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Steve Ballmer “on a rampage,” playing Russian Roulette with Seattle’s NBA future

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It has been said throughout the Sacramento Kings saga that the presence of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer in Seattle’s ownership team has been a big plus as they seek to buy and relocate the team.

Worth $15 billion according to Forbes and ranked No. 51 on its billionaire list, he and Chris Hansen were called the “perfect prototype for an NBA owner” by David Stern shortly after the NBA relocation committee unanimously recommended to reject a move of the Kings to Seattle.

But now that Seattle’s advances have been rebuffed by the NBA, sources say it’s Ballmer that has taken on a larger role in decision-making for the Seattle ownership group. The polar opposite of the soft-spoken hedge fund manager in Hansen – Ballmer is known for being loud and outrageous. Vanity Fair ran a seething piece (Microsoft’s Lost Decade) last August detailing a violent incident and more.

Now that Ballmer has taken on a larger role with the Seattle group, league sources tell PBT that the same bravado he has employed with Microsoft is turning heads at the league office – and not in a good way. It’s no secret that Ballmer is a handful — but a well-connected and filthy rich handful that the NBA would love to have in its stable. At least that was the case. According to league sources speaking to PBT under condition of anonymity, the recent power plays made by Seattle and the Maloof family have “started to weigh on the NBA to the point where any Ballmer-led proposal now or in the future could fall on deaf ears if he doesn’t change course.”

When asked to clarify, the source said that should the Seattle group continue to pursue a scorched earth policy with the Sacramento marketplace, they would jeopardize the city’s ability to secure an NBA team down the road should an opportunity present itself.

When asked how Seattle got to that point, several sources with knowledge of the situation have told PBT that once they recognized the Sacramento bid was likely to meet league requirements, and ultimately secure the Kings, then decision-making for Seattle’s strategy and PR effort slowly shifted into Ballmer’s hands. That strategy has been at odds with the due process the NBA has been following, and recently it has been at odds with the NBA itself.

“He’s on a rampage,” said one source. “He assumed he could backdoor Sacramento with a willing partner in the Maloofs, but he underestimated Sacramento and now he thinks he can twist enough arms around the league to force his way into the association.”

As reported by multiple outlets, the Hansen-Ballmer group has chosen a curious route to team ownership by working primarily with the Maloof family and often with little-to-no communication with the league office. Conversely, the Sacramento group has worked directly with the league and had very little communication with the Maloof family, who have not ruled out selling to the Sacramento group but also have done everything possible to repel it.

Leading up to the NBA’s recommendation to deny relocation of the Kings to Seattle, the Seattle-Maloof group saw their first shift in public relations strategy. Leaks attacking the NBA, David Stern and the Sacramento group had been occurring with greater frequency, but the first shot across the bow at the NBA occurred when they ignored the league’s public and private statements and tried to force a bidding war.

They “voluntarily” raised their offer to buy the team by $16 million for a total of $357 million. This development was not seen as pivotal by the league, and the Sacramento group didn’t as much as blink when they stood pat with their originally matched offer of $341 million for the Maloof-controlled 65 percent stake.

The core of the Seattle-Maloof strategy was two-fold. First, they would seek to sell owners on the idea of a higher franchise valuation – a nebulous concept given the many intangibles of such measurements. Does an equal offer in both cities create better comps for owners if it’s accepted in a smaller market? Do the next purchasing owners even include this aberration of a situation in their valuations? Regardless of the merits of the strategy, throwing money at the issue has always been the Ballmer way.

The second and more important factor in increasing the bid, sources say, is that it raised the idea of a Maloof antitrust challenge should the family not be allowed by the NBA to sell to the highest bidder. League sources say that the NBA has planned for this contingency, and while the potential litigation would always play a role in their decision-making, the ammunition the league would have against the Maloof family in court has made this a mostly benign threat.

