There's no question that the ongoing saga surrounding the Sacramento Kings has been a big drain all around -- on the cities involved in the battle, on league resources, on fans' patience. David Stern has, over the past several years, committed millions of dollars on finding a solution for the Kings. "Finding a solution for the Kings" is, in this case, code for "cleaning up after the Maloofs, who are very messy young men."
And now two cities are essentially warring over the team after those messy young men decided to screw the city that has hosted the Kings proudly for going on three decades.
Why did this happen, and how can the NBA prevent it from happening again?
Don't get it twisted -- the NBA is hardly upset that two sets of very rich investors are throwing themselves at a franchise with the second-worst winning percentage in the league over the past six years. Stern and Adam Silver won't weep at the prospect of $200 million plus public subsidies for new arenas in two top-20 markets. And that crazy $525 million valuation? Yes, the NBA likes that very much.
But the messy way in which the franchise is being transferred isn't good for business. Investors like clean transactions, quick decisions and predictable outcomes. No billionaire in America is looking at the hoops Chris Hansen and Steve Ballmer are jumping through with envy in his eyes. They thought they bought a team three months ago. They still have at least a week until they find out if that purchase actually happened or not. And few would envy Sacramento's plight: sandbagging owners refused to sell to a local group, and now the city and its investors need to scramble to convince the NBA to block a sale to the Seattle group. It's a real headache for everyone, and not something seen as remotely optimal.
I do think the NBA has handled it as well as possible since January, by playing it down the middle and giving both sides a shot to make their case. But really, this should have been handled long before January. Here's how the NBA can avoid future situations like this.
Force selling team owners to offer the team to local investors first. This is the critical problem with the Kings: the Maloofs steadfastly refused to sell the team to anyone remotely associated with Kevin Johnson, who blocked their gold-plated plan to move the team to Anaheim in 2011. If the Maloofs would have been forced to offer the team to local investors before pitching it out to other markets, perhaps some sort of deal would have gotten done. Maybe not. Chances are the Maloofs would have held out for that $525 million payday. But at least cities can mobilize to "save" their NBA team. Seattle sure could have used a more formal process to prevent Howard Schultz from selling the city out seven years ago.
Make perfectly clear that relocation is not rubber-stamped. This was a problem in Seattle and Sacramento. When the NBA approved the sale of the Sonics to Clay Bennett, it implicitly approved relocation right then and there. There was no way Bennett was going to fork over a couple hundred million to build an arena in the Emerald City. So the rest of the fight became a sham: vigilant fans in Seattle and prospective owners like Ballmer were fighting a granite wall. This year, Hansen agreed to buy the Kings, and the Maloofs almost immediately applied for relocation ... which raises the question: would Hansen have made the deal if there was a chance that the league would have forced him to take a viable arena deal in Sacramento? Of course not. Hence reform No. 1: try locals first.
Be more aggressive with broke-ass owners. The Maloofs could not afford to run an NBA team after their investment in The Palms went belly-up. That was obvious: the Kings left a player at home on road trips to save travel costs, killed their WNBA team, lived at the salary floor for years, and even flew coach for a while. The Maloofs ... flew coach. (No word on whether boutique vodka or $6,000 bottles of Bordeaux are available in coach.)
There is some recent precedent here: George Shinn had gone broke and was prepared to sell the Hornets to Larry Ellison, who planned to take the team to San Jose. The league stepped in, said "You're broke George, go home" and bought the team. Now the Hornets are in New Orleans long-term. Success! Why didn't the NBA do this with the Kings in December, or in January when word began to leak out about the proposed sale? Is it because everyone made jokes about "basketball reasons"? If so, I'm so sorry!
Create a reasonable arena funding solution that doesn't rely so heavily on public subsidy so these relocation-related issues come up only rarely. ...
BWAHAHAHA sorry. Small joke. We know that's never ever ever going to happen. Ah well.