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Basketball Notes

Sacramento’s hopes rest on Johnson’s shoulders

By Gary Washburn
April 17, 2011

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During his playing career, Kevin Johnson’s most notable (and improbable) play was a dunk on Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwon during the 1994 Western Conference semifinals while he was with the Suns. It was David vs. Goliath. The diminutive Johnson racing toward the basket, soaring, and finally slaying the 7-foot Olajuwon with a jarring one-hand jam.

As mayor of Sacramento, Johnson is trying to accomplish a similar feat, saving basketball for his hometown city as the Kings appear on life support in Northern California. The Maloof brothers, owners of the Kings and the Palms Hotel in Las Vegas, want to take the club to Anaheim to help cure their financial woes, believing that moving into the Southern California market will provide a windfall.

While Friday’s NBA Board of Governors meetings was expected to be a mere formality for the approval of another relocation, Johnson pulled off a coup by presenting the possibility of billionaire Ronald Burkle purchasing the team from the languishing Maloofs and keeping the franchise in Sacramento.

Now, if you aren’t familiar with the Board of Governors, which is made up of team owners, the first thing to understand is that the possibility of a billionaire joining the fraternity and bumping out the bumbling Maloofs is alluring.

The deadline has been extended to May 2, clouding the process because the Maloofs’ case is not nearly as strong as Oklahoma City owner Clay Bennett’s was in 2008. And in an ironic twist — one that went over in Seattle about as well as a coffee shortage — Bennett was appointed chairman of the relocation committee.

It will be up to Bennett to determine whether the Maloofs have presented enough of a financial case to rip another team from its home. The vote is expected to take place next month, and a majority approval would send the Kings to Anaheim.

Commissioner David Stern, who led the charge to send the SuperSonics to Oklahoma City in 2008, doesn’t appear as convinced in this case.

“Mayor Johnson came in and said that there will be lots of additional dollars available that would improve the Kings’ performance, the Kings’ economic performance, in Sacramento, if they stay,’’ Stern said Friday. “And that the community had recently been mobilized, and was in a position to aid, I wouldn’t say a return, but a keeping of them there for the coming season.

“So the committee thought that it would be a good idea to do a little bit more fact-finding and determine how this will ultimately play out. There’s no agenda here; just to make sure that something as important to all parties as the transfer of a team to another city and the attempts of that city to keep that team was fully understood, fully briefed.’’

In other words, if a billionaire is interested in joining the club, we might as well listen to his pitch. With the Clippers and Lakers looking to block the Kings’ move, the consensus is this would be a much closer vote than the Seattle relocation.

Johnson’s goal during his visit to New York was to give the Board of Governors something to think about, a reason to reconsider rubber-stamping another embarrassing relocation. After the Kings lost to the Lakers in overtime Wednesday, heartbroken fans held a vigil at Power Balance Pavilion (formerly Arco Arena) for a team that enjoyed its share of special moments as the only professional game in town.

Stern continues to regret how the Seattle situation was handled and how the region has essentially turned its back on NBA basketball, despite being a hotbed for NBA prospects. There is apprehension about the potential for making another regrettable decision in Sacramento, especially when Johnson offered the board guidelines for a new downtown arena, something that would entice Stern to keep the team there.

“It was a very businesslike approach to the issue, which is: How do we make this team financially viable in Sacramento?’’ Stern said. “And, you know, there were preliminary discussions by the mayor about the potential for buildings, a new building, and in light of the history in Sacramento, that’s usually an eye-roller. But it was a good presentation.’’

The welcome news for those traditionalists who frown on relocation is that at least Stern appears open to the Sacramento market. And it’s about time he discourage financially struggling owners from using relocation as their first line of salvation when a franchise is mismanaged.

The Maloofs, although they were fixtures in Sacramento at one time, have shifted their attention to their Las Vegas dealings while becoming increasingly disenchanted with the bleak opportunity for an arena plan.

It’s likely too late to save Sacramento, but those teams with aging arenas or poor attendance should ramp up plans to revive their organizations, and that effort is up to the owners, not the fans.

APPLE TURNOVER
Knicks back to relevancy This is where the Knicks wanted to be, back in the league’s consciousness on the positive side, after years of being there for all the wrong reasons. Losing, Isiah Thomas’s tenure, poor signings, and Stephon Marbury all made the Knicks a laughingstock. They were the NBA’s Baltimore Orioles, an organization that spent money and resources to become significant again, only to have those investments squelch that quest.

Tonight against the Celtics, the Knicks take their next step to respectability as the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. This is hardly where the Knicks want to eventually reside, but it’s a beginning. Team president Donnie Walsh invested a chunk of the team’s salary cap space in Amar’e Stoudemire and will have to extend the contract of Carmelo Anthony to make that blockbuster trade with the Nuggets worth it.

But those financial issues aside, Madison Square Garden will regain its title as the basketball mecca in hosting its first playoff game in five years, and the league benefits from having New York be a factor.

This is why Stoudemire came to the Knicks. New York offered a player who has undergone microfracture surgery a guaranteed five-year deal, but Stoudemire easily could have avoided the pressure of playing under such circumstances and remained in a comfortable situation in Phoenix.

“Now we know what it takes [to get here],’’ Stoudemire said. “We did a great job throughout the season. Our first winning record in a few years and that’s a great accomplishment for us, but now the real season starts.’’

