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Friday, June 22, 2007
Kevin Garnett Says No to Boston Celtics: Selfish or Understandable?

Yesterday afternoon, I was annoyed to hear that Minnesota Timberwolves star Kevin Garnett does not want to be traded to the Boston Celtics. In fact, he told his agent, Andy Miller, that if traded to Boston, he would exercise an opt-out in his contract next summer to become an unrestricted free agent.

"What is this guy's problem? Why doesn't he like Boston? Why wouldn't he want to play for the NBA team with the most championships? What's good enough for Larry Bird and Bill Russell isn't good enough for a guy who has never played in, let alone won, the NBA finals?"

Those were my initial reactions, albeit as a diehard and perhaps embittered Celtics fan. Although I had mixed feelings about the rumored trade of Garnett to Boston in exchange for Al Jefferson, the #5 pick, Gerald Green, and Theo Ratliff's contract, the thought of Kevin Garnett playing along side Paul Pierce had me thinking playoffs, and a return to something better than mediocrity and way better than whatever adjective can describe the current Celtics.

But then I thought about it more objectively. Why shouldn't Garnett maximize his rights under his contract? In effect, he's using the threat of an opt-out clause as a de facto no trade clause, since no team will likely give up what's needed to convince the Timberwolves to deal him unless that team can be certain that Garnett would be more than a one-year rental.

And what's wrong with that? He and his agent likely negotiated the opt-clause in part for the very situation described above: getting traded to a lousy team that plays in a cold weather locale and that may very well have management and coaching changes within the next 12 months. That doesn't sound like a particularly appealing prospect for a 31-year-old who is probably now thinking about his legacy, which will undoubtedly be judged in part by whether he wins or at least competes for an NBA title--particularly when the Phoenix Suns are also said to be interested in him.

Let's take this a step further. For all the money Garnett earns--and it's a lot, $21 million a year--his job has a serious drawback that few us have to deal with in our jobs: his employer can trade him to some place where he doesn't want to go, and to work for an employer that he doesn't want to work for. So when Garnett tries to prevent a possible trade to the Boston Celtics, he's enjoying a benefit that most of us have in our jobs, and he only enjoys that benefit because he is really good at his job; most NBA players have no such contractual rights. James Joyner on Outside the Beltway has a piece on this subject today. Here is an excerpt:
There aren’t many lines of work where you sign a contract with one company in one location and can be suddenly be shipped to another company, forced to move across the country–or even to Canada–and suffer the family disruption, tax implications, and other consequences at the whim of ownership. There have been instances where a player is traded three times in a single season.

Presumably, the argument is that players have agreed to those terms of employment as part of the collective bargaining process. Still, professional sports leagues operate as closed shops and there’s simply no way to earn a living.

. . .

[I]t’s unlikely anyone is going to feel sorry for the plight of professional athletes making multi-million dollar salaries. Still, the amateur draft, trade rules, and other limitations on player autonomy are quite unusual. Indeed, the only comparable labor situation that comes to mind is that of military personnel, especially in the days of conscription.

Fans have the expectation that players will display extraordinary loyalty to their teams, including extending taking a “home town discount” of millions of dollars when free agency (otherwise known as, “the right to work for whomever will hire you under whatever terms you can negotiate just like everyone else”) and “putting the needs of the team above personal goals.” Yet these same fans seem to have no problem with trading these players for better ones if the opportunity arises.

So should we criticize Garnett for what may seem like "selfish" behavior or should we empathize with him for what may also seem like understandable behavior?


In todays "what have you done for me lately" leagues, the players have to take some kind of control over their own destiny. The opt-out clause was negotiated into the contract for situations like this. I agree with your observation that fans demand loyalty but jump at the chance of someone better and is more than willing to pack the bags for the athlete beeing traded. In an occupiation where you do not have that many years of active work before retirement, and where only a handful of athletes can depend on post career endorsments or tv-jobs, the athlete must have the right to negotiate, and use, some sort of contract clause to control their own futures. This is especially true when the athlete is nearing retirement.

Blogger Jimmy H -- 6/22/2007 3:08 PM  

Completely understandable. The Celtics last won a title when Garnett was 10. Do you really think he cares about tradition?! To be honest, I am surprised he has stayed in Minneapolis this long. A young team like Boston could make a run at the Eastern finals with the addition of Garnett, but not at the expense of giving up the farm including one of the best young big men in the league (Jefferson). Props are due to Garnett's representatives for the opt-out clause.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 6/22/2007 4:23 PM  

Kevin Garnett has been a loyal player to a second-rate organization. The fact that Timberwolves would disrespect their long-time franchise player by dumping him to an obvious non-contender such as Boston should rightly infuriate KG. All he's asked for is a chance to win a title and to get some decent support. Outside of the KG, Spree and Cassell years, he's had zero support from his own organization and his calls for a supporting cast has fallen on deaf ears.

KG is clearly at a crossroads of his career and if he's to leave the franchise in which he has invested so much, it's natural that he would try and obtain a trade to a winner by any means necessary. Threatening to use the opt-out clause is the only way he can assure that Kevin McHale doesn't screw up his future as he has done his past.

In fact, I think that an argument can be made that Kevin is doing Boston a favour. By clearly announcing that his twin ambitions are to play A) on a title contender and B) in preferably a warm climate, he has allowed Boston to carry on with its umpteenth rebuilding plan in five years without delusions of grandeur or a quick fix. To be brutally honest, this KG trade would sink both KG's career and the Celtics. KG would be stuck on a sinking ship because Danny Ainge would have given up all the good young pieces necessary to build a future title contender. By the time that Ainge managed to rebuild the team (and there's no evidence to support that he can even build A team) then KG would be at least 35 years old, on the downside of his career and with, I suspect, an immovable contract.

Also, why should KG care about the history of the Celtics? Hoopedia notes that he was a Lakers fan ( so, if anything, going to the Celtics should horrify his inner child.

Anonymous Jason Chung -- 6/22/2007 5:00 PM  

Players under contract often have little leverage over what they can do; I don't begrudge them for doing using whatever leverage they do have in any way they wish.

Blogger Pacifist Viking -- 6/22/2007 11:35 PM  

You can bet the AP wouldn't be in court this week if these players played professional football.

I worked in AP Sports for quite a while and still know people there. If you don't think they'd be interested, you have no idea how the AP works.

Anyone who has ever wondered why the players are so determined not to cooperate should wonder no more after reading this. The AP has no right to this info, though it may find a way to get it, just as the "heroic" reporters from the SF Chronicle got access to grand jury testimony that they had no right to (the leaker, not the reporters, were at fault, and I hope the leaker gets severely punished, though I doubt it).

Anonymous DonK -- 6/23/2007 1:45 AM  

Something to take note of is the T-wolves are not actively trying to trade KG. They are willing to listen to offers but will only accept something very extraordinary. KG likes it in Minnesota and would be happy to end his career there if the t-wolves can get some guys around him. I don't think he is being greedy by naming teams he would not like to go to. He doesn't want to get traded but if it does come to that he would like some say in where he would go.

Blogger Mattyo26 -- 6/25/2007 9:11 AM  

If you pay me $21 Million a year I would play basketball for pretty much any country in the world...

Anonymous Anonymous -- 6/25/2007 10:11 AM  

For someone who has put so much into a franchise without help from management, he at least should have the ability to decline a wack trade.

Blogger Jarrett Carter -- 6/28/2007 10:59 PM  

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