clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Making sense of the NBA's stance on a Garnett trade

The NBA will apparently block any additional trades between the Clippers and Celtics. But why and for how long? Could the Clippers still acquire Garnett after the start of the season? The league's position is unclear.


Now that the NBA has approved the Los Angeles Clippers hiring of Doc Rivers to be their head coach in a deal that cost them an unprotected first round draft pick in 2015, the Clippers must next turn toward the business of improving their roster. Last year's team finished with a franchise best 56 regular season wins -- but lost in disappointing fashion in the first round of the playoffs, dropping four straight games to the Memphis Grizzlies. A top five coach and an off-season of improvement from Blake Griffin (remember, he's never had a full NBA off-season before, 2011 being interrupted by the lockout and 2012 by a knee injury) figure to provide some improvement in the team. But presumably they will also need roster upgrades if they wish to take the next step and truly contend for a title.

A major chunk of that roster improvement was supposed to be taken care of by now. Last week the Clippers thought they had a deal with the Celtics not just for Rivers, but also for Kevin Garnett, in exchange for DeAndre Jordan and another pick. But the NBA frowned upon that deal, and all indications are that they have told the Clippers and the Celtics that they would block another such deal should the teams try to rekindle those talks.

I pointed out last week that the NBA's position here is nebulous at best from a legalistic standpoint. At this point, I think I can make out the outline of the league's basic position. Imagine if the Collective Bargaining Agreement stated the following:

(1) Coaches cannot be traded in any transaction involving players as it would circumvent the strictures of the salary cap. Teams may however be compensated in cash or draft picks for allowing a coach under contract to leave for another team.

(2) Because of the potential salary cap implications, when two teams execute a transaction involving a coach, they will not be allowed to conduct any other transaction with each other for a given period before or after the coach transaction.

This seems to be the stance of the NBA lawyers at this point. Of course, there are still a couple of problems here. First, that's not what the CBA actually says -- it says (1) but it certainly does not say (2) in any specific manner. In addition, unless the NBA has sent a secret memo to the teams, we have no idea what the waiting period is. Presumably the Celtics and Clippers can, some day in the future, once again be trading partners. When is that day?

Let's go back to Berger's tweet from Sunday, since it was one of the first and (sadly) also one of the most definitive on the subject (yes, we're dealing with 140 characters and calling it "definitive" but the NBA hasn't exactly been forthcoming on their position here).

"The NBA will not approve subsequent exchange of players between the Clippers and Celtics this summer." Does that mean that they would approve a trade between the teams on September 22, i.e. the autumnal equinox? Would they approve one in November after the start of the season, i.e. not during the same off-season as the Rivers deal? Would they approve one on December 15th, the date in the CBA when newly signed free agents can be traded? Would they approve one in February at the trade deadline, which would be fully eight months after the Doc-udrama? Or will they make the teams wait a full season, until next June or even July 1, before dealing with each other again?

If the NBA plans to impose a moratorium beyond the trade deadline, they'll be in blatant contradiction of their own precedent.

The CBA is usually hyper-detailed on these types of issues. In Larry Coon's CBA FAQ, Coon enumerates fully 13 separate situations in which a player cannot be traded -- and none of them have to do with prior acquisitions of coaches. Of the 13 different scenarios, most of them specify some sort of time frame.

The CBA does include a clause about "circumvention" and presumably that is what the NBA lawyers are invoking in this case as a catch-all to justify their position. From Coon's FAQ:

The CBA also has a general prohibition on circumvention which states that the rules exist to preserve the benefit derived by the teams and players, and that nobody shall do anything to defeat or circumvent the intent of the agreement.

In other words, if the NBA thinks you are doing something to get around the rules in the CBA, they can invoke the circumvention clause to stop you. Why the NBA has chosen to take a hard line in this case, which seems comparatively trivial, but had no circumventionary qualms about the mysterious unretirements of Keith Van Horn and Aaron McKie in 2008, moves that blatantly circumvented salary cap rules to allow the Mavericks and Lakers to complete blockbuster trades, is anybody's guess. By the way, those two trades helped deliver three straight NBA titles to the two most free spending teams in the NBA. If the league office's role is to defend against circumventions detrimental to the competitive balance of the league, they had a couple of MAJOR FAILS back in 2008.

Hopefully the league has communicated a specific position to the Clippers and Celtics regarding subsequent trades at this point, because it could affect how the teams move forward. If the moratorium on LAC-BOS transactions is relatively brief, then the Clippers might want to hang onto the assets necessary to complete a Garnett trade at a later date. Garnett isn't likely to waive his no-trade clause to go to any other team, so the Clippers would be wise to have the assets available to complete a trade at the deadline should the NBA be amenable at that time. If on the other hand the moratorium is for a full year, the Clippers should look to make a separate acquisition with their assets, especially Jordan. The NBA has already done a disservice to these teams; let's hope they have at least given the teams the information necessary to make informed decisions going forward.

There isn't much precedent for this situation of course, but there is some. In June 2007, the Magic conveyed a second round pick to the Heat for the privilege of signing Stan Van Gundy as their head coach. In October 2005, the Blazers were compensated with the right to swap future second round picks with the Nuggets when Denver hired assistant coach Tim Grgurich away from Portland. And lo and behold, the Nuggets and Blazers were both involved in a trade deadline deal less than five months later. If the NBA plans to impose a moratorium beyond the trade deadline, they'll be in blatant contradiction of their own precedent. They probably wouldn't care -- they tend to do what they want, without much regard for precedent -- but it is worth noting.

[Note by Steve Perrin, 06/25/13 2:57 PM PDT ] Update: According to Berger, Rivers' freshly minted contract with the Clippers contains a clause forbidding the Clippers and the Celtics from exchanging players until the conclusion of the 2013-2014 season. So the NBA has, as I hoped they would, provided specifics to the teams on the matter. One wonders if anyone has pointed out to them that they are breaking with the Grgurich precedent. I'm certain they don't care, but it is at least worth noting. At any rate, the Clippers now know with certainty that they cannot trade for Kevin Garnett this season. Presumably this clause would NOT preclude the Clippers from pursuing Paul Pierce if he were to become a free agent, since he would no longer be on the Celtics.