Point Guard to Point Man

Isaiah Thomas greets Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson. (USA Today Sports Images)

Isaiah Thomas greets Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson. (USA Today Sports Images)

He won’t make the Hall of Fame and wasn’t the best at his position in his prime, but Sacramento is poised to pull off a big upset because its mayor still knows how to run a team.

Point guard, point man, does it make a difference? Kevin Johnson is all that. He has shown himself to be an All-Star at both, and because of his tireless efforts over the last few months, the betting money says the Kings aren’t going anywhere. Well, OK, maybe to the bottom of the Western Conference and then to the draft lottery. That much, we know. They’re crummy. But to Seattle? Doesn’t appear so, unless somebody can come up with a compelling reason why they should. Go ahead, we’ll wait.

Last winter, when the Maloof brothers, the doofus owners of the Kings who bet wrong in Las Vegas and lost their shirts, announced a sale to Seattle, it was supposed to be a LeBron slam dunk. The Kings were headed to a sexier and richer city, one that supported the Sonics then lost them to Oklahoma City, one that was even willing to put up with nonsense from DeMarcus Cousins. And now? Well, David Stern and the NBA owners don’t know if approving the move is the right way to go, and it’s all because Johnson and a group of financial whales just staged a furious second-half rally.

On the surface, whether the Kings move to Seattle or stay in Sacramento appears to be a toss-up. The money, the arena plans, etc., etc., appear to be roughly about the same. That’s not the issue, though. If everything’s equal, then why would the NBA encourage a franchise relocation? For what reasons? On what basis?

That’s for Stern and commissioner-in-waiting Adam Silver and league owners to decide and right now they’re stumped. The owners were supposed to either approve or reject the Maloof’s sale to Seattle when the board meets on April 18 and 19, and Stern says the NBA might need more time. If you think Johnson and Sacramento tried to make this as tough as possible for those who’ll ultimate decide the Kings’ fate, you’d be wrong.

“What we did,” said Johnson, “is try to make this decision easier.”

As in: Why move when everything’s in place in Sacramento?

Wednesday in New York, groups from the two cities appeared before an NBA committee to plead their case. When the doors swung open at the end of the day, only the Sacramento group was smiling. Johnson and his hand-picked heavy-hitters, including billionaire Ron Burkle, who saved the Penguins from leaving Pittsburgh, were persuasive enough to put Stern and the owners in a bind. Otherwise, Stern would be readying a recommendation to Seattle right now.

“We have a fair amount of work to do,” Stern said.

Sacramento plans to build a downtown arena where a depressed shopping mall now sits and has city council approval to spend millions in public funds, mainly from parking concessions. Burkle and pals will foot the bill for the rest and also purchase the Kings from the Maloofs.

The key is in the small details and they weren’t readily available Wednesday. The Seattle bid is also strong, and the deep-pockets guy is Steve Ballmer, the Microsoft billionaire. There are plans for a new arena just south of downtown and nobody doubts whether Seattle fans will support a team because the Sonics were popular. Plus, there is a larger population base and more corporate clout in Seattle than Sacramento, which is essentially a government town.

The big hang-up in Sacramento was ownership and the arena. That’s all. Not fan support. And if ownership is no longer an issue, and the arena plans are in place, then really, what’s the problem? When he spoke about the situation at the All-Star Game just a month ago, Stern didn’t think the Sacramento situation was strong enough. On Wednesday, he expressed no such doubts, which means Sacramento, at the very least, tied the game.

“We’ve never had a situation like this,” said Stern, who emphasized the league will not award an expansion franchise to the loser. “There’s a lot at stake here for two communities and the NBA.”

The NBA approved the Sonics move because of arena issues. Well, unless there are loopholes in the fine print, Sacramento has no such issues and the prospective owners aren’t running low on cash. The Kings are also the only game in town in Sacramento, while they’d fight the Mariners and Seahawks for the entertainment dollar in Seattle. The only significant advantage Seattle owns is TV market size, and there’s also some sympathy among owners for the city, given how the Sonics left.

And that’s also why the owners would be hypocrites if they held open the door for the Kings and allowed them to leave Sacramento, even if a fair number of owners desperately want back in the Seattle market.

Kevin Johnson fought hard for his city, did the unexpected, rallied businesses and politicians and citizens and fans, which isn’t easy to do in any city. If the financials add up for Sacramento, then Johnson and the city should be rewarded for their efforts.

Let them win this particular game and deal with DeMarcus Cousins for the next decade.