Kevin Johnson to Maloofs: There will be no negotiations during critical Friday meeting

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I wrote on Thursday about the recent developments in the Sacramento Kings arena situation, and namely the Maloofs’ recent actions that amount to a legal full court press designed to land the franchise in Anaheim. The quick and dirty to catch you up is this – the Maloofs, Sacramento, AEG, and the NBA came to an agreement in principle on a $391 million Entertainment and Sports Complex during All Star weekend. A few weeks ago, the Maloofs publicly refused to pay for pre-development costs totaling $3.26 million that were agreed upon during that time. The Maloofs are the only party that disputes that they agreed to the amount, and the dispute has landed at the NBA Board of Governors meeting, which is where we pick up.

The Maloofs pitched at the BOG meeting for about 90 minutes yesterday, and afterwards they disappeared through a side exit not to be found by reporters guarding the various orifices of the St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan.

Dale Kasler of the Sacramento Bee provided this report following the meeting:

In particular, the Maloofs have said they never agreed to contribute $3.26 million toward environmental studies and other “pre-development” costs, as the term sheet says. Spokesman (Harvey) Englander declined to elaborate on the Maloofs’ presentation, other than to say the topic of relocation didn’t come up. “They asked good questions and it was a very good meeting.”

Earlier, Englander said the family would present a “historical analysis of the transaction” to owners, and hoped to have a clear path set toward a deal by the time the meetings end on Friday. Englander said it could take days or weeks, however, to come to a resolution.

On one hand, if you take the statement at face value, it’s encouraging for Kings fans that the topic of relocation didn’t come up.  But the last part about ‘days or weeks’ is where the rub lies, as it reflects the Maloofs’ position that there is still more to discuss about a deal that was already supposed to be done. During this departure from the handshake agreement, the Maloofs’ actions have become increasingly adversarial and this has culminated in Sacramento business leaders asking commissioner David Stern to remove them as owners. From the city-side, nothing is up for grabs, and the parties opposite the Maloofs have stood united in maintaining that the major elements of the deal aren’t going to change.

So what exactly transpired during the closed door session at the BOG meetings on Thursday? We’re still flushing that information out, but David Stern apparently setup a meeting between mayor Kevin Johnson and the embattled family. This was announced mid-day Thursday after the meeting had concluded, by Maloof family spokesman Englander, no less:

“The commissioner said the mayor (Kevin Johnson is) flying out, taking the red eye, (and) suggested we meet with him. And we are,” said Englander.

Questions swirled once the vague itinerary of events was disclosed to the public. What did Stern and the owners tell the Maloofs? Did they tell them to go kick rocks, to take the deal that they had already negotiated? Did they tell the Maloofs that they could indeed try to make a change to the main elements of the deal after the fact? And under what pretenses would Johnson and the Maloofs be meeting?

Clearly, there had to be a plan other than to stick the two parties in a room only to see them storm out 20 minutes later.

After about six hours of radio silence, Kevin Johnson’s office released to PBT a letter they sent to the Maloofs regarding Friday’s meeting. In the letter, Johnson made it entirely clear that he does not plan on negotiating when the sides meet up. Here are selected excerpts and the entire text:

I understand that during today’s NBA Relocation Committee you and your team made a presentation. During the discussion, it was suggested that a meeting with me tomorrow might be beneficial. As has been my commitment throughout this process, I am always happy to meet in the spirit of open communication and partnership. However, in advance of our conversation, I believe it important to make clear several key points:

First, all parties agreed to a deal in Orlando on February 27th, codified in the term sheet subsequently approved by our City Council. At the time, George Maloof explained the Maloof Family’s reason for agreeing to the deal, saying to the Sacramento Bee that it is a “fair deal…worth taking.”

Any representation that a deal was not reached is simply not consistent with the perspective of every other party to the negotiation nor the actual statements of the family.

Second, throughout this process, we have worked closely with the NBA as a valued partner at your request, as documented by the following Kings’ public statements that the “NBA take the lead on this” while remaining “in very close contact with the league” and being “apprised of everything that’s going on.”

Third, and most critically, under no circumstances will the City make material adjustments to the current terms of the deal. Put simply, we have done our part. And there should be no expectation in tomorrow’s conversation that this deal is subject to further negotiation.

