, and the organization cannot pretend they didn't.  They cannot pin all the successes and failures on Gilbert Arenas when it all happened under their watch.

If the organization is to move on properly, it must do so without causing as much tangential drama as possible.  It must do so by working with Gilbert rather than working against him.  Working against him just extends the dysfunction that's happened in the last month and a half, and until that dysfunction gets mitigated, the organization cannot move forward as it transitions into a new era. 

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