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Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Kings checkmated by money, luck

By Bill Simmons
ESPN.com

I know three things about Sacramento: The Kings play there; the governor of California lives there; and Kevin Johnson won the city's mayoral election without pulling either of his hammies. (Inside joke for anyone who ever had KJ on a fantasy team.) I certainly don't want to think about Sacramento during one of our most entertaining NBA postseasons ever. I'd rather wonder whether Rose and Durant are making The Leap, whether Nowitzki can reinvent his legacy, whether the Moheatos are coming together, whether the ragtag Grizzlies can pull a Hickory High, whether Kendrick Perkins swung the NBA title, whether Kobe has anything left in his apex predator tank, whether the porous Knicks' defense gave Rondo his mojo back or whether Brandon Roy is filming the last 15 minutes of a sports movie and we haven't realized it yet.

But with a momentum-killing lockout lurking and the Maloofs scrapping to keep their franchise afloat, it's hard not to wonder whether those two events are connected. Is there a chasm between big and small NBA markets that only a prolonged labor stoppage can prevent? Is Sacramento's failure a glimpse of a bigger picture -- that, in the Multitasker Generation, middle-class fans would rather stay home and do four things at once than spend their hard-earned money for mediocre seats and uninspired basketball?

Or did the Maloofs simply go broke, and now they're trying to save their asses without selling the team and none of this means anything?

We know this much: It's more challenging than ever for a small-market NBA team to succeed. You can pull it off, but you need to be smart and lucky. Oklahoma City created the best blueprint: Catch a lottery break (Durant), nail a few draft picks (Westbrook and Ibaka), make a smart trade (Perkins), avoid overpaying veterans, hoard your cap space, target character guys and stockpile as many extra picks as you can. The Kings haven't been nearly as smart or lucky. Suddenly, it's the arena's fault. You know, because the arena told them to trade Kevin Martin for half his value, or spend one-fourth of their payroll on Beno Udrih and Francisco Garcia.

But let's pretend the Maloofs aren't broke for a second. Or overleveraged. Or whatever you want to call it when people have more debt than cash flow and can't solve that issue without selling one or two of their best assets, but they're too stubborn to sell those assets. Sacramento's current struggles highlight four of the league's biggest problems right now.

Problem No. 1: Once you get approved to purchase an NBA franchise, for whatever reason, David Stern seemingly yields all control over your behavior unless you criticize his officials. That makes him really angry. Anything else? Knock yourself out. If you want to heckle your own players or bring your friends into your team's locker room specifically so they can ogle your half-naked players -- two things Donald Sterling did this past season -- Stern can't do anything. If your general manager gets involved in a massively embarrassing, multimillion-dollar sexual harassment suit (James Dolan, anyone?), Stern can't do anything. If you're going broke and stripping your operating costs to the bare minimum to survive -- screwing your fans over in the process -- Stern can't do anything. Buying into the NBA is like buying a house: Once you move in, feel free to disgrace the neighborhood however you want.

Problem No. 2: It's difficult to generate revenue without a "state of the art" arena, only taxpayers just recently realized the hypocrisy of billionaires roping locals into paying for a new building, so it's a much more difficult feat to pull off now. (Although it was a fun era while it lasted. I know I'm worth 4 billion on paper, but what if you guys paid for the arena? You can put a few restaurants and bars around it, you'll totally break even! Just trust me!) What happens when you're stuck in a washed-up arena with a perennial lottery team? You're screwed.

Problem No. 3: It's really difficult to contend unless (A) you strike oil in the lottery, or (B) persuade Chris Wallace or Kevin McHale to trade you his best player. New Orleans landed Chris Paul only because Atlanta screwed up and took Marvin Williams, who's being used as the guy who holds back Zaza Pachulia in all of Zaza's pseudo-altercations. Oklahoma City needed pingpong help to land the second pick of the 2007 draft and needed Portland to pass on Durant. Milwaukee? It landed the No. 1 overall pick of the 2005 draft (Andrew Bogut) one year after Dwight Howard and two years after LeBron James. Bad luck. You get only a couple of home run chances per decade as a small-market team. The odds are against you.

Problem No. 4: It's really, really difficult to persuade a franchise player, or even a perennial All-Star, to remain in a small market unless you're winning 60-plus games every year. NBA players like sunshine, big cities and tax-free states. If a franchise can't offer one of the three carrots, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy -- like the girl who joins "The Real World" and claims she's going to keep a long-distance relationship with her boyfriend of six years. You know she will hook up with a roommate; you know the boyfriend will come visit and play pool with that roommate; and you know she will dump him at the end of the weekend. It's just the way the show works. Same for LeBron leaving Cleveland. The current free-agency system doesn't give smaller markets any advantage to help them keep their best players. Superstars such as Chris Paul ultimately will play wherever they want. Lesser stars such as Danny Granger will stick around, but only if you overpay them and destroy your cap. You're screwed either way.


