Kings' future still uncertain

LAS VEGAS -- As George Maloof sipped on his iced tea and looked outside the window of his casino at the crowded pool at the Palms in early May, he smiled and said, "It's coming back."

Maloof, the co-owner of the Sacramento Kings and the Palms Casino Resort, always knew it was a matter of time before Las Vegas would return as a major tourist destination, he was less optimistic about the Kings' chances of returning to Sacramento.

In fact, as he prepares for Tuesday's NBA Draft Lottery in New York, where Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson will be representing the Kings at the request of the Maloof family, Maloof is still somewhat surprised the team is playing one more year in Sacramento.

"The decision to remain in Sacramento was tough," Maloof said. "We had what we thought was a very fair opportunity in Anaheim. It was basically a negotiated lease with Henry and Susan Samueli [who own the Anaheim Ducks and operate the Honda Center]. It was a difficult decision to remain in Sacramento. I'm not going to sugarcoat that but we're going to give it another shot. We're going to give it an honest shot. And hopefully there's an arena there, and if not we're going to have to move on."

There is a hint of skepticism in Maloof's voice as he talks about Sacramento's proposed arena.

Maloof said he has yet to hear a formal proposal from Johnson, and the discussions are in the preliminary stages over two weeks after the Kings announced they were staying in Sacramento for one more season.

A city-commissioned group is still studying ways to finance a new sports and entertainment arena and that group isn't scheduled to present an arena feasibility study to the Sacramento City Council until May 26.

The Maloofs meanwhile have put a tentative March 1 deadline on getting plans for a new arena in place, essentially giving Johnson 10 months to do what the Maloofs have tried and failed to do for the past 10 years. If the deadline is not met, the Kings will file an application with the NBA for relocation.

"The mayor is trying to keep his promise and he's doing the best he can but it's going to be tough," Maloof said. "It's not going to be easy. We don't want to go back and fool anybody that it's going to be a slam dunk. We're not going to come back and tell the community we're here forever. It's this year. If you buy tickets, it's for this year and there are no promises beyond that."

Perhaps the biggest roadblock to a new Sacramento arena outside of the short time frame the city has to get a plan in place is that the Maloofs do not want to own and operate the arena as they currently do with Power Balance Pavilion, formerly known as Arco Arena. They simply want to be tenants in the facility, which would have been the case in Anaheim. While they will certainly contribute to the financing of a new arena, as Maloof said, "We are not going into this with a big checkbook."

The Amway Center in Orlando, the league's newest arena, was completed at a cost of $480 million last year. If Sacramento doesn't build its arena on the cheap as it did with Arco Arena, which was built for $40 million, then it is looking at a similar price tag. What are the chances of getting such an arena publicly and privately financed in Sacramento in today's economy?

"I say it's a long shot," Maloof said. "I've said it before and I still think it's a long shot."

So if the Maloofs don't get an arena deal they are happy with in Sacramento, would they go back to the deal they had to move the team to Anaheim?

"Oh yeah," Maloof said. "We felt very comfortable with Anaheim. We felt very comfortable with our partners. Absolutely. Absolutely."

Relocating the team next year as opposed to this summer could circumvent a lockout set to begin on July 1. NBA owners are already preparing for a shortened season or no season at all. Such uncertainty and the attempt to drum up excitement in a new city with no available players and no guarantee when games will be played could make a relocation this summer difficult.

The TV deal the Lakers have with Fox Sports West and KCAL 9 expires after next season, leaving an opportunity for the Kings, should they relocate next summer, to fill the void left by the Lakers. Being on one or both platforms would give them a broader audience than being on KDOC, which was the plan for this upcoming season.

"The timing is what it is," Maloof said. "We felt that staying another year in that arena and not having a clear path to a new arena wasn't fair to us or fair to our fans in Sacramento. Now that the mayor has reached out to the community and reached out to other people and he has a plan, we'll see what it is."

The Maloofs are looking for a quick resolution because the team continues to lose money playing in an outdated facility with only 30 luxury suites and 412 club seats as opposed to the 84 luxury suites and 1,750 clubs seats the Honda Center would provide them. The family is also in the midst of restructuring the casino's debt, which they say has no bearing on the team and its future.

"In general Las Vegas has been through a lot and we weren't immune to it," Maloof said. "We're doing a lot better now. When you're working with your debt and restructuring your debt it's a process and it's going to come out OK. It's only a matter of time."

While the Maloofs have patiently waited for Las Vegas to recover from the fallout of the recession, they are no longer willing to be as patient when it comes to playing in a new arena.

"Arco Arena is not an NBA arena. It's not even an NCAA arena," Maloof said. "It's a sense of pride for the community to have a nice arena. Timing-wise I know it's hard to ask people to finance an arena. Someone's got to ask them. We're not going to ask them. We won't do that. It's for the community and for the fans. We're just going to be a tenant in the arena and play there. It's a tough ask right now but if there's enough spirit and enough desire it can happen. The mayor is certainly very energetic, very determined and very focused. We have a lot of respect for what he's trying to do."

As much as Maloof respects the efforts of Johnson and the City of Sacramento, getting the Kings to stay in the city after this season may take a bigger miracle than simply keeping them there for an extra 12 months as Anaheim waits patiently in the wings.

"We want to come out of this with a new arena, that's our goal, and if we can't we have to look elsewhere," Maloof said. "We like Anaheim. That's the only place we're looking at. We haven't negotiated with anybody else. ... It's a dynamic market. We believe Anaheim and Orange County want their own team. It's an NBA-ready facility and they are committed."

Arash Markazi is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com.