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.

Kawhi Leonard arrives in Orlando, Nikola Jokic expected soon

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The Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard has arrived in the NBA’s restart bubble in Orlando. The Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic is not far behind him.

They are two of the biggest name players who were delayed arriving in Orlando, but for them the delays were short.

“Kawhi, he is here, he is going through the protocol,” Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers said Saturday, adding the two-time Finals MVP arrived Friday night and is in the midst of the two-day/two-test quarantine all players and staff went through. If things go smoothly, he should be practicing with the team by Monday. Leonard’s arrival was delayed for “personal reasons” (and Leonard doesn’t open up much about his personal life).

Jokic tested positive for the coronavirus back in his native Serbia, which delayed his arrival stateside (where there were more tests and quarantine time). Nuggets coach Mike Malone said Jokic should arrive soon.

That leaves the two Houston stars — James Harden and Russell Westbrook — as the biggest names not yet in Orlando. Both are expected to arrive in the coming days. The Rockets have resumed practice without him.

Doc Rivers challenges Sen. Josh Hawley to acknowledge Black Lives Matter

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Missouri U.S. Senator Josh Hawley used the NBA’s list of social-justice messages players could put on their jerseys as an opportunity to grandstand. He wants more politics in the NBA — just his politics. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski got in trouble for his succinct response to Hawley (Woj reportedly has been suspended).

Clippers coach Doc Rivers had a longer response — and a challenge for Hawley.

“I mean, we have a senator that Tweets at Woj yesterday just because he was talking about what we were going to put on the back of our jersey,” Rivers said from the NBA Orlando restart on a conference call with reporters. “And they always try to turn it into the military or the police. There’s no league that does more for the military than the NBA.

“But how that about that Senator? I’ll make a challenge: We will do things for the troops as long as he acknowledges Black Lives Matter. I think that would be really cool for him to do.

“You know, it’s funny, whenever we talk about justice, people try to change the message. Colin Kaepernick kneels, it had nothing to do with the troops. It had to do with social injustice, and everyone tried to change the narrative. How about staying on what we are talking about and dealing with that, instead of trying to trick us or change or trick your constituents? How about being real?

“I guarantee you, we’ve done more for the military than probably that Senator. And I guarantee you this: We also are going to do things for Black Lives Matter. How about him? Maybe he should join into that.”

Well said, Doc. Well said.

NBA players and coaches will continue to speak out throughout the Orlando restart, and there will be steps toward action. In an election year, expect other politicians to try and use that as a cheap opportunity to grandstand.

Unknown long-term effects of COVID-19 has team execs concerned

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Doctors and scientists studying the coronavirus and COVID-19 are concluding this is not a respiratory disease, but a vascular one. That means the virus does not attach in the lungs and the airway, like the influenza virus; instead, this coronavirus attaches to blood vessels. This means any area of the body where there are smaller blood vessels — the heart, lungs, kidney, brain, and more — is at risk of long-term damage from mini-clots in those vessels (something found in autopsies of some COVID-19 victims).

The heart issues in particular — and everything we don’t know about a virus that is still only about 10 months old — has NBA team executives concerned about the long-term effects on players as they head to Orlando for the restart of the season.

Baxter Holmes of ESPN had fantastic insight on this subject, speaking to team officials for his story.

“There are unknown effects it has on lung capacity, unknown effects it has on cardiac health,” said one general manager of a team entering the NBA bubble, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “What if a 24-year-old catches it in Orlando and, in 14 days, he quarantines and is fine, but then he has these everlasting heart problems? [Or he] gets winded so easily, or he becomes a little bit too susceptible to fatigue? … These are all the unknowns.”

The NBA and the NBPA were particularly focused on the heart and cardiac concerns based on studies that found exercise while ill by people who had even a mild form of COVID-19 increased the risk of heart issues. The NBA’s director of sports medicine John DiFiori put it this way (as general advice) in the ESPN story:

“If you don’t feel well, don’t try to push through this. This is not a situation where anyone, whether you’re an athlete or not, should try to push through or minimize symptoms or try to ignore symptoms and try to push through to try to continue to work or continue to play a sport.”

