Last week's news of the New Orleans Hornets renegotiating their lease to include an opt-out clause gives Oklahoma City more NBA options. The Seattle SuperSonics franchise is no longer the only egg in Oklahoma City's basket. The Hornets now have just as good a chance of finding the Ford Center as the Sonics. Hornets owner George Shinn cleverly added a provision to his lease that mandates his franchise average 14,735 fans from Dec. 1, 2007, through the end of next season or it's free to walk. Judging by the Hornets' poor crowd support thus far, Shinn is in store for a much smoother stroll than Sonics chairman Clay Bennett in his search for Oklahoma City. How it all plays out we aren't likely to know anytime soon. But here are some of the more likely scenarios: •Sonics escape their KeyArena lease and move to Oklahoma City next season. There is a strong possibility the Sonics' federal trial won't begin until fall or winter, which would prevent them from relocating next season. The Sonics could then play here next season only by reaching a buyout agreement with the city of Seattle. And that might not be an option after the Seattle City Council last September passed an ordinance that prevents the city from negotiating a buyout. •Sonics are held to their lease and move to Oklahoma City in 2010. This would be practical because of the uncertainty with how the federal court judge will rule on the issue of specific performance. A pertinent question would be are the Sonics owners willing to wait another two years to relocate? And what if an arena deal comes to life by then? •Sonics are held to their lease, get a new arena and agree to a new lease. Given the nasty relationship between the two sides, it's hard to imagine this scenario playing out. But from a pure business standpoint, the city of Seattle likely can't afford to pick up the bulk of the tab on yet another state-of-the-art arena. •Sonics are held to the lease, the team is sold to Seattle-area owners who then get approval for a new arena. It's happened before in Seattle, back in the mid-1990s when Paul Allen purchased the NFL's Seattle Seahawks from Los Angeles-hungry Ken Behring. Allen contributed $160 million to the $460 million Qwest Field after Behring's $150-million improvements request for the Kingdome was shot down. Bennett has admitted to receiving interest from local owners but maintains that the franchise isn't for sale. •Hornets make the attendance benchmark and remain in New Orleans. Not many signs point toward the Hornets averaging 15,000-plus fans over the next 1½ years to bump their already trailing attendance to the needed figure. Sustained on-court success, however, and a nice showing in the playoffs this year could create a spike in next season's crowd flow. •Hornets miss the attendance benchmark and return to Oklahoma for the 2009-10 season. Considering the Sonics' cloudy court case, this scenario isn't far-fetched. What's unclear is how will the NBA act if the Board of Governors approves the Sonics relocation to Oklahoma City but the courts then rule they must stay in Seattle until 2010? Shinn also would have to pay up to $100 million to move from New Orleans. •Hornets miss the attendance benchmark and move to Kansas City for the 2009-10 season. K.C. has to be a more likely destination for the Hornets than Oklahoma City considering the Sonics' state of affairs. And the move would make sense since the shiny new Sprint Center is waiting on its first major tenant. •Hornets miss the attendance benchmark, move to Seattle for the 2009-10 season and the Sonics move to Oklahoma for the same season. The Sonics could call Oklahoma City home in time for the 2009-10 season if their trial isn't expedited but they receive a favorable ruling from the judge. It's unlikely, however, that Hornets owner George Shinn moves to Seattle and settles for the NBA's worst venue. •Hornets miss the attendance benchmark and Shinn sells the franchise to Bennett and Co. who then move it to OKC. Shinn is adamant about retaining his franchise, so he doesn't figure to sell anytime soon. And it doesn't appear that he's losing cash by the minute as some predicted he would in New Orleans, which means he might not be forced to sell. •Sonics stay in Seattle. Hornets stay in New Orleans. Las Vegas and Oklahoma City are awarded expansion franchises. NBA Commissioner David Stern has acknowledged that he's not interested in expansion at this point. Not in this country anyway. But Las Vegas is on the NBA's radar, as evidenced by its hosting of last year's All-Star Game. It figures to be only a matter of time before both cities host permanent NBA teams. Why not through expansion?
Hornets owner George Shinn now has an opt-out clause in his New Orleans lease. By NATE BILLINGS, THE OKLAHOMAN archive