Full disclosure: I don't really care about Problem No. 4. People should live where they want without being judged … well, unless you're copping out and joining forces with your biggest rival like LeBron did. For us to expect professional athletes not to overrate location when deciding where to play is naive. If I said to a friend, "My wife and I are going to South Beach for a few days," my friend would say, "That's awesome, where are you staying?" If I said to that same friend, "My wife and I are going to Sacramento for a few days," my friend would say, "Sacramento? Why?" Sorry, it's true.

Does that mean basketball can't work there? Not necessarily. A few weeks ago, I wrote that the Kings were leaving "because their franchise wasn't worth anything where it was." Not to argue with myself, but if that were true, why did billionaire Ron Burkle recently try to buy the Kings with the intention of keeping them in Sacramento?

Obviously, I was wrong: the Kings were worth something where they were, just as the Penguins (another Burkle purchase) turned out to be worth something in Pittsburgh. Burkle's intuition was the right one: He knew the lockout was coming (and shorter contracts, and a hard cap, and better protection for small markets with their best players), and he knew the NBA is sitting in a phenomenal place with talent (more recognizable stars than every other sport combined), digital distribution (no league has done a better job) and international growth (ditto). Buying the Kings at a discount, figuring out the stadium issue one way or the other, then moving them to Vancouver or Seattle (the best available markets) as a worst-case scenario makes more sense than overpaying for, say, the Phoenix Suns. It's the same reason mega-billionaire Larry Ellison tried to steal New Orleans this past winter.

Of course, when the Maloofs publicly dismissed Burkle's offer in the same snotty, head-scratching way that a broke college stoner would dismiss a lucrative offer for his favorite bong ("We're not selling!"), it should have been a bigger deal. Burkle proved by helping to keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh that, at the very least, he isn't some soulless corporate sports raider. If anyone is acting soullessly here, it's the Maloofs.

Some background on them: Their father owned the Houston Rockets in 1980 before suddenly passing away, leaving the franchise to the three brothers and their sister (now a star on "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills," and no, I'm not making that up). None was older than 26. That same season, the 40-42 Rockets rode Moses Malone all the way to the Finals before losing to Boston. (Note: When researching my book a few years ago, I was watching an '81 Finals game and did a double take upon seeing the Maloof brothers sitting courtside. Even back then, they had the same glazed, happy-to-be-there look.) But they were in over their heads, and, with the league struggling at the time, the Maloofs cashed out a year later. And regretted it. A few years later, they bought back in with the Kings. You know the rest.

Within the league, everyone loves the brothers -- owners, players, even David Stern, who calls them "the boys" even though they're older than any active player. That's why Stern allowed their ill-fated Anaheim "move" to limp along like it did, without ever asking the pertinent question, "Wait a second, aren't you guys just doing this because you're broke?" If Donald Sterling had tried it? The league would have thrown up a bigger roadblock than the one Harvey Keitel assembled for Thelma and Louise. Again, everyone likes the Maloofs. Good guys. That's what you always hear when their names come up.

Well, you know who else are good guys? The Sacramento fans. They supported that crummy franchise for 25 years, getting rewarded only with the short-lived C-Webb Era: when the Kings suddenly evolved into the league's most entertaining team, when they came within an officiating monstrosity and a crunch-time choke of making the 2002 Finals, when everything quickly fell apart because they gave Webber a nine-figure extension even though his knees were made of fusilli. What other choice did they have? How many Chris Webbers fall into the lap of a small-market team? Lose him and you're definitely screwed. Pay him and you're screwed once he gets injured. They couldn't win. It's the Curse of the Small-Market NBA Team: once you stop being smart and lucky, everything falls apart.

Webber's demise triggered a chain of events that eventually turned Sacramento into the NBA's Pittsburgh Pirates. Only in this past season did Kings fans start seriously worrying about losing their team -- not just because their owners were overleveraged but because they had little faith in Stern, who looked the other way after Game 6's officiating fiasco in 2002, then again as the Sonics were stolen, then again these past 12 months as the Maloofs did everything short of putting their office equipment on Craigslist.

Remember, the owners pay Stern to run the league in their best interests. As part of that responsibility, he also is supposed to care about players and fans. But in what order? Recent history shows that it's the owners first, then everyone else. We saw it in Seattle, when new owners conspired to move the Sonics (and did) without any real repercussions. We saw it when New Orleans' George Shinn was going under and needed to sell; the league office decided that, rather than allow someone to steal the Hornets like a plasma TV at an everything-must-go sale, they'd protect that sticker tag, purchase the team at "market value," then sell when the economy turned or use it as contraction leverage for upcoming lockout talks. And we saw it again these past few months in Sacramento. Where was the commissioner as the Maloofs torched their relationship with locals and cut every conceivable financial corner?