NBA.com’s David Aldridge reported this past week that Hansen is not interested in any legal challenges if his bid is rejected (no word on Ballmer). Nevertheless, the threat of a lawsuit would never come from a Seattle group that hopes to one day join the NBA. The antitrust threat, benign or not, starts with the Seattle group’s offer and draws a Family Circus style map for the Maloofs to posture with. Nothing more, nothing less.

In coordination with this threat, the Maloofs have made constant overtures that the league cannot force them to sell or tell them what to do. When asked about what the league would do if the Maloofs try to act against the league’s wishes, sources say the NBA has always reserved the right to use the ‘Best Interest of the League’ clause to remove the family from the league. Sources say this outcome is unlikely, however, because there is enough “natural leverage” to manage the situation without using it.

For one, the Maloofs cannot afford to run the Kings under normal conditions, let alone with an empty arena and no sponsors – something we’re told would not be held against the Sacramento market if the impossible scenario of them keeping the team came into play. The family is also indebted to the league to the tune of an estimated $150 million, and the family has done plenty of damage to the league’s reputation on the public subsidy front and in general.

“There are no shortage of claims to be made against the Maloofs should they stumble their way into court,” said a source speaking to PBT under conditions of anonymity.

Back in reality-land, Hansen’s announcement that he would “voluntarily” increase his bid was uncomfortable for the league, but because they had not gone public with a recommendation the strategy wasn’t seen as an affront to the league’s due process.

Any doubt about Seattle’s contempt for that process would eventually be erased once the league’s relocation committee unanimously recommended against a move to Seattle. Sources say it was at that point that Ballmer officially took control over the war room.

Immediately after the league’s announcement, an aggressive statement was put out by Hansen on the SonicsArena.com website stating that despite the NBA’s recommendation, they “fully committed to seeing (the) transaction through.”

“It was at that point that Ballmer put the league on notice,” said one league source. “Knowing that he could offer virtually anything with a decision on the Kings’ future all-but made, Ballmer has been dead-set on embarrassing the league by making them turn down a much higher offer.”

This past weekend the Seattle-Maloof group leaked news of an increased $406 million offer for the Maloof-controlled 65 percent stake of the team. They also leaked news that the Maloof family would not sell to the Sacramento group.

Lastly, they leaked a scenario in which 20 percent of the team would be sold to Hansen and Ballmer as a ‘backup’ bid in case their original bid for a majority stake was denied. The Seattle-Maloof group would supposedly work with the city of Sacramento on an arena deal in this impossible scenario – one that has drawn a collective eye-roll around the league. Sources with knowledge of the league’s thinking have called that scenario a “non-starter.”

In shades of past Maloofishness, the Sacramento Bee reported today that the family is still willing to consider the Sacramento offer. Whatever the case may be, league sources have consistently told PBT that not only do the Maloofs have practically no leverage in this situation, but they also have practically no chance of being NBA owners next season. Sources expect the family to accept Vivek Ranadive’s bid after the Seattle relocation bid is denied, perhaps as soon as Wednesday.

With the NBA expected to eventually stand behind the Sacramento group, the larger issue being discussed in league circles is whether or not Ballmer and Seattle will follow the Maloofs off the NBA’s ledge. Their sneak attack attempt to procure Sacramento’s team was never well-received by the league, who would have rather seen the Maloofs conduct a good faith effort to sell the team locally. Even with Seattle holding Sacramento’s feet to the fire at every turn, sources say that there was never a point in time in which insiders thought Seattle had gone too far. After all, taking a team from a market that has done everything it needed to in order to keep the Kings is messy business.

Despite an all-out assault by Seattle to create an air of inevitability surrounding the relocation of the team, including reports that the NBA would quickly and overwhelmingly approve the move, and near daily leaks from Seattle-Maloof sources about make-believe problems with the Sacramento bid – the feeling around the league was that though the situation has been undesirable, once the ball was thrown in the air, all was fair in a basketball war.

As for Seattle, the strength of their ownership group, their oversold but actionable arena plan, and strong No. 12 TV market made them a shoo-in if the Sacramento group faltered. As we know now, Sacramento did not falter, but Seattle was certainly well-positioned for the future.

