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.

Trade to/buyout from Hawks clears way for Carmelo Anthony to join Rockets

Associated Press
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There were a few things that were a given back on July 1 heading into free agency: Kevin Durant would re-sign with the Warriors, Chris Paul was going to stay in Houston, the Washington Wizards would find a way to make their bad locker room chemistry worse

And Carmelo Anthony would end up in Houston.

Every source I have talked to through free agency and at Summer Leagues saw ‘Melo as a Rocket as all but inevitable. Anthony’s people have not exactly been subtle about their efforts.

Thursday’s three-team trade that sends Anthony to Atlanta — where he will be bought out at full price, no discount — clears the way for him to become a Rocket. After Anthony clears waivers, the deal will get done.

Is that a good move for the Rockets is another question.

Anthony and coach Mike D’Antoni had their problems in New York. Both say they are past those now, but when issues flare up again, will the history? And issues will flare up.

With James Harden and CP3, the Rockets offense is built on efficiency — there may be a lot of isolations, but they get threes and shots at the rim with a team of guys willing to move the ball for a better shot. That’s not Anthony. He can still get buckets, and he shot 35.7 percent from three last season, but Anthony is not a guy who moves the ball or is efficient anymore (40.4 percent shooting overall last season). He relies heavily on post up and isolations ( 32.5 percent of Anthony’s possessions last season), and he’s still reasonably efficient on those. But he’s a ball stopper, something Harden and Paul are not for all their isolation plays.

Defensively he is nowhere near Phoenix-bound Trevor Ariza or Clippers-bound Luc Mbah-a-Moute. Anthony will get targeted on switches and played off the floor at the end of games and in the playoffs. James Ennis is a better option for the Rockets in many lineups.

If Anthony can accept a sixth man role, he could really help the Rockets. However, after the Thunder were eliminated from the playoffs last year, Anthony was asked about doing that for OKC and literally laughed the question off. Maybe playing with Harden and CP3 on a contender changes things, but I will see it when I believe it.

Anthony is going to be a Rocket next season. How well that works is something to watch.

 

 

Report: Thunder trading Carmelo Anthony, first-rounder to Hawks for Dennis Schroder

AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
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The Thunder were going to cut loose Carmelo Anthony.

The Hawks were determined to trade Dennis Schroder.

The 76ers needed a stretch four after Nemanja Bjelica backed out of his deal.

Hence…

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Chris Vivlamore of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Royce Young of ESPN:

The Thunder save money in this trade next year by going from Anthony to Schroder. But they could have saved far more simply by stretching Anthony themselves.

Stretching Anthony would have meant a cap hit of $9,309,380 each of the next three seasons. Instead, Oklahoma City will pay Schroder $15.5 million each of the next three seasons.

Why increase that financial burden?

Schroder is an intriguing backup to Russell Westbrook and just 24. Even if he’s overpaid and facing the prospect of felony battery charge, he can play. Anthony’s stretched cap hit can’t. Raymond Felton provided steady backup-point guard minutes last season and re-signed, but he’s 34. Oklahoma City can’t rely on him forever.

The Thunder might have viewed Schroder as worth the difference between his salary and Anthony’s stretched cap hit, and there’s some logic to that. But if Oklahoma City tries to flip Schroder down the road, potential trade partners will evaluate his full salary.

Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot isn’t nothing, either. The 23-year-old former first-rounder is a project with 3-and-D potential.

On the other hand, the Thunder also surrender a potential first-round pick in the deal. And with Westbrook, Paul George and Steven Adams locked into lucrative contracts, the upcoming season isn’t the only one Oklahoma City must worry about the repeater luxury tax. Schroder’s future salary could become extremely burdensome.

In a pure basketball sense, this trade could make sense for the Thunder. Anthony didn’t fit, and Schroder brings more talent and has a clearer role. Luwawu-Cabarrot has upside. A lottery-protected pick could warrant going from Anthony to Schroder and Luwawu-Cabarrot, though that’s far from certainly worth it.

But I especially wonder about the long-term financial cost. Will Schroder’s salary the following couple years eventually lead ownership to cut costs and shed better players? If Clay Bennett’s willingness to pay extends beyond the following season, more power to him.

And more power to Anthony, who gets all his money and free agency. Expect him to sign with the Rockets once Atlanta waives him.

The Hawks – nowhere near the luxury tax, let alone the repeater tax – could handle waiving Anthony more easily than the Thunder could have. They get a nice draft pick for their trouble – and to unload Schroder.

Schroder was a leftover from the previous Atlanta regime, and Travis Schlenk is ready to build around Trae Young at point guard. Jeremy Lin is the stopgap veteran backup. There was no place for Schroder.

Justin Anderson only adds to the Hawks’ return. It might be getting late quick for the 24-year-old, but he’s strong and athletic. If he improves his shot, he could be a very helpful 3-and-D player. There’s such a premium on wings, it’s well worth betting on developing him – especially for a rebuilding team like Atlanta.

The 76ers have shifted into winning mode, and Mike Muscala should help. He’s a good 3-point shooter for a big and capable of defending inside and out. Philadelphia adds no long-term cost, as Muscala is entering the final year of his contract with a $5 million salary.

The 76ers also clear a roster spot in the 2-for-1 swap, which could lead to last year’s second-rounder, Jonah Bolden, signing.

Report: Lakers eager to use LeBron James at center flanked by top four young players

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Why did the Lakers, after securing LeBron James, sign Rajon Rondo and Lance Stephenson? Their explanation leaves plenty to be desired.

What will the Lakers do with Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram and Kyle Kuzma now that none of those four are being traded for Kawhi Leonard? Their plan there is far more intriguing.

Eric Pincus of Bleacher Report:

“We may not see this on day one, but the coaching staff is eager to see our version of the [Warriors’] Death Lineup with Lonzo [Ball], Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, [Kyle] Kuzma and LeBron,” a second Lakers executive said.

LeBron at center is a dangerous weapon. The Cavaliers showed it more during the 2017 playoffs – to positive effect.

But LeBron isn’t Draymond Green, who makes Golden State’s Death/Hamptons Five Lineup function. Green possesses a unique combination of rim protection and – through his ball-handling and especially passing – ability to get into offense quickly. LeBron isn’t as good at protecting the paint, and though he’s lethal in transition when he wants to be, he’ll be fighting years of slow-down habits.

I also wonder how much LeBron embraces the physical toll of playing center. The Lakers have only JaVale McGee, Ivica Zubac and Mo Wagner at the position. Are they banking on LeBron playing there a significant amount during the regular season?

LeBron would likely accept the role more enthusiastically in the playoffs. But Ball, Hart, Ingram and Kuzma will be tested – at least initially – by the heightened level of play. I’d be wary of overly relying on that lineup.

But this is the best way for the Lakers to get talent on the floor and overcome spacing concerns. I’m absolutely excited to see it in action. Whatever concerns I have about it are only multiplied with other potential Lakers lineups.

Report: Nuggets lottery pick Michael Porter Jr. undergoes another back surgery

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Michael Porter Jr. underwent back surgery in November, missed nearly his entire freshman season at Missouri then slipped to No. 14 in the draft amid injury concerns.

The Nuggets have been noncommittal about their plans for Porter, but they’ve given an eyebrow-raising update.

Nuggets release:

Michael Porter Jr. has undergone surgery of the lumbar spine at The Carrell Clinic in Dallas, Tex. The Procedure was performed by Dr. Andrew Dossett. There is no timetable for his return to basketball participation.

Porter is a talented forward with the length and skill to make a major impact as a scorer.

But, as this latest surgery underscores, drafting him carried terrifying risk. Denver will have to bear that for a while.