As a parent, my job is to take care of my kids, provide them shelter and food, keep them safe, and teach them right from wrong. The owners of a sports franchise have a much simpler job: They pay for stuff. That's it. Remember Jerry Seinfeld's joke about the only qualifications for a New York City cab driver being a name and a face? Being an NBA owner isn't much different: You need a face and a checkbook. The best owners take it much further by becoming the face of their franchise, engaging their fans, getting involved in the community, unearthing inventive ways to generate revenue, then putting that extra revenue back into their team. But you don't necessarily have to do that. You can just sit back, hire mediocre employees and pay for just enough stuff to stay afloat.

Guess what? The Maloofs couldn't even do that. Consider …

• The 2010-11 Kings had such a low payroll, they dipped more than a million below the league's minimum team salary threshold after February's Carl Landry/Marcus Thornton trade. How did they fix it? By getting money from the Celtics to acquire Marquis Daniels, who was only crippled with a season-ending spinal injury at the time. Any time "acquiring someone with a season-ending spinal injury" is actually a savvy move, you know your season didn't go so well.

• A few years ago, when the NBA offered struggling franchises a line of credit up to an estimated $75 million to weather a foundering economy, the Maloofs gobbled up every available dime. They haven't paid it back yet. They're like the annoying guy in your fantasy football league who hasn't paid the commissioner in three years. I'm out of checks right now. Can I pay you on PayPal? Are you on PayPal? What if I just get you at the draft?

When the city of Sacramento lent them $77 million to help them build a new stadium years ago, the Maloofs eagerly cashed the check. They haven't paid the money back yet, which seems relevant, you know, because they're trying to move the team to Anaheim. Late correction: Thanks to some bad Googling, I botched the facts on this one. The Maloofs inherited that $77 million loan from the previous owner once they assumed control of the team in 1999. They have not paid the money back yet. Which seems relevant, you know, because they're trying to move the team to Anaheim.

• When Anaheim approached them about relocating the Kings there, the Maloofs asked the city to pay for the relocation fee -- determined by the other 29 owners based on the perceived value of the new market compared with the old one, which means that fee could climb as high as $75-100 million -- and lend them money to cover their debts on top of that. What a deal! So Anaheim gets a terrible basketball team and a ton of debt, plus, it doesn't get to own the team. How can the city turn that Godfather offer down?

• The Maloofs made the fatal mistake of building a billion-dollar tower at the Palms right before the economy turned; between that and Las Vegas' abrupt decline as a tourist attraction, their economic fortune swung as fast as an unlucky blackjack player at one of their tables. Maybe that's why, in the past 18 months, they sold their family's liquor distributor, folded their WNBA team, shopped the Palms and accumulated so much casino debt that Harrah's started buying it up for a possible takeover.

Getting the picture yet? If Mark Cuban owned the Kings and announced, "I've looked at this from every conceivable angle, and there's just no way a professional basketball team can work in Sacramento anymore," we would assume that opinion came from an educated, thoughtful place. Here's what we know about the Maloofs.

1. They inherited a ton of money.

2. At some point, one of them said, "We like basketball, we should buy an NBA team."

3. At a later point, one of them said, "We like gambling, we should buy a casino."

4. They no longer have a ton of money.


Young Flanagan always warns us on TBS and Cinemax 3, "Everything ends badly … or else it wouldn't end." Once upon a time, the Maloofs owned the hottest casino in Las Vegas and one of the hottest teams in basketball. Now, they apparently would rather destroy basketball in Sacramento than admit their own financial plight. The words of Young Flanagan are bouncing right off them.

In baseball, Dodgers owner Frank McCourt ran out of money to pay for stuff. There were two big reasons for this: He was going through a nasty divorce, and he never had any money in the first place. How can you buy one of the most famous baseball franchises without any money? It's a great question. But when McCourt went behind Bud Selig's back and tried to secure a $30 million personal loan from Fox (his television partner), an enraged Selig seized the team from him last week under the rarely seen edict, "You Can't Pay For Stuff Anymore."

Only Southern Californians fully understand what happened to the Dodgers during the McCourt Error. Six decades, Dodger Stadium, Vin Scully, Koufax and Drysdale, Garvey-Cey-Lopes-Russell, Fernandomania, Orel's streak, Gibson's homer, Gagne coming out of the bullpen breathing fire, Dodger Blue … the McCourts were crapping on all of it. Desecrating the brand. Maybe it took a sneaky loan and a poor Giants fan getting senselessly beaten into a coma for Selig to finally intervene, but he did. To his credit. When a commissioner keeps siding with owners over fans, he becomes nothing but a puppet with strings trickling out of his back. Selig stuck up for Dodgers fans. He did the right thing.