“(Seattle) was in the driver’s seat when it came to potential opportunities with the Bucks or whatever team might face arena or market troubles down the road,” said one league source. “If the league was going to consider expansion, you could have written Seattle’s name in ink to get a team.”

Now that Ballmer is leading Seattle down the path of conflict with the NBA, sources aren’t so sure.

“You don’t get into a knife fight with the NBA and then ask if you can come hang out in the clubhouse,” said one high-level source. “Ballmer is playing a game of Russian Roulette with SEA’s NBA future. He can’t throw money at the problem like this is Microsoft.”

Perhaps this is an unsolvable problem for the Seattle group – a zero-sum game and all participants have nothing to lose by going all-in. Perhaps they know that expansion is off the table.

With the way the local media has demonized David Stern and the NBA the average fan in Seattle is being told that they’re being screwed if Stern doesn’t rob Peter to pay Paul. Perhaps the Hansen-Ballmer group believes that the only thing that can satisfy the masses is the Sacramento Kings, or an iron-clad promise of expansion down the road. If you listen to the most strident voices in Seattle, they believe it’s time to spill blood in one gigantic last stand.

Sources say these realities are understood by the league, as is playing hard through the final whistle. “The league is more than willing to support Seattle in its bid for NBA basketball, but when they choose to trash an existing, supportive market in Sacramento and then set their sights on the logo, all bets are off.”

The NBA’s Board of Governors conducted a conference call on Monday and no changes were made to the relocation committee’s recommendation. The owners will see presentations by both groups on Wednesday with Jon Humbert of KOMO in Seattle reporting that a full vote will indeed take place.

Phil Jackson goes on vacation, reportedly puts Knicks’ coaching search on hold

New York Knicks president Phil Jackson speaks to reporters during a news conference in Greenburgh, N.Y., Monday, Feb. 8, 2016. Derek Fisher was fired as New York Knicks coach Monday, with his team having lost five straight and nine of 10 to fall well back in the Eastern Conference playoff race. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
AP Photo/Seth Wenig
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Phil Jackson has stumped for Kurt Rambis, interviewed David Blatt, talked with Luke Walton and ignored Carmelo Anthony.

It must be exhausting.

So, it appears the Knicks president took off on a tour the American West:

No big deal. Everyone has cell phones. Jackson can still run the coaching search from afar.

Except….

Ian Begley of ESPN:

Jackson is on vacation at the moment. The interesting thing here is that league sources say that some involved in the Knicks’ coaching search have been informed that Phil is away at the moment, meaning the search is on hold.

This matters only if Jackson isn’t just going to hire Rambis anyway. But if the Knicks are interested in exploring candidates other teams – Rockets, Pacers and Kings – might want, Jackson is missing a valuable opportunity.

Reminder: The Knicks are paying him $12 million per year – money that could have lured someone with a record of front-office success or even just the commitment to delay a vacation until after hiring a coach.

Three Things to Watch in Heat/Raptors Game 2: Will Kyle Lowry’s jump shot return?

TORONTO, ON - MAY 03:  Kyle Lowry #7 of the Toronto Raptors attempts to help DeMar DeRozan #10 up off the floor late in the second half of Game One of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Miami Heat during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 3, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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The first game went to overtime, and we should see a desperate Raptors team in Game 2, one that knows it can’t go down 2-0 and win this series. Here are three things to watch.

1) Did Kyle Lowry’s late-night shooting work pay off? To put it bluntly (as I did in the series preview): If Lowry isn’t playing at an All-Star level the Raptors are not winning this series. He was 3-of-13 shooting in Game 1. It wasn’t just that game, and it wasn’t just the first playoff series with George Hill draped on him, Lowry was not shooting well as the campaign wound down — his 57.8 true shooting percentage for the season dropped to 51.1 (below the league average) in April. That has to change fast.

It wasn’t just Lowry, however, a lot of Raptors players were missing wide open looks — as a team they were 4-of-17 on uncontested threes. Those shots need to fall.

