Kings Arena Update: Kevin Johnson working with Ron Burkle’s right hand man

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The Sacramento Kings arena saga took an interesting turn on Wednesday when it was announced that the Maloof family had given up majority ownership of the Palms Casino after a “recapitalization agreement” with their main creditors, TPG Capital and Leonard Green and Partners. The deal reduces the Maloof’s ownership from about 80 percent to 10-20 percent, but the Maloofs will continue to operate the casino.

The recapitalization agreement doesn’t come out of nowhere, however, as Bloomberg News and many Las Vegas outlets reported in January that there was a strong chance that this would happen, though the Maloofs refused to acknowledge that they would sell or that the Palms was in trouble.

Meanwhile, on Monday, Mayor Kevin Johnson announced the identities of the 70-person Here We Build committee, named after the grassroots movements created by Blake Ellington of #HereWeStay, and modified into #HereWeBuild when local radio personality Carmichael Dave created a pledge drive for the ages.

And if you’re a fan of political and financial All Star teams, you probably want to stand in line to get your briefcase autographed.

Headlining the committee as co-chairs are California Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg and California State Senator Ted Gaines, though the big heavy hitters here include the guy whose feasibility study is being used as Sacramento’s blueprint, David Taylor, and political heavyweight Darius Anderson, who presented to the NBA Board of Governors back in April when the Maloofs applied their full court press to move the Kings down to Anaheim.

As for Taylor, his ICON Venue Group is partially owned by sports facility giant Anschultz Entertainment Group (AEG), who has the money and wherewithal to quickly implement a time-sensitive, politically driven arena project, though there have been no public statements made to the effect that they are on board in an official capacity for now.

Anderson’s inclusion is the largest elephant in the room, however, since he is a close advisor to none other than billionaire Ron Burkle, who was reportedly interested in buying the Kings back in April.

It was this interest that created the most quotable moment in the saga to date, when NBA insider Sam Amick reported that Commissioner David Stern made a wise crack saying K.J. was bringing him a “used car dealer,” but upon learning that the billionaire was interested in buying the Kings he grew quiet and then said, “You’ve got Burkle?”

Burkle was recently ranked No. 347 by Forbes among the world’s richest billionaires, and he built his empire in the grocery industry, parlaying several successful deals into a massive financial empire across many industries.

When the Maloofs were confronted with news of Burkle’s interest in buying the Kings at the NBA Board of Governors meetings in April (a move they claimed to have rebuffed a month earlier), they were outwardly angry and they insisted that their team was not for sale. Stern would eventually echo those sentiments by downplaying a potential purchase by Burkle, and since then Burkle’s name has fallen out of the Kings’ news cycle.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean he has stopped flirting with professional sports. Burkle, also a part owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, has reportedly joined up with Dodger great Steve Garvey to form a group interested in purchasing the struggling Dodgers franchise. This follows his attempts to buy the Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Nationals, and if you go back to 1999, his failed attempt to bring football to L.A. with, wait for it, AEG’s Tom Leiweke.

Incidentally (or not), AEG attempted to lure Burkle’s Penguins from Pittsburgh to Kansas City, and after that failed, AEG would later help Kansas City pass a public-private ballot measure to build the now-thriving Sprint Center that returns the city significant revenue based solely on concerts and events.

And just when it appeared that Burkle was falling off the Kings’ radar, a May 18 report came out of Las Vegas from none other than Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous host Robin Leach, who wrote that Burkle “insists on re-entering the Las Vegas market.” After the company Burkle bought shares in, the Morgan Hotel Group (MHG), failed to turn around their struggling Hard Rock Café property – it was sold off to creditors in March, much to the chagrin of Burkle, apparently.

Afterward, Burkle upped his ownership stake in MHB to approximately 30 percent and installed his guy, Michael Gross, as CEO.

At least one investment banking group, Jeffries, believes they intend to grow the company rather than sell it. Leach, who may not appear on the outset to be the best source of financial news, has spent the last 10 years on the Las Vegas industry news beat, and goes on to write that Burkle and his Morgan Hotel Group have “been actively kicking the tires, examining facilities and asking tough questions of a hotel group (in Las Vegas) willing to sell off one of its properties.”

Wait. Didn’t the Maloofs just sell? Yes they did – to two separate private equity firms in Leonard Green and TPG Capital. TPG owns Caesars Entertainment and would theoretically take over the Palms, but Leonard Green has also been trying to buy up gambling entities while the gambling industry is bottoming out – so it’s still anybody’s guess what the end-game is over at the Palms.

Let’s be clear – Leonard Green isn’t Burkle, and Burkle isn’t Leonard Green, but maybe Burkle is Finkle and Einhorn is a man.