We take you at your word that you are committed to Sacramento as you’ve said repeatedly in recent weeks. The best – and only – way to demonstrate that commitment is to honor the “fair deal” as all other parties have done. Your handshake is your handshake. Your promise is your promise.

So let the games begin. The Maloofs’ statement that it could take days or weeks to come to a resolution reeks of haggling over the price of clear coat, and it remains to be seen how much negotiating the NBA is going to actually permit here. For example, negotiating over a small stipulated clause involving little to no dollar value is probably on the up-and-up. On the other hand, should the Maloofs say they want to pay $25 million and not the $73 million they’ve already committed – that would definitely be a non-starter.

Right now, the argument is over $3.26 million in pre-development costs, or one year of Travis Outlaw’s salary. Before the Maloofs’ legal maneuverings started to resemble that of a family that wanted to get out of Dodge, I had surmised that the family’s argument over pre-development costs was really designed to extract a concession down the road.

And now it doesn’t matter if it’s up-front costs or back-end revenues, though, because Johnson is not negotiating. Sources in several different arena camps have made this much clear, and if it wasn’t clear Johnson’s letter was loud and clear. The only real question is – how much juice does Johnson have?

This is one of two things for him. One less settling possibility for Kings fans is that this is Johnson’s line in the sand, a way for him to say to his constituents that he wouldn’t back down. In this case Johnson believes (and he is right) that the city of Sacramento has done enough, and for better or worse he’s going to stand on that principle at least for now. So he draws the line in the sand with the hopes that the odds are in his favor, that the NBA and other owners will recognize that the city has done their part, and not allow the Maloofs to exit stage right.

Then there’s possibility No. 2, which is much more likely in my opinion, and that is that Johnson has already taken his cues from commissioner Stern. He isn’t gambling with the years of work completed by all of the various stakeholders. He isn’t gambling with all of the political capital he has spent on getting an arena deal done. He isn’t gambling with the political capital spent by all of his colleagues and he certainly isn’t putting the entire project on the line with a take-it-or-leave-it demand that isn’t rooted in reality.

In other words he knows that his price is firm, and he’s not buying the clear coat.

We’ll see later Friday who had the juice and for the Maloofs, if the juice of owning an NBA franchise is worth the squeeze.

Thunder star Russell Westbrook scores 45, leads 25-point comeback against Jazz

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The Thunder lost three straight games, fell behind by 25 in the second half at home and looked as if they had no interest in returning to Utah.

Then, Russell Westbrook reminded everyone why he’s a superstar.

Westbrook is a singular force who can take over a game and rally his teammates – not a liability who makes everyone around him worse. His confidence and determination in the face of calamity were invaluable tonight. He kept attacking, and as shots started to fall, he and his teammates massively increased their defensive intensity.

The result: A 107-99 Game 5 win over the Jazz that looked highly improbable 21 game minutes before it ended. But Westbrook (who finished with 45 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists) singlehandedly outscored Utah in that final stretch.

The Thunder are hardly out of the woods yet. They still trail 3-2 in the series with Game 6 Friday in Utah. Teams with home-court advantage in a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6 win it just 37% of the time. Those teams win the series just 26% of the time.

But thanks to Westbrook, Paul George (34 points) and plain all-around defensive effort, Oklahoma City still has a shot. At minimum, the Thunder won’t send George into unrestricted free agency with four straight losses.

Not that Oklahoma City erased all concerns.

Rudy Gobert devoured the Thunder’s offense in the paint – at least while he could avoid the foul trouble. Utah was +7 in Gobert’s 30 minutes and -8 in the 18 minutes he sat.

The Thunder made most of their comeback with Carmelo Anthony on the bench. They continued to play well once he returned in the fourth quarter, but by then, the Jazz had lost all rhythm.

Utah – led by Jae Crowder‘s 27 points – looks deeper. Anthony was still Oklahoma City’s third-leading scorer with just seven points.

And the Thunder haven’t won in Salt Lake City this series.

But they’ll make another trip there. Considering where this game and series looked midway through the third quarter tonight, that’s a heck of an accomplishment.

