As the future of the Kings is analyzed, with financial, environmental and real estate issues subjected to intense, unprecedented scrutiny this week at NBA headquarters in New York, the man driving the process is the same commissioner whose own conclusions are likely to affect the outcome.
David Stern doesn't have a vote in what he termed this "wrenching" dilemma between Sacramento and Seattle, but he has a voice, and it remains the league's most powerful one. There is no chance – none – that he is only providing background noise while the league's enormous legal staff examines the two cities, two potential ownership groups, and two proposed arenas in preparation for a long-awaited resolution.
The running joke within the league, in fact, is that NBA stands for "Nothing But Attorneys."
But the reality is this: Stern will be the chief lawyer in charge until he delivers the office keys next February to his respected and anointed heir, Adam Silver.
True, the ownership dynamic is transitioning into a younger, wealthier and less malleable crowd. Many of the old lions who linked arms and rubber-stamped Stern's decisions are gone. But keep this in mind:
Silver is Stern's loyal lieutenant; it is foolish to assume Silver would buck Stern's recommendations. Many of the same owners awaiting Silver's more tempered, conciliatory touch recognize Stern's expertise and experience in ownership and relocation matters; 28 of the 30 ownership groups were vetted and approved during his tenure – almost all of whom would rather defer the complex issues pertaining to sales and relocation while tending to their own franchises.
And the aversion to relocation is no myth. Moving teams fosters the image of instability and generates tremendous ill will among fans. The Sacramento-Seattle debate has led to a spitting contest in two quality NBA cities: an incumbent with a loyal following, improving economy and impressive investor group, and no competing major sports franchise within 90 miles; the other with an even more formidable ownership possibility and standing as the No. 1 target for an existing or expansion franchise since the Sonics relocated to Oklahoma City five years ago.
Stern's final answer, interestingly enough, is proving to be his most vexing.
One league executive Tuesday described the commissioner as "anguishing" over the process that consists of competing offers for one team, proposals for new arenas in Sacramento and Seattle, and questions pertaining to the prudence and practicality of relocating an established incumbent franchise that sold out 19 of 28 seasons.
It's unclear whether the Sacramento group, led by software tycoon Vivek Ranadive, satisfied Stern's request for more "details" regarding the counteroffer to the record-setting agreement the Maloofs signed with the Seattle-based group headed by Chris Hansen and Steve Ballmer.
The principals on all sides are preaching and practicing vows of silence. In Sacramento, where the financial bona fides of the potential ownership group sent shock waves throughout the league, Kings officials have been directed to prepare marketing and season ticket plans for next season. Further, the 2013-14 NBA preseason schedule includes the annual game against the Lakers in Las Vegas. Key team employees – many of whom have been pursuing other jobs because of the lingering uncertainty – also are being urged to sit tight.
Those close to the situation in Seattle are hanging their hopes on the signed agreement with the Maloofs, the enormous wealth of Ballmer, and the more advanced environmental review process, among other things.
Nonetheless, Stern's announcement that the combined finance/relocation committee members would address relocation before delving into a sale of the franchise caused some alarm in Seattle because NBA bylaws list very specific criteria that must be applied to potential moves, including the degree of support within existing communities, the region's demographics, television market size, the overall impact on the league's marketing, etc.
In several of those categories, Sacramento emerges as a winner. If the committee recommends leaving the team where it is, it effectively pre-empts the sale issue; it's highly unlikely Hansen/Ballmer want to own a team in Sacramento, which strongly suggests the Maloofs would accept a competing offer.
Ultimately, Stern, a master behind-the-scenes negotiator, returns to his legal roots. He has one big play left. Sacramento or Seattle? Or maybe a resolution – expansion – that he so carefully has avoided publicly discussing?
This is still his league. This is still his call. This is on him.
Call The Bee's Ailene Voisin (916) 321-1208 and follow her on Twitter @ailene_voisin.