The Sonics May be Stuck In Seattle for at Least One More Season

It is no secret that the owners of the Seattle SuperSonics, led by Clay Bennett, want to break their lease at Seattle's Key Arena and move the team to Oklahoma City before the start of next season.

I don't think that move will happen. Certainly not on that schedule, and possibly not at all.

Here's why:

There is a multi-faceted effort to keep them in Seattle, and one key element of that is a lawsuit between the Sonics' landlords -- the City of Seattle -- and the team. In essence, the city wants a judge to insist that the team must stay in Seattle until their lease is up in the summer of 2010. The team hopes the judge will say that the team can fulfill its obligations under the lease by buying out the next two seasons while high-tailing it off to Oklahoma CityAdam Silver, Clay Bennett, David Stern this summer.

Yesterday, the judge in the lease dispute did something that might seem really mundane.

She set the date for the trial.

But it's not all that mundane, when you consider that if the trial is late enough, it could make it impossible for the Sonics and the league to pull off the logistics of moving to a new city for the 2008-2009 season. There's a lot of work involved in moving an NBA team, not the least of which is coordinating the schedule for all 30 NBA teams. (Stick that Sonics game in the road trip with New Orleans and Memphis, or Portland and Sacramento?)

That's why the city asked for a late October date. The season would have started with the trial (the judge estimates it'll last six days) ongoing and would have guaranteed that the team would stay in Seattle for at least one more season.

The team, meanwhile, wanted a date in March, before the NBA's Board of Governors meets in April to vote on their request to move to another city.

Yesterday the judge picked a date in the middle, on June 16.

Which means ... what does that mean? If the team can win its case by late June, might they still be able to move this summer? Is there time to move and finalize the NBA schedule?

Theoretically, it appears, the team could move -- if everything breaks their way, including the judge ruling in their favor, a majority of NBA owners voting to approve the relocation, Oklahomans voting in March to approve funds to spruce up their stadium, and nothing else crazy happening.

One thing the owners have going for them is that, even with the lease trial hanging over everything, the NBA is proceeding with its April vote to approve or deny the move request. Greg Johns of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer writes:

League spokesman Tim Frank said Tuesday the seven-person relocation committee will move forward with its process despite the overhanging legal issue.

"The relocation committee will proceed with its deliberations and make a recommendation to the Board of Governors when it meets in April," Frank said. "If the board votes to approve the relocation, that approval will, of course, be subject to a legal determination that the team is free to relocate."

As the story is being told in Oklahoma, that schedule leaves the dream alive to have a team in Oklahoma next season. Darnell Mayberry of the Daily Oklahoman examines team relocation schedules of the past:

If the Sonics receive a favorable ruling in July, and no appeals are made, that likely would leave the franchise enough time to relocate in time for next season. The NBA board of governors approved the relocation of the Memphis Grizzlies from Vancouver on July 3, 2001 for the Grizzlies to begin the 2001-02 season in Tennessee.

The New Orleans Hornets, the only other NBA franchise to relocate since 1985, received approval from the league on May 10, 2002 to move from Charlotte, N.C. and play the 2002-03 season in Louisiana.

Steven Pyeatt of Save Our Sonics is not so sure it's possible. He tells TrueHoop by email that the date set by the judge is a victory of sorts -- he doubts if a move would be logistically possible after this trial. But much more important, he says, is that the way the lease is written between the team and the city, it is hard for him to imagine team owners could win this case:

This is not a simple case of contract law as some want to portray it. Instead of a lease, which can be broken with a simple monetary payoff, the city and the team used what is called a "premises use agreement."

While it doesn't sound very different, it is because you can have a "specific performance clause" in the document that allows one party to force the other to abide by the terms. In this case the team can force the city to not tear down Key Arena during the lease because they need a place to play. The city can force the team to stay because the investment the city made was based on more than just the lease payments.

Even if some small flaw or "out" can be found the judge is going to look at the "intent" of the two parties when they entered into the agreement and the document is very clear that both parties intended for the team to play all their games here until 2010.

What's more, there is a high likelihood of something wacky happening. Many suspect the Sonics are losing lots of money, and may be pressured, by delays, to give up at some point and sell the team.

And that's just the beginning of the wild cards.

There would almost certainly be an appeal if the city lost. That would take months or even years, during which time a judge may or may not allow the team to leave.

Another wild card is that, at some point, the league itself may take a bigger role to push things to some kind of resolution -- like finding different owners to keep the team in Seattle.

The current schedule may even drag the NBA into the middle of things. Attorneys for the City of Seattle have said that if the league were to approve the move of the team before a trial, city attorneys may add the league as co-defendants. With the NBA's decision on a move set to come before the trial, that may well happen.

The Post-Intelligencer article quoted above quotes a city attorney saying that he hopes the league's analysis of the two cities is fair. Remember, because of various kinds of revenue sharing, including the luxury tax and shared TV revenues, it is in the financial interest of the 29 other owners to have this team where it will be most profitable, and even a Sonic minority owner has said publicly that Seattle is likely a stronger market in the long term.

If city attorneys find the analysis is not fair, or have any other reason to want to include the league in the case, various NBA owners and executives -- even David Stern -- could be called to testify. And this trial date now also coincides with the NBA Finals, which might set up the kind of spectacle the current owners and the league would be eager to avoid. (Another witness the city reportedly plans to call is minority owner Aubrey McClendon, who caused a bit of a media storm, and was fined by the NBA, when he told a reporter that the owners never intended to keep the team in Seattle.)

Other complications on the horizon include the New Orleans Hornets' newly negotiated escape clause from New Orleans. They could become rival candidates to move to Oklahoma City at some point. And there is much discussion in NBA circles that one or both of these teams might really want
to end up in the cash cow of Sin City. Plans are underway to build an NBA-ready arena in Las Vegas.

Pyeatt adds two other little-discussed potential legal concerns for the current ownership group:

Bennett had his lawyers file documents with the federal court that claimed there was no financial value to having a team in a region. This after he had presented studies to the county and state claiming hundreds of millions in economic impact when he was trying to get an arena deal done.

Having done so he has now opened himself up to potential criminal fraud charges on top of the already pending court case for violating the state consumer protection laws.

That consumer protection complaint stems from Bennett's allegedly making representations to fans that the team would be in Seattle, when in fact it may not.

Put it all together, and the Sonics have a lot of obstacles between here and Oklahoma City. Thats why, in my book, it's a good bet the Sonics will be in Seattle for at least one more year.

But don't take my word for it.

Jim Brunner of the Seattle Times wrote a good story on the latest legal proceedings. His article might contain the most important quote of all. He cites a lawyer from the ownership group apparently saying May is as late as a decision could come to allow a move for next season.

... Bradley Keller, an attorney for the Sonics, told [Judge] Pechman the league needs to work out the schedule much earlier.
If the case is not resolved by May, "you have, in effect, decided it" for next season, Keller said during the scheduling conference in federal court Tuesday.

(Photo: NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver, SuperSonic Chairman Clay Bennett, and NBA Commissioner David Stern, by David Dow/NBAE/Getty Images)