The most attractive free agent right now isn't Dwight Howard or Chris Paul or any other franchise player. The most attractive free agent is a city that can't get a franchise.
Let's be a bit more vivid about the viability of Seattle: There are roughly a half-dozen NBA teams, at least, that would be healthier and better supported and better off in Seattle than their current city. And a few of them made the playoffs.
Seattle is a jewel, fueled by software clout and other Fortune 500 money and a place that has already shown it can handle three pro sports teams. Seattle was hot for the Sonics, even when they played in an outdated arena, even when Howard Schultz, the Grinch that stole basketball in that town, ran the Sonics into the ground and then made it possible for them to leave by selling to the wrong guy.
Seattle wants a team badly enough to offer a record price for the sad-sack Kings, and build a new arena to house them, and the biggest concession of all: a willingness to deal with nonsense from DeMarcus Cousins. That, my friends, is why it's so painful to see Seattle being left out in the rain again without an umbrella or even a sheet of plastic. They lost the Sonics five years ago and while they never really had the Kings, it looks and feels like they lost them as well.
What's really cruel is, after this latest go-around that fell off a cliff, Seattle will once again hold out hope for another team, one that's not coming anytime soon.
NBA owners on Wednesday voted 22-8 against the relocation of the Kings, as expected, and it was mainly due to bad timing on Seattle's part. The Kings were a distressed franchise and all but gone until the 11th hour when Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, the former All-Star, went hard to the rim. He swiftly gathered support from politicians, local businesses, a collection of rich guys and the public to make it hard for the NBA to justify pushing the Kings out the door. The NBA didn't actually vote down Seattle, the owners voted up Sacramento. There was no choice, really, after Johnson and a strong group of prospective buyers and a commitment to build a downtown arena didn't give the Kings any reason to leave town. Sacramento wanted the Kings for basketball reasons, but also for other reasons: a chance to revitalize downtown and also to keep Sacramento from turning into Fresno.
Stern called it what it was -- "advantage, incumbency" -- and added: "If the Sacramento community could produce a site, a construction team and a strong financially-sound ownership group, then the appropriate outcome was to keep the team in Sacramento."
The only thing that wasn't in Seattle's favor, besides timing and a mayor who refused to lose, was sentimentality. The Kings have been tied to Sacramento for 28 years. Therefore, NBA owners wouldn't support a move unless there were strong indications Sacramento couldn't get an arena built. When the arena issue was settled and evened the score with Seattle, the game was over. And really, that's what it's all about: shiny new arenas that can generate even more revenue and inflate the value of franchises, which helps all 30 owners keep their investments healthy. It's the reason the Sonics left for Oklahoma City, in a sense, anyway.
After destroying the Sonics with terrible decisions, Schultz tried to bully Seattle taxpayers into building a new arena even though Key Arena had just been renovated. Then he bailed and sold to Clay Bennett when he knew Bennett planned to move the Sonics to Oklahoma City all along. All Bennett needed was an out, which came in the form of an outrageous demand of a 100-percent publicly financed arena that was never getting approval. When that happened, Bennett had his "excuse" to move back to his home state and turn the Sonics into the Thunder.
So now that Seattle is 0-for-2, will the city at least get the chance to get turned down again? I believe Stern and the owners when they say they want a team in Seattle. Steve Ballmer, the right-hand man of Bill Gates and one of the richest men in America, along with Chris Hansen brings all the fat wallets necessary to make it happen. Plus, those two made plans to privately finance an arena with land Hansen bought. There are enough signals that say support from fans won't be an issue. And finally, Seattle is more of a destination place than Sacramento, where you can't even put the All-Star Game.
Stern even kept the door cracked and for the first time raised the possibility of expansion, perhaps when TV contracts are negotiated after the 2015-16 season (NBC is supposed to be a big player this time, driving up the price.) Adam Silver, who'll take over for Stern next February, said of Seattle, "We fully expect to return there one day." And there's always the chance of another troubled team on the move.
But let's weigh the odds of that. The league seems more anti-expansion right now than anything. The quality of play became diluted from the last two waves of expansion; everyone knows that. There aren't enough good-to-great players to go around, at least enough to put two or three on each team. Besides, the NBA has a handful of weak-producing teams already, and while Seattle wouldn't necessarily fall in that category, adding another team doesn't make the league stronger, just drastically oversaturated.
The best solution to strengthen the league is to ship one of the money-losers to Seattle. But: Memphis and New Orleans just got new ownership, the Bobcats aren't for sale just yet anyway, and Glen Taylor recently took the Timberwolves off the market. That leaves the Bucks, but their lease doesn't expire for another four years and Herb Kohl, the former Wisconsin senator, is too tied to the area to sell to an owner who'll move the team.
To summarize: Nothing's in the works. Stern wasn't too optimistic about throwing Seattle a bone, admitting: "We don't have anything concrete."
It's too bad. Seattle brings a solid basketball history that includes a championship, some passion for the sport and prospective owners with stacks of money. After raising the value of every team in the NBA by virtue of turning the Kings into a half-billion-dollar franchise, Seattle was left hanging.
"Chris Hansen did everything he said he would do plus more," said Stern. "Steve Ballmer couldn't have been more supportive. We have and will retain a very good relationship with both of them, and we anticipate a continued relationship of some type with the goal of returning a team to Seattle."
The NBA eventually put a team back in Charlotte after poor ownership led to the Hornets leaving for New Orleans, so there's precedent. But the wait in Seattle, like the faces in town right now, could be long.