Sacramento fans must have felt jealous: For months and months, they had been waiting for Stern to stick up for them. Last week, he finally did. And only because the arrogance of "the boys" left him no choice. One of the biggest economic swoons in American history just happened because overleveraged multimillionaires and billionaires took too many dumb chances, borrowed too much money and cheated the system too many times … you know, exactly how the Maloofs tried to keep a franchise they could no longer afford to run. Stern finally had enough. But only when the Lakers and Clippers refused to yield their lucrative Orange County territory unless they were paid accordingly.

Suddenly, it's looking as if the Kings will stay in Sacramento for at least one more year. On Tuesday, the league meets with local sponsors that Mayor Johnson lined up who pledged $10 million in advertising money for next season. Stern & Co. want to see a check. This means one of three things: Either the league plans to purchase the Kings to protect the sticker tag and gain additional contraction leverage; it's forcing the Maloofs to stick around (but making sure they have enough cash flow to meet payroll); or this is a new and improved way to stomp on the hearts of every Kings fan.

My prediction: the league will pay full price for the Kings (or close to it), use them as lockout leverage (along with the Hornets), then work with Johnson and Sacramento on finding new ownership after the lockout. It's the right move. There's every reason to believe that Sacramento could turn into Oklahoma City or Portland in the right hands. But it needs the right hands. And those hands need to be able to write checks that pay for stuff.

That reminds me, I attended Game 3 of the Mavericks-Blazers series on Thursday. Since winning the 1977 title, Rip City suffered through Walton's feet, Bowie's shins, Roy's knees and Oden's everything. Its team famously passed on Jordan and Durant. It had quality contenders squashed by Isiah's Pistons, Magic's Lakers and Jordan's Bulls, eventually fumbling away the 2000 title to Shaq's Lakers with the cruelest collective choke in modern NBA history. When that roster slowly morphed into the hideous Jail Blazers, the most fan-unfriendly team ever assembled, the fans finally reached a breaking point and rebelled. Corporations stopped buying suites; fans stopped selling out the arena. Things looked bleak.

Why didn't the situation implode? Because Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge showed up. Because owner Paul Allen embraced how deeply Portlanders identified with his franchise and started emphasizing character. Because Allen hired an enterprising front office that used his money as a competitive advantage, buying extra draft picks, thinking outside the box with creative free-agent offers and raiding cost-cutting teams of solid veterans. The team built a good enough foundation to survive a few bad breaks (most recently, Oden and Roy), and now they're giving the Mavericks everything they can handle in Round 1. Maybe the Blazers haven't been totally lucky, but they've definitely been smart.

During Game 3's satisfying victory, fans hollered for four quarters, worked the refs, heckled Cuban mercilessly, stood and cheered at the right times, brought their energy to another level when their team needed it, then skipped happily out of the arena when it was over. The way they were banging drums, honking horns and chanting "Let's go Blazers" on the street, you would have thought they had just won a Game 7. Some of them headed over to celebrate at Spirit of 77, a perfectly named sports bar because Walton's 1977 team legitimized Portland as a sports city, distinguished it from every other small market and set the tone for everything that followed. Portland might not be the best professional basketball city in America, but it's definitely in the top five.

And guess what? Portland's arena isn't so great. The Rose Garden was built right before everyone figured out how to build state-of-the-art arenas, with only one tier of suites located too far from the court. Portland fans love their Blazers so much that they didn't even flip out when Allen jacked the price of playoff tickets to staggering heights. You can do these things when you're winning with likable players. That's how any NBA team not located in Los Angeles, Florida, New York or Texas survives in the NBA in 2011.

When you're not winning? You end up like Indiana -- trying to avoid a first-round sweep at home in a stadium filled with more Bulls fans than Pacers fans, only you can't ban anyone outside Indiana from buying tickets online because you need the money too badly. You end up like Minnesota, coming off six straight lottery appearances that included three separate rebuilding projects during that time. You end up like Charlotte, giving away three of your four best players from a 2010 playoff team for what amounted to two lottery-protected picks. And you end up like Sacramento, hearing your overleveraged owners pretend that your city can't support basketball, ending up with moments like this and wondering how you got there.

Those things happen when you don't have better revenue sharing, or a hard salary cap, or franchise tags, or shorter guaranteed contracts. If there were a Kevin Durant and Sam Presti to go around for every small-market team, things would be fine. But you're much more likely to get stuck with Tyreke Evans and three Maloofs.

That's why these next two months of ridiculously good basketball have a guillotine hanging over them, and that's why Sacramento's soap opera symbolizes everything. Thanks to Durant, Paul, Roy and everyone else who made Round 1 so special, the NBA is blowing up … right as it's about to be blown up. Go figure.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com and the author of the recent New York Times No. 1 best-seller "The Book of Basketball," now out in paperback with new material and a revised Hall of Fame Pyramid. For every Simmons column and podcast, check out Sports Guy's World or the BS Report page. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sportsguy33.

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