Sacramento Kings NBA relocation jig: Seattle may come out on top

A bizarre Sacramento bid and the approach of David Stern's less-tyrannical successor could spell a win for Seattle.
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Fans showed up at a rally to save the Sonics before they departed for Oklahoma City. Longtime star Gary Payton spoke.

A bizarre Sacramento bid and the approach of David Stern's less-tyrannical successor could spell a win for Seattle.

The Sonics have been gone from Seattle nearly five years. Looking at it that way, what's three more weeks?

Aggravating, in the view of the more impatient Sonics fans, who were told Wednesday by the NBA that a decision on whether to relocate the Sacramento Kings to Seattle will not be made until early May.

After a meeting of the combined relocation and finance committees, NBA Commissioner David Stern emerged from the gathering to tell a platoon of reporters that much is yet to be done.

"The committee still has additional questions as they go through this in great detail," Stern said. "We're not even close. I’d be charitable to say the first week of May, but it could slide a bit.”

The questions with each bid include potential lawsuits, arena finance issues, real estate issues and environmental reviews. It will take the committee until next week to meet for a third time, then make a report, and a week after that for review by the 30 NBA owners, 23 of whom must approve a relocation.

What did emerge were a couple of hints that seemed favorable to the Seattle cause led by Chris Hansen and Steve Ballmer. For the first time, there was not a dismissal of the option of expansion to solve the unprecedented pursuit of a free-agent franchise by rich guys in two cities.

While Stern said there are "no current plans to expand," which was a re-statement of the obvious, Peter Holt, the owner of the San Antonio Spurs and new chair of the Board of Governors (the NBA’s owners), said "expansion was not off the table," although it was not discussed Wednesday.

"The world is growing," he said. "We're focused on China and India and those kinds of places."

The second had to do with the quality of the Sacramento bid. Finally delivered Tuesday night after weeks of delay, the bid, according to an unnamed source quoted by the Sacramento Bee, was a non-binding term sheet that "was less than ideal," according to the source. The counter-offer included a requirement that the owners of the Kings, the Maloof family, terminate the deal with Hansen before the would-be Sacramento investors would sign a binding offer.

If true, it's likely a tactic to keep Hansen from raising his offer again. Friday he threw down another $25 million for the Maloofs atop the original $525 million offer, an NBA record. But the requirement is highly unlikely to be accepted by the Maloofs, and seems foolish to even be asked.

Nor has the group put down a nonrefundable deposit, as did Hansen when he gave the Maloofs $30 million. (Stern said "yes" to a question about whether one was forthcoming from the Sacramento investment group.)

The weak term sheet would be indicative of a growing suspicion that the Sacramento bidders, some just joining the fray in the last week, are in some disarray after such hasty assembly. But the continued delays provide an opportunity for the Sactown crowd to clean itself up. And it also brings to light some NBA in-house politics that may play into the decision.

It's been clear since he first permitted Sacramento to make a counter-offer to Hansen’s bid in January, that Stern wants to give every chance to keep the Kings in town. And what Stern wants, he usually gets, because ever since his tenure began on Feb, 1, 1984, he has succeeded at his No. 1 priority as commissioner – appreciating the equity of each franchise. He has done the bidding of his bosses well.

Because he's been in the job for nearly 30 years, he has given purchase approval to nearly every owner of every franchise, including the Maloofs. Only the two teams in Los Angeles (the Clippers, owned by Donald Sterling, and the Lakers, owned by the Buss family) and the Chicago Bulls (Jerry Reinsdorf) pre-date his tenure.

That means there is a current of gratitude and deference that runs deeper for Stern than for any of his sports-overlord contemporaries. And, without knowing any particulars, he probably has some dirt on all of them. So while Stern can entertain disagreement on some issues, an owner who crosses him does so at his peril.

When they publicly backed out of an arena deal in 2012 that required a lot of effort by Stern, an effort that would have secured the Kings, the Maloofs crossed him. That really burned Stern, and he is now partial to taking the side of the town at every opportunity in order to remove the Maloofs from the lodge.

But in the 15 months since Hansen emerged as the white knight in Seattle, Stern, 70, has announced his retirement (Feb. 1) and has become, in some respects, a lame duck. His hand-picked successor, Adam Silver, is now at his side in most public appearances, and often speaks on his behalf.

Silver has been with the NBA for 22 years in five jobs, and was appointed deputy commissioner by unanimous BOG vote in 2006. He knows everyone in the league too, but his style will be different. The league, having been pulled out of the ditch by Stern, does not need a messianic tyrant.

"It will be a lot quieter with Adam," one current NBA executive told me recently. "He doesn't need to be David. Adam is someone who prefers working with owners, using the committee system, and directing the media initiatives and globalization in a collegial way."

How Silver’s influence will play out regarding the pending vote on relocation is an unknown. He has kept his views to himself. But for NBA owners, particularly, the younger, newer crowd, there is an opportunity to break from the old fealty to King David without fear of some Old Testament pestilence visiting them in the night.


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