Leonard Green and Burkle’s investment firm, Yucaipa Companies, both bought large portions of the grocer Whole Foods in 2009. And in 1991, Burkle sold his Almac’s grocery stores to Leonard Green for $75 million. All the while, both have been extremely active investing funds for the California Public Employees Retirement System over the last two decades. Surely it’s possible that in the elite rungs of society, where the billionaires play Kevin Bacon’s Six Degrees of Separation game with themselves all the time, that any interaction between the two entities is purely coincidental.

But just to be sure, I may have to go down to the Palms this Wednesday when Burkle will reportedly be there to celebrate the NHL awards and ask him about it myself.

The Maloofs, for their part, are not publicly tipping their hand regarding the involvement of Darius Anderson. George Maloof recently told Dale Kasler (via Ryan Lillis) of the Sacramento Bee that Anderson’s involvement in the committee “doesn’t give me any thoughts or concerns.”

As for the state of the funding hunt taking place in Sacramento, the jury is still out whether the $400 million wiped off the books at the Palms will allow the Maloofs to bring more money to the table for a new Entertainment and Sports Complex (ESC), though that doesn’t mean they should have to. After all, as reported yesterday, Anaheim is going forward with improvements on the Honda Center and is welcoming the Kings with a shiny new credit card. Besides, it’s entirely possible the new financial flexibility could be funneled back into the Palms, though pumping up your newly divested asset with freed up funds doesn’t sound like ‘Plan A’ for cash-strapped NBA owners looking to fund an arena.

Regardless, the Maloofs have said that they would contribute toward funding the ESC, so this would appear on the surface to give them better flexibility in doing so.

The 70-person Here We Build committee, meanwhile, consists of every expert, partner, planner, lawyer, community leader, and politician that would be needed to complete an endeavor of such magnitude. According to a source close to the situation, the NBA has also “firmly planted their feet in Sacramento,” and has “sent their best lieutenants to work day and night to get an arena built.”

Numbers-wise, the commission has enlisted the services of at least three well-respected consultancies to review the economic impact of the undertaking, which according to well-placed sources will show enough tax revenue and job creation to not just justify the new Entertainment and Sports Center – but also give political cover to the various bodies that will need to approve the proposal.

What this means, the source says, is that the tenor of the discussion in Sacramento has changed from ‘we don’t want to pay for this’ to ‘we need to pay for this, as it may very well be the difference between economic revival and economic disaster.’ And while there will certainly be skeptics and opposition groups that may choose to latch onto the issue, they could be committing political suicide as the Here We Build committee continues to release positive economic findings.

What does it all mean? It’s hard to say anything definitive right now. But while Kevin Johnson orchestrates his regional dream team, the powerful triad of Darius Anderson, the ICON-David Taylor group, and the NBA are knee deep in the fight to keep the team in Sacramento. And whether or not AEG or Ron Burkle can come along for the ride, the amount of firepower in Sacramento right now is big news for Kings fans.

Update (Saturday, June 18, 2011): The Sacramento Bee reports that the Maloofs will own just two percent of the Palms, according to regulatory documents.  They could have the option to buy back a significant share, up to 20 percent, and in the meantime TPG and Leonard Green will each own a 49 percent of the company.

On the surface, this would strengthen the chance that the Maloofs are freeing up funds to contribute toward Sacramento’s proposed Entertainment and Sports Center.  As for TPG and Leonard Green, the fact that the pair would have matching 49 percent shares creates an interesting dynamic, whereby each company could have the same voting rights (with the Maloofs holding a tie-breaking vote).

LeBron James is a force nature, scores 46, wills Cavaliers to win forcing Game 7

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What more can be said about the brilliance of LeBron James?

We can point to his 46 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists Friday night in a win-or-go-fishing elimination game. We can point to how he lifted the team up when Kevin Love went down after a blow to the head (more on that later). We could talk about how this is his seventh 40+ point game of the playoffs, the last guy to do that since Michael Jordan in 1989 (when Jordan was 25 and had yet to win a title).

Or, we can just show you his back-to-back dagger threes in the fourth quarter over Jayson Tatum.

That is art on a basketball court.

LeBron got a little help Friday night at home, and with that the Cavaliers won Game 6 109-99, forcing a Game 7 back in Boston on Sunday night.

“It feels good just to play for another game, and like I’ve always said ‘Game 7’ is the best two words in sports,” LeBron said. “And for us to be on the road in a hostile environment where we have had no success up to this point, we should relish the opportunity and have fun with it.”

LeBron was nothing short of brilliant (remember 10-12 years ago people were trying to say he was afraid of the big moment, damn that sounds silly now). He is historically brilliant in Game 7s, but he can’t do it alone.

George Hill, the second best shot creator on the team, had 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting. Jeff Green had 14 off the bench, and Larry Nance Jr. had a timely 10 points and 7 rebounds.

Nance’s play was crucial because Kevin Love went down 5 minutes into the game after banging heads with Jayson Tatum while setting a screen.