What that means for players is if they test positive in the Orlando bubble they will be put on a two-week quarantine without exercise or much activity. The challenge then becomes that once said player is cleared they will have lost some conditioning and need to work out to get in shape again — they cannot just step back onto an NBA court and play. The bottom line, if a player tests positive they may be out more than only two weeks.

Ultimately, doctors know little about the long-term impacts of the disease on the body because this strain is so young — even the first people in China who had COVID-19 and recovered did so fewer than nine months ago. There are concerns about impacts on the heart and lung — not to mention other areas of the body — and far more questions than answers.

Which is why the NBA and players union want to be cautious. And why team executives are concerned.

Gregg Popovich had reservations, sees bubble as safest place to be

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Gregg Popovich fondly remembers his freshman year at the United States Air Force Academy, even though as a first-year cadet he was extremely limited in where he could go and what activities were allowed.

Lockdown at Walt Disney World, he said, reminded him of those days.

“But two days, anybody can do that,” the San Antonio coach said Saturday.

He made it through that freshman year with ease, made it through the two days of in-room Disney quarantine as well, and now the longest-tenured and oldest active coach in the league is free to roam within the NBA bubble in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. That doesn’t mean he didn’t have reservations about being part of the NBA restart, given the ongoing issues of racial strife, social inequality, and the coronavirus pandemic.

“If you’re thinking person, you’re going to look at all sides of a situation,” Popovich said. “And, especially being 71 years old, I thought, ‘Is this where I want to spend a lot of my time, doing this, under these circumstances?”‘

The answer was yes, and Popovich was running his first practice in more than four months Saturday as the Spurs began getting ready for a playoff push. When the season resumes July 30, San Antonio will be 12th in the Western Conference – only a half-game from ninth, where the Spurs would have to be and within four games of the No. 8 spot to force their way into a play-in series.

“I honestly do believe – it’s not just being a loyal soldier of the NBA, I’ve done my share of criticizing here and there when I thought it was necessary – I don’t know where else you would be as safe as we are right now,” Gregg Popovich said.

LeBron James completely agrees with that sentiment.

Like the Spurs, the Los Angeles Lakers – the West leaders, with James leading the way back into title contention after six consecutive years of not even making the playoffs – took to the Disney practice courts for the first time Saturday. And James said the notion of not being part of the restart “‘never crossed my mind.”

“This beautiful game of basketball, that brings so many people together, that brings happiness, that brings joy to the households, to so many families … I’m happy to be a part of the biggest sports in the world,” James said. “And I’m happy to have a platform where not only people will gain joy from the way I play the game, from the way our team plays the game, but also from what I’m able to do off the floor as well.”

And on the health standpoint, James, like Popovich, raved about what NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and many others teamed together to make happen at Disney.

“They took all precautionary reasons, measures to make sure that we as a league are as safe as we can be,” James said. “Obviously, in anything that you do, there can be things that could happen, but we will cross that line if it happens.”

But Popovich’s age called into question whether he should be at the restart.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people 65 and over can be more vulnerable to the virus. The NBA has three head coaches who have celebrated that birthday; New Orleans’ Alvin Gentry, 65; Houston’s Mike D’Antoni, 69, and Popovich. Pelicans assistant Jeff Bzdelik, 67, and Los Angeles Lakers’ assistant Lionel Hollins, 66, are not at Disney for the restart.

“We have special guidelines and special things that we have to abide by,” Spurs forward Rudy Gay said. “I think going into this bubble, everybody has to take the proper precautions and do their own part … not just our team, but other teams. It’s definitely serious. It’s a serious issue. But we vow to do the right thing.”

Popovich points to rising virus numbers in Texas as proof that on the NBA campus, where players and coaches will be tested daily and exposure to the outside world is basically cut off, his health shouldn’t be more at risk.

And to him, this is much more than basketball. The NBA restart will be about raising awareness on social issues and combating racism, and Gregg Popovich wants to be a big part of that conversation.

“If this bubble works, I’m safer here than I would be in Texas,” Popovich said. “And since the decision was made to do this to start the season again, under these circumstances, with all the precautions, what a great opportunity.”