NEW YORK -- The battle for the future of the Sacramento Kings has evolved into a struggle between the team's current ownership and NBA commissioner David Stern.
The Maloof family, which has owned the majority of the team since 1999, is attempting to force through a deal that would move the Kings to Seattle and land them the most money in selling their shares.
Stern isn't openly on the opposite side of the issue. However, the powerful commissioner is holding the Maloofs to league procedures, and in the process, he's buying a competing bid from Sacramento valuable time to fill in gaps in its plan.
Several league ownership sources told ESPN.com there remain serious questions about the Sacramento group's financing for the team and for a new arena. Both were hastily put together in the past two months after the Maloofs caught everyone by surprise -- the league office and the city of Sacramento included -- when they announced a deal to sell the team to Seattle investors in January.
A rival Sacramento ownership group has changed its makeup several times but is now led by respected software magnate Vivek Ranadive. The Seattle group has deeper pockets and is led by billionaires Chris Hansen and Steve Ballmer, who is one of the richest men in the world. They have an arena deal that was approved by city and county officials last fall.
After the NBA owners completed their end-of-season meetings at a Manhattan hotel Friday, Stern said a final vote on the Kings' future would take place the week of May 6. A committee of 12 owners will make their recommendation on which way to vote after meetings next week. Originally, the owners had planned to finalize the Kings' situation on Friday, but the vote has been pushed back so the owners could further study the offers.
The jockeying ahead of that vote is in full swing.
The Maloofs sent a letter to NBA owners this week urging them to approve their deal with the Seattle group. The letter was obtained Friday by ESPN.com.
For many of the key points the Maloofs made in the letter, Stern had a counter.
" The Maloofs said the Seattle deal was richer, offering to pay $357 million for 65 percent of the team. The Sacramento offer is $341 million after the group did not match a recent higher bid by Hansen. Also, the Maloofs said they have not been given documentation that the Sacramento group has the money to execute the transaction. The Maloofs wrote the Seattle group has already put down a $30 million deposit. The Maloofs said the Sacramento group is offering a $15 million deposit but only after the Seattle offer was officially rejected.
Stern admitted Friday the Sacramento offer was not yet complete. But he downplayed the differences in the offers and said it was "in the ballpark" of the Seattle offer.
"I think it's not as complete as it probably is going to be by the close of business today or tomorrow," Stern said. "There is a down payment. ... We have had assurances of funding support and that has been documented to something in the neighborhood of 80 percent to our satisfaction."
" The Maloofs say the Sacramento offer is not legally binding and could leave them without a true backup plan if the Seattle offer is rejected by owners.
"It is binding," Stern said.
" Hansen has told owners he believes he could get his arena in Seattle completed by 2015 and potentially beat Sacramento's arena plan, which is in earlier stages. Owners could consider which city could get its arena operating more quickly -- thus generating more income that could be shared by the league -- in the vote.
Stern downplayed it, citing the league's longtime knowledge of arena deals.
"We have a fair amount of experience with arenas being built ... and so for us there's almost always a built-in slippage of some kind or another in most arena situations," Stern said. "We just have been focusing more on the fact that whether we're in Seattle or we're in Sacramento, we're going to be in a temporary building that is not adequate fully by NBA current standards for some period of time."
" In addition to writing the letter, George Maloof spoke to a small group of owners at a previous meeting in New York two weeks ago to appeal to it to accept the Seattle deal.
Stern made it clear Friday that the future of the Kings is up to all the owners, not the sellers of a single franchise.
"When a team wants to move, it becomes the province of the board, rather than ownership," Stern said. "That's why we have this constitutional provision, which has this rather labor-intensive process that is sort of weighing down on all of us as we go down the checklist, we get everything together."
Stern also denied he was taking sides in the matter. Recently, a Seattle television station reported Stern was working behind the scenes to block the Kings' move.
"There's no lobbying or campaigning going on by the league office," said Adam Silver, the league's deputy commissioner who will take over for Stern next year. "We are presenting the facts in a most full way we can to the owners."
What isn't in dispute is how challenging of an issue this is for the NBA. Stern described it as wrenching. With all the moving parts and the endless rounds of public and private maneuvering by all the parties, it still remains unclear as to which group has the edge.
"I think it's a huge decision for the league," Silver said. "It's two fantastic cities and it's a very difficult position that the owners find themselves in."