After Anthony was acquired, the Knicks had their first-string lineup together for only 18 games because of the timing of the deal and injuries. Stoudemire sat out three of the final four games with a sprained ankle, returning for the finale, which Anthony sat out.

So tonight’s game will mark the first time the two have played together since April 6 at Philadelphia. Stoudemire’s numbers have dipped slightly since Anthony’s arrival, including shot attempts.

The transition has been bumpy at times, but Stoudemire said he and Anthony are becoming more comfortable with each other. That process will have to continue if the Knicks are to make a legitimate title run.

“It’s going to be very important that all of us are glued in,’’ Stoudemire said. “We’ve been studying these guys [the Celtics]. We all have to be accountable on both ends of the court. We both are great offensive players. The key is to get better defensively.

“But I think if we just continue to play as hard as we can and get other guys involved, we’re going to be hard to stop.

“I think Boston knows it. They’re focusing on us, as we are with them. When it all comes down to the postseason, we know what it takes.

“I’ve been there, Chauncey [Billups] has been there plenty of times, Carmelo’s been there a few times, so we all know what it takes to win. We’re ready.’’

OPEN HOUSE
Guard honest about deal Eddie House was dealt by the Celtics to the Knicks at the trade deadline in 2010. The Celtics felt House had lost his effectiveness and chose to pursue spark plug Nate Robinson. House knows what it’s like to leave Boston reluctantly, as does Kendrick Perkins, who was moved with Robinson to Oklahoma City at this year’s deadline.

Like many others, House, now a reserve with the Heat, was puzzled by the Perkins deal.

“I was surprised to see Perk go. He was basically like the backbone of the D,’’ House said. “Like the heart and soul of the defense.

“You know Kevin [Garnett] was a verbal guy. Perk was like the backbone of it. It was very hard to see him go and I know it was hard not only for him, but I think it was hard for everybody, fans included.’’

ETC.
Myers hire is a good one The Warriors’ hiring of Bob Myers as assistant general manager is a coup, as Myers was considered one of the bright young minds in the sports agent game. He represented Kendrick Perkins and Jermaine O’Neal, and the Warriors could use his connections in their quest to become a Western Conference power.

While there was speculation that the addition of Myers would lead to the end of the Larry Riley era, the GM was rewarded with a contract extension. But remember, Riley wasn’t hired by the ownership group led by former Celtics minority owner Joe Lacob. Myers is their first hire, and certainly could take over the reins in a few years. They didn’t make Myers any promises, but they didn’t bring in the 36-year-old former UCLA player just to follow Riley around.

Despite speculation that Riley would be cut loose, he has helped restore confidence in Golden State basketball, and the team is a top defender and legitimate center away from making the playoffs. The Warriors went hard after Perkins before he was dealt to the Thunder.

“I think Larry has done a great job and I’ve been very pleased with his performance,’’ Lacob said. “He’s had a vision since he took the job less than two years ago and he has certainly helped move this team in an extremely positive direction in terms of our culture, cap management, and roster additions.

“With that said, he also understands that we still have plenty of work to do and that expectations for this team have increased.

“I believe he’ll work extremely well with Bob, and the fact that we now have a more traditional configuration in basketball operations . . . will prove beneficial for everyone.’’

Consolation prize The addition of Arizona forward Derrick Williams to the list of underclassmen declaring for the draft is a major relief for those lottery teams who already have a franchise point guard. Duke guard Kyrie Irving has been anointed the consensus No. 1 pick, but he will be passed on by teams such as Washington, Milwaukee, and Sacramento, who drafted point guards in the past few years. Williams, who will hire an agent, gives the draft the talented swingman it lacked. This is considered one of the weakest draft classes in recent memory, and several players will be taken strictly on potential. The Celtics will pick 25th.

Hawks lose altitude After a year away from the game, Mike Woodson might have seen his coaching stock rise with the tumble of the Hawks, who slipped by six wins and appeared less formidable. Woodson’s contract was not renewed last season by Atlanta general manager Rick Sund, who believed Larry Drew was capable of leading the team to the next level. But according to league sources, unless the Hawks turn in a positive performance against the Magic in their first-round series, Drew’s job may be in jeopardy. Drew is one of the league’s lowest-paid coaches, and the plethora of hot assistants, as well as college coaches interesting in making the jump to the NBA, may entice Sund to shake up the franchise.

Layups Kobe Bryant has endorsed Brian Shaw to take over as Lakers coach for Phil Jackson, who is expected to leave after this season. But the Lakers shouldn’t be so eager to usher Jackson back into retirement. Their window of opportunity to win the title remains open after this season and if there is a resolution to the labor situation before it extends into the regular season, Jackson may ponder a return. Several coaches and players are pondering stepping away from the game if there is a lockout . . . The potential purchase of the Pistons by Michigan businessman Tom Gores is welcome news to Detroiters because he plans to keep the team in Michigan, and approached the NBA Board of Governors with fresh ideas about the financially struggling franchise. The Palace at Auburn Hills was a vibrant arena in its day, and now it’s known only for its mouthy fans. The Pistons could flirt with the idea of moving back to downtown Detroit, where the other three major sports teams play. Meanwhile, Gores assured GM Joe Dumars that his job is safe. The same, however, can’t be said of coach Jon Kuester, who is expected to be removed in the coming weeks, perhaps when the sale becomes official. Several Pistons are awaiting the decision on Kuester before determining whether to demand a trade, including Rodney Stuckey and Tayshaun Prince.

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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