The next threeweeks will be ripe with rumors of player movement. But the most intriguingnegotiations will be held in Seattle, and they might lead to the relocation ofthe Sonics.
For the lastthree years the Sonics have been lobbying the Seattle city council for a morefavorable lease on KeyArena, as well as for funds to either refurbish the10-year-old building or build a new facility. By the middle of the month asix-person panel appointed by the mayor will issue a report endorsing theteam's proposal to the city council and state legislature. That, however, wouldleave the legislature less than a month to study the report and vote on a billthat would earmark $200 million for the team when its lease expires in 2010. Ifthe money isn't appropriated by March 9, the last day of the legislativesession, the team will have to wait until January to appeal to the legislatureagain. Don't expect Sonics officials to spend those 10 months sitting on theirhands. "We've instructed [team president] Wally [Walker] to look at allalternatives," principal owner Howard Schultz told SI on Sunday in hisfirst extended interview on the subject. "You don't have to be that smartto understand what that might mean."
One of thosealternatives would be to investigate the construction of a privately builtarena in Greater Seattle, perhaps in suburban Bellevue. Another would be tomove the Sonics to a market known to be interested in acquiring an NBAfranchise (Las Vegas, Norfolk, Oklahoma City) or to one of the threecities--Anaheim, Kansas City and San Jose--that, according to team sources,have privately made overtures to Sonics officials. In a meeting arranged bytheir friend, former NFL star Ronnie Lott, Walker and San Jose Sharks presidentGreg Jamison met last month to discuss the Sonics' potential move to HPPavilion, a 18,500-seat facility built in 1993 for hockey. The facility isseeking an NBA tenant after having served as the temporary home for theWarriors in 1996--97 while The Arena in Oakland was being renovated.
Team sources saythat because the owners are entrenched in the community--Schultz is chairman ofSeattle-based Starbucks--they are unlikely to ruin their local reputations bymoving the city's oldest major-league sports franchise. What they will stronglyconsider, the sources say, is a third option: to sell to an outside buyer, whomight not hesitate to relocate. One of the team's 57 minority owners estimatesthat the Sonics could be had "for somewhere in the high 300s," thegoing rate for a franchise based on the sales of the Celtics ($360 million),Suns ($401 million) and Cavaliers ($375 million) over the last five years.
If the team goeson the market, Schultz says that he will seek the highest price on behalf ofthe minority owners, who have shared in losses of $58 million since 2001,including a '05 cash call that forced them to write checks totaling $17million. "Our first choice has been and continues to be to stay here,"says Schultz, who bought the Sonics and the WNBA's Seattle Storm in '01 for$200 million. "We didn't set out five years ago to be in the position toeither move the team or sell it. But this is not a sustainableenterprise."
According tocommissioner David Stern, the Sonics have the "least attractive buildingarrangement in the NBA." Last year Schultz's group paid $8.3 million insuite rentals and club ticket sales, concessions, parking and other revenue tothe city--money that most NBA teams get to keep. That, says the owner, hascontributed to the team's $50.1 million payroll, fifth-lowest in the league.After 2010, however, he is asking that the Sonics be permitted to pocket allthose payments and that they play in a larger facility than Key, which lacksthe space for the lucrative dining and entertainment facilities found in mostmodern NBA arenas. "All we want is what the other two teams have alreadybeen given,"says Schultz, referring to the $636 million that Seattle hasprovided in the last decade to fund new stadiums for the Seahawks and theMariners.
The Sonics face aformidable opponent in newly appointed council president Nick Licata, whodescribes the team's requests as "excessive" and the owners asunwilling to compromise. A vocal opponent of the baseball and football stadiumdeals, Licata--who does admit that his views are more hard-line than those ofmany of his colleagues--believes that the city would suffer no lasting damagefrom the Sonics' departure. "On an economic basis, near zero," he saysof the impact of a move. "On a cultural basis, close to zero. We wouldstill have two sports, and plenty of cities our size don't have three."
The Sonics aren'tthe only team with arena issues. In addition to the Hornets' unsettled futurein New Orleans, the Magic is in discussions with Orlando to develop a newfacility, though the team says it has no plans to move. A senior NBA officialsays the league is worried that the Kings might leave Sacramento because theyhave been unable to come to terms with the city on a new publicly financedarena, though co-owner Joe Maloof says he is now pursuing privatefinancing.
Says Shultz,"I love this city, and it would be a real tragedy if we were put in aposition [in which] the Sonics have to leave. But at some point you've got tojust put your hands up and say, 'O.K., we surrender.'"
Not Ideal forEither Team
Now that the RonArtest trade has finally gone down, is more player movement likely to follow?After failing to land Artest, the Timberwolves began talking seriously with theCeltics; the teams then made a seven-player deal last Thursday that sent smallforward Wally Szczerbiak to Boston for swingman Ricky Davis and 7-foot MarkBlount. But Boston G.M. Danny Ainge doesn't anticipate a large flurry ofmovement before the Feb. 23 deadline. "There's a lot of talk, but there'snothing happening," says Ainge. "Look at how long it took to do theArtest deal."
Ainge's tradewith Minnesota G.M. Kevin McHale, his former Celtics teammate, was a swap ofunwanted parts. "It's no secret that I've been rumored to be traded for along time," says Szczerbiak, who was unable to live up to a contract thathas three years and $36 million remaining. (He also reportedly cashed in onbonuses and a trade kicker that yielded another $750,000 per season.) ThoughMcHale was ripped for the trade in Minnesota, the temperamental Blount willgive Kevin Garnett much-needed help as a scorer and interior defender. McHalemay also be able to move the point guard he acquired, Marcus Banks, to theSonics for combo guard Flip Murray, further balancing the Wolves' attack.
By condensingtheir roster, the Celtics can now give more minutes to their younger players,point guard Delonte West and big men Al Jefferson and Kendrick Perkins. WhileAinge is committed to rebuilding around Paul Pierce, he doesn't pretend thatSzczerbiak's jump-shooting style is an ideal fit. "But the other way wasn'tperfect either," Ainge says. "Until we find that perfect mix, I dobelieve that Paul draws so much attention in the paint that we need bettershooting on the perimeter."
• More insidenews from Ian Thomsen at SI.com/NBA.
On 6'8" rookie forward Ike Diogu (right), whom theWarriors reportedly refused to include in a trade for Ron Artest:
"I can see why they'd want to keep him; he's theironly low-post threat besides Troy Murphy, who can score down there but prefersto shoot from the elbow out to the three-point line. Diogu plays bigger thanhis size with his long arms, and there's a sneakiness to him. He isn't likelyto overpower you or dunk over the top, but he'll get good position, ball-fakeyou off your feet and then go for a half-hook or get to the free throw line.The reason he's only averaging 15.0 minutes is that he isn't a consistentrebounder."