2) Can Toronto defenders stay in front of Goran Dragic? The Miami point guard has felt more and more comfortable in recent months — since the All-Star break when Miami was pushed to small ball — and the Raptors did nothing to make him feel uncomfortable. Well, one Heat player did, Hassan Whiteside (Dragic was 3-of-9 finishing in the paint in Game 1), but if he keeps getting into the paint at will — both in secondary transition actions and in the half court — breaking down the Raptor defense this is going to be a rough series in Toronto. I expect a lot more effort and a better performance from the Raptors defensively, with Dragic as a focal point.

3) “We need more Jonas Valanciunas” — the Raptors must attack Hassan Whiteside and draw some fouls. Whiteside intimidated a lot of Raptors shooters in Game 1 — not only did Raptors guard struggle to finish inside, but they also pulled up and didn’t take shots in the paint at times just to avoid Whiteside. However, Toronto’s Valanciunas has the size advantage inside and put it to good use with 24 points, 14 rebounds, and three blocks. The Raptors need to feed him early and try to get Whiteside in foul trouble — that also means attacking guards like DeMar DeRozan can’t pull up, he has to risk some blocked shots to go into the body of Whiteside and draw fouls. If Whiteside is allowed to dominate the paint, the Heat will take the series, the Raptors need to go at him.

Cavaliers’ 3-point shooting was excellent. THEN, they made 25 in a game

Cleveland Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith (5) reacts after the Cavaliers beat the Atlanta Hawks 123-98 in Game 2 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series, Wednesday, May 4, 2016, in Cleveland. Smith hit seven 3-pointers in the game. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
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The Cavaliers set a record for 3-pointers in a team’s first six playoff games on this Kyrie Irving shot:

Did you notice anything strange about that clip?

It came in Game 1 against the Hawks – Cleveland’s fifth playoff game.

That’s right, the Cavs needed just five games to set a record for 3s through six playoff games. Then, they piled on 25 3-pointers – a record for any NBA game – in their Game 2 win over Atlanta on Wednesday.

Cleveland’s 97 3-pointers through six postseason games absolutely crushes the previous record:

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The difference between the Cavs and second place equals difference between second and 88th.

In fact, Cleveland has already demolished the record for 3s through EIGHT playoff games (previously 90 by the 2014-15 Hawks). Again, the Cavaliers have played just six games this postseason.

Where is all this outside output coming from? The key long-distance shot makers:

Add it all up, and the Cavs are making 16.2 3-pointers per game – which would easily set a playoff record:

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Cleveland could make no 3-pointers in its next two games – and still rank first for 3s per game in a postseason.

Not that the Cavs appear likely to go cold from distance anytime soon.

Their stars generate open looks and make 3s themselves. Smith is an unrepentant gunner, and he’s feeling it.

These are the Cavaliers as scary as they get.

John Wall undergoes surgery on both knees, expected to be ready for start of next season

Washington Wizards guard John Wall speaks during a media availability before an NBA basketball game against the Atlanta Hawks, Wednesday, April 13, 2016, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nick Wass)
AP Photo/Nick Wass
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John Wall tried putting the Wizards on his back and carrying them into the playoffs.

Washington fell short, but the process still took a toll.

Wizards release:

The Washington Wizards announced that guard John Wall underwent a successful procedure today to excise calcific deposits in his left patella tendon in order to eliminate pain and assist healing.  He will begin the rehabilitation process immediately and is expected to be available for the start of the 2016-17 season.  Wall also underwent an arthroscopic lavage on his right knee in order to remove loose bodies.

If the Wizards are just using the next date most fans care about, this might not be such a big deal. That would open the door for Wall being healthy at any point over the summer.

But if the start of next season is his targeted return, that’s more troubling. Sitting an entire offseason is a big deal, and that means potential complications are more likely to cause him to miss games. It’s also a worse indicator for his long-term health.

As the Wizards enter free agency primed to spend, the last thing they need are questions about the length of their franchise player’s prime.