Talk to any SuperSonics fans in Seattle, and this is a done deal, the Kings have been sold to Chris Hansen and Steve Ballmer and the Sonics will rise again in October 2013. Talk to most Kings fans in Sacramento, and well, the city has a shot at keeping the team it has called its own for 28 years.
Frankly, no one knows. There are debates over the legality of a right of first refusal that exists in the Sacramento-based minority owners' partnership agreements -- people in Washington say it's a non-issue, while folks in Sactown think it's a game-changer. There are debates over whether David Stern will give Mark Mastrov and Ron Burkle, the prospective Sacramento saviors, a fair shot or whether he's just paying the city lip service. There are debates as to whether, thanks to a $30 million non-refundable payment to the Maloofs, Hansen will threaten to open up an anti-trust lawsuit against the NBA should it block a sale and move to Seattle.
No matter how any of those questions resolve, we'll know by May whether there will be pro basketball in Sacramento next season. And depending entirely on how those questions resolve, Sacramento basketball fans will have reason to thank the skies or curse them.
You see, the Kings have been awful for a long time. They have the NBA's second longest current playoff drought; Minnesota's is longer by one season. (The Timberwolves could have ended their streak last season if not for an injury to Ricky Rubio, or this season if not for injuries to basically every single player on the roster including Rubio and Kevin Love). The Wolves are the only team with a record worse than the Kings over the past six seasons, and unlike Minnesota, Sacramento is still among the worst teams in the league.
Some fans blame the Maloofs entirely. The Kings have been in the bottom five in payroll since 2009 and actually flirted with the salary floor in two season (2011, 2012). The team made a huge deal about -- get this -- climbing over the salary cap this season. (They did it by re-signing Jason Thompson, a restricted free agent, to a moderate deal, signing Aaron Brooks to a cheap deal and trading a second-round pick for James Johnson, who is on a cheap deal that expires at year's end. What largess!). In addition to that, the Maloofs' constant flirtation with other markets has seriously depressed attendance, which makes Sacramento less attractive for everyone -- players, investors, other fans.
Other fans also blame Geoff Petrie. The calcified personnel boss of the team has reigned longer than any other current GM -- he's been around since 1994. He won two Executive of the Year awards when Chris Webber and Vlade Divac were leading the Kings into battle, but has been roundly criticized by analysts over the past 6-8 seasons for some curious moves. He traded down in the draft to grab John Salmons, who had a year prior signed a $40 million deal. He traded a pick for J.J. Hickson, then waived Hickson midway through the season. He once tried to build a team that had, as its nucleus, Brad Miller, Peja Stojakovic and Mike Bibby. He apparently drafted Francisco Garcia as a point guard.
Regardless of whether you blame the Maloofs, Petrie or both, they'll all be gone at season's end. Petrie has finally reached the end of his tenure; he'll call it a retirement, no doubt. The Maloofs will have sold the team, either to Hansen or Mastrov and Burkle. And that's the rub for Sacramento. Fans finally get a fresh start. They are finally rid of the Maloofs. They are finally rid of Petrie.
And just when that finally happens, they might lose their team.
A fresh start and hope are all Sacramento fans have asked for over the past few years, when they were watching a 19-win team, a cheap roster, so many meaningless games, so many sad draft lotteries, so many irrelevant free agent periods, so many depressing trade deadlines. And now that fresh start is here. And now there's a chance they won't be able to enjoy it.
But there's a chance Sacramento will get what it has long wanted. And if it does, the dual emotion of relief at keeping the team and excitement at the dawn of a new, hopefully competitive era will be overwhelming. If Sacramento keeps the Kings, you may just see a veritable blast back in time to 1985, when Sacramentans camped out three days for single-game tickets, when the number on the waiting list for season tickets was higher than the arena's capacity, when Larry Bird would come to town, miss game-winning free throws as the fans drowned out all feeling in the building and commend the city on its passion. If Sacramento wins back its Kings, it won't just be a moment to celebrate the salvation of the franchise. It'll be a moment to embrace again that which has made Sacramento a special place for NBA basketball.
Salvation? Yes. But also liberty from the tyrannical thumb of uncertainty, a thumb that has pressed down firmly on hope, cheer and passion over the last six years.
It's all or nothing for Sacramento. This is it.