Love’s was being checked for a concussion and his status for Game 7 is not known. (If he does have a concussion, it’s unlikely he clears the league protocol in time to play in two days.)

Despite LeBron and all of it, the Celtics had their chances in this one.

Boston got off to a fast start because Jaylen Brown had 15 first-quarter points and the Celtics shot 61 percent as a team, none of which seemed sustainable but it got them out to a 25-20 lead after one. Then the Cavaliers came on in the second with a 20-4 run behind LeBron, and once they had the lead the Cavaliers never let it go.

Boston will look back on not grabbing rebounds — Cleveland grabbed the offensive rebound on 36.6 percent of their missed shots, a very high percentage — and the fact the Celtics missed nine free throws and think things could have been different.

Boston is going home, where they are 10-0 these playoffs and for some reason inexplicable even to Brad Stevens, they play much better. The Celtics have a great defense, smart players, and a real chance.

The Cleveland Cavaliers have LeBron James. That may be enough.

“We have one more game to be able to compete for a championship, what more can you ask for?” LeBron said.

Kevin Love being evaluated for concussion, out for second half

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It happened just five minutes into the game — Cleveland’s Kevin Love and Boston’s Jayson Tatum banged heads.

Love was in the midpost and part of his job was to set a screen for George Hill, who was racing out to the arc. In doing so, Love and Tatum banged heads and it wasn’t pretty.

Love spent a few minutes on the ground, went straight to the locker room, and has not returned to the game.

Tatum did not leave the game.

There still is no official word on if Love has a concussion. If he does, he will go into the league’s mandated concussion protocol — which means to be cleared he has to be symptom free through a series of physical tests — and it would be a challenge for him to be back for a Game 7, if there is one.

And their likely will be one. After struggling in the rest of the first quarter without Love, the Cavaliers have gotten solid performances out of Hill, Jeff Green, and of course, LeBron James has been brilliant. The Cavaliers have a comfortable 15-point lead late in the third quarter.

NBA Finals schedule drops, Game 1 Thursday, May 31

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We don’t know where the NBA Finals will be played, but we know when.

Next Thursday the eyes of the NBA world could be focused on Oakland or Houston, and the following Wednesday that may shift to Boston or Cleveland. All four of those teams still have a chance to make the NBA Finals.

What we know is the dates for the games. Here is the schedule:

Game 1, Thursday, May 31, at 9 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 2, Sunday, June 3, at 8 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 3, Wednesday, June 6, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 4, Friday, June 8, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 5, Monday, June 11, at 9 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Game 6, Thursday, June 14, at 9 p.m. ET: Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors at Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers

Game 7, Sunday, June 17, at 8 p.m. ET: Boston Celtics/Cleveland Cavaliers at Houston Rockets/Golden State Warriors

Games 5, 6, and 7 are if necessary. All games will be broadcast on ABC.

There were no surprises here. The date of the start of the NBA Finals has been set since before the season started (it always is, to help broadcast partners and international media plan). The game pattern follows the same as last year, when the NBA changed it to make sure there was at least one day off in addition to travel days when the venue switches cities.

James Harden on shooting struggles: ‘Who cares?’

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A couple of years ago, could anyone have imagined James Harden not only saying he’s willing to give up scoring to do the little things to win but then actually doing it?

That’s exactly what Harden has done through five games against Golden State, and it’s why his Houston team is up 3-2.

Harden has struggled with his shot the past two games: He has shot 16-of-47 overall the past two games (34 percent) but also 3-of-23 from three. Yet he has done a good job setting up others. In Game 5, in particular, he did a better job getting into the middle of the paint, opening up passing lanes when the defense collapsed on him. He’s also worked hard on the defensive end, played Stephen Curry reasonably well, and been a solid team defender.

With his team one game from the Finals, he’s not concerned about his shot.

“Who cares?” Harden said to reporters after the game. “I’m just missing shots. But we’re winning, and I’m trying to compete on the defensive end and do other things to help my team win. But if we’ve got a guy like Eric Gordon making shots and being aggressive, who cares?”

A lot of players give that idea lip service, but in recent games Harden has backed it up.

“It’s just the shots [are] not falling, and a lot of it has to do with how hard everybody is playing,” Rockets’ coach Mike D’Antoni said. “Probably his legs aren’t the freshest things in the world. But he’s invaluable to the defense and offense.”

The Rockets are going to need more scoring from Harden to close this series out — Chris Paul is out for Game 6 with a strained hamstring, and it’s unlikely he plays if there is a Game 7. Eric Gordon will get the start and has lit it up the past couple of games (he led the Rockets with 24 points in Game 5), but more scoring and shot creation will fall on the Harden’s shoulders.

If the Rockets are going to close this series out, Harden is going to have to look every bit the presumptive MVP. The little things are great, but Houston needs him to get buckets now.