Who truly holds the greatest rights to a team? The people who bought it, or the city whose name it bears?

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As fascinating and flummoxing and filthy as the Seattle/Sacramento saga has been, the conflict at the core of this debacle remains relevant despite the theatrics on both sides.

It’s not Seattle vs. Sacramento. It’s not the Chris Hansen group vs. Kevin Johnson’s whales. It’s not even David Stern vs. Seattle, contrary to our snickering.

The real battle is about entitlement. It’s about two parties arm-wrestling to have their rights to the Sacramento Kings defined.

It’s the Maloofs vs. Sacramento. And in a general sense, it’s about an NBA owner’s rights vs. the rights of the city that the team represents. Everyone else is a character that stands to gain or lose something as a result of an epic showdown that has been building for years.

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Who has more juice? The actual owner? Or the city that becomes a partner by lending its name and, usually, its money to subsidize the owner’s fancy arena?

For the most part, this pertinent question has been left unanswered. It is the elephant in the arena, dancing around, pretending to be a secondary mascot.

On the surface, it seems a silly thing to ponder. Owners own their teams, and they do as they darn well please, no matter how stupid. But those partnerships with their cities, which so many oppose, complicate matters.

The business of the NBA, as well as any other major sports league, revolves around making cities chip in for sports palaces. It’s your team only if you pay for it to be your team. If you don’t, there’s always the threat of moving to another city.

It’s the build-or-bolt method. And it works. An overwhelming majority of cities consider it stepping up, when they are often being conned. These sports leagues hold your civic pride hostage, and many arena/stadium deals are emotional decisions, not practical ones.

Here’s why this is so relevant to this custody battle over the Kings: If it’s an accepted truth that cities get rewarded for “stepping up,” what happens when that’s still not good enough for an owner? What happens when an owner believes a franchise is still better off elsewhere? What happens when an owner is adamant about exercising his right to do what he wishes with his private business?

In modern-day sports business, the rights of an owner and a city haven’t been challenged like they have been during the Kings saga. Because Sacramento has put together a $448 million arena plan and an ownership group to buy the Kings, the NBA appears predisposed to letting the Kings stay. It’s the way the system works. The league can’t go against its own unwritten rules. Retention, the reward for caving to the NBA’s demands, is as important an incentive as the threat of relocation. Sacramento has played the NBA’s game — and won.

But what about the Maloofs?

They own the franchise. For reasons they won’t fully explain until this saga is over, they don’t believe Sacramento is the right place for the Kings anymore. So, they sold them to Hansen’s Seattle group, pending league approval, because the purchase price was ridiculous ($525 million original total valuation, now $625 million). And now, after nearly four months of posturing and counterproposals, they’ve made the boldest move of this battle. They have threatened to keep the team if it isn’t sold to Hansen and moved to Seattle instead of selling it to the group Johnson put together, which is led by software magnate Vivek Ranadive. And if the Maloofs remained owners, they would sell 20 percent of the team to Hansen at a price of $125 million.

For weeks, we have heard about Sacramento’s rights to the Kings. Now, the Maloofs are using their rights as leverage.

And what the heck is the NBA supposed to do about this?

The Maloofs and Hansen have come up with a sly backup plan that traps the NBA. It’s not yet a game-changer in terms of the outcome, but it guarantees that there is no easy way out for Stern. In fact, it now seems far less messy to let the Kings go to Seattle.

Whatever the NBA owners decide this week in Dallas during their board of governors meeting, it will have to set a bad precedent. Leaving Sacramento means the NBA would renege on the implied promise that cities keep their teams if they’re willing to pay for it. Staying in Sacramento means that NBA owners would ignore a member of its Rich Guy Club and insinuate themselves in a manner that they have tried to avoid in the past.

And staying in Sacramento could mean the greatest fiasco of this entire mess: The first squatting ownership group since Clay Bennett. If allowed, the Maloofs and Hansen would just wait around for the Sacramento deal to fall apart and then apply for relocation again. And if not allowed, it could be grounds for a lawsuit. It’s a worst-case scenario for the NBA.

It is Stern’s fault for misleading the Hansen group and using its offer to force Sacramento to “step up.” Now, he has a city that has done everything it’s supposed to do to keep a team. And he has a potential new ownership group, partnering with the current one, angry and wondering about its rights.

The problem with playing games? People get bored of the one you’re playing and invent a new one. This new game is dangerous, for sure.

Someone will win, but it won’t be the NBA. If it remains stubborn about expansion, it will be forced to set a bad precedent.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @JerryBrewer.

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