Another massive third quarter lifts Rockets past Timberwolves into second round

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We saw this movie just a couple of nights before, but Rockets fans love the ending and would gladly pay to see it 12 more times this postseason.

Much like Game 4, the Rockets were down at the half in Game 5 Wednesday after having played disinterested defense and with cold shooting from their stars (James Harden and Chris Paul combined to go 3-of-16 from the floor). Minnesota was up 59-55 and had hope.

Then the third quarter the Rockets flipped the switch. Again.

Harden had 15 points in the third — matching the Timberwolves as a team. Minnesota started to double Harden and take the ball out of his hands (especially late in the shot clock), but he often moved the rock and it led to open threes — the Rockets were 6-of-10 from three in the quarter. Houston won the third 30-15, not as overwhelming as the 50-point quarter the game before but once again enough to comfortably pull away from Minnesota and cruise in for a 122-104 win.

With that, the Rockets win the series 4-1 and now await the winner of the Utah vs. Oklahoma City series.

In that series, the Rockets will need to play with more consistent focus than they brought against the Timberwolves — they can’t just play a couple of good halves in the next series and expect that to be enough. Unlike Minnesota, those teams in the next round will make Houston pay a steep price for a lack of focus.

Houston got a massive night from Clint Capela, who led the Rockets with 26 points and 15 rebounds, running the rim hard in transition and making plays inside while the rest of the Rockets launched threes over the top.

Harden finished with 24 points and 12 assists, and Eric Gordon had 19 off the bench in the win.

Minnesota had 23 points from Karl-Anthony Towns and 17 from an energized Jeff Teague.

For the Timberwolves, a team with elite young talent, this was a glimpse of what it will take to reach the heights they envision. This was a good step — the franchise’s first trip to the playoffs since 2004 is not to be diminished. It matters. But there are higher levels this team can attain. Defensively they have to be better, offensively they need to feed Towns more and play to their strengths better. It’s a work in progress.

Houston just showed them where they want to be.

Hawks, coach Mike Budenholzer agree to part ways

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This was expected.

It was pretty obvious Mike Budenholzer didn’t want to stick around and lose a lot of games with the Atlanta Hawks as they rebuild the next few years, especially after he had been stripped of his GM powers. Budenholzer went well down the road with the Phoenix Suns about their open coaching position before thinking better of it. Since then he has set up a meeting with the Knicks about their coaching vacancy, a job he reportedly wants badly.

At this point there was no need for the Hawks and Budenholzer to continue their sham marriage, so they have agreed to amicably separate, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and since confirmed by the Hawks.

Budenholzer said this to Wojnarowski of ESPN:

“I am grateful for the five years that I spent as coach of the Atlanta Hawks, and will always cherish the incredible contributions, commitment and accomplishments of the players that I was fortunate enough to work with here,” Budenholzer told ESPN on Wednesday night. “From ownership to management, support staff to the community, I’ll look back with great pride on what we were able to achieve together with the Hawks.”

For Budenholzer, the long-time Spurs assistant and a strong Xs and Os coach, look for him to both push for the Knicks job and be in the running if/when the Milwaukee Bucks job opens up whenever their season ends. In both cases he’s a fit — those are teams that need a culture and system reset, and Budenholzer proved he can bring that to Atlanta (that was a good team before they let Al Horford and Paul Millsap walk for nothing).

With Atlanta, they likely will turn to a top assistant coach who will get a chance to develop young players on that team (and not cost Atlanta as much as an established coach). Stephen Silas of the Hornets is a rumored name, but there are others.

LeBron James overrules controversial finish with game-winning 3-pointer (video)

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LeBron James‘ turnover with the game tied late looked like a bad call. LeBron’s block of Victor Oladipo on the ensuing possession looked like a goaltend.

Did the Cavaliers get robbed of a crucial possession? Did the Pacers get robbed of two go-ahead points?

LeBron nullified those questions with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give Cleveland a 98-95 win and a 3-2 series lead. The game-winner capped a great game by LeBron (44 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists) and moves the Cavs to the verge of advancing.

When a team with home-court advantage can close out a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6, it has 52% of the time. It has won the series 92% of the time.

The odds are even better with LeBron. LeBron has won 11 straight closeout games, nine of them on the road. He’ll have another opportunity Friday with Game 6 in Indiana.