Sterling probate showdown set for July 7

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The hearing to determine if Shelly Sterling had the authority to sell the Clippers acting as sole trustee of the trust that owns the team has been set for July 7 -- several days into the crucial NBA free agency period.

A judge today set July 7 as the date for the trial to determine whether Shelly Sterling had the authority as sole trustee of the trust that owns the Los Angeles Clippers to sell the team to Steve Ballmer. The trial should last four days. In theory, it would end in time for the scheduled NBA Board of Governors meeting on July 15 that was the earliest point at which Ballmer would have officially become the owner of the Clippers.

So if all goes well and Shelly makes her case as the sole trustee, then Ballmer takes over in mid-July, which was always the best case scenario. But make no mistake -- even if things go well, this trial is a problem -- and it's a much bigger problem if things do not go well, which seems like a distinct possibility at least to me.

I'll reiterate a point I made yesterday -- it doesn't mean that Donald Sterling will own the Clippers in the long term. Sterling will most certainly lose the team, and has already for all intents and purposes. He can delay the process by which the team and the league move forward -- he can even do further damage to his already ludicrously negative public standing, which is difficult to believe but true. But he won't win.

But while he's losing, he can take others down with him, which is apparently his objective at this point. Teams can begin to negotiate with free agents on July 1 and can sign free agents beginning July 8. As it stands now, the Clippers situation will remain in real doubt through the second week in July. Even if Ballmer wasn't going to be the official owner until July 15, if Sterling had signed off on the deal then the BOG approval would be nothing more than a rubber stamp.

If however the probate court finds in favor of Donald Sterling, then he can regain his role as a trustee and call off the sale entirely. At that point the NBA would have to reinitiate the process of removing him as an owner -- something they would do with all possible haste, but obviously it would take time and cause more pain for everyone.

My best guess is that Ballmer would still bid and will be the Clippers owner soon enough, one way or the other -- and this latest flapdoodle might end up saving Stevie B a lot of money, since a sale proceeded over by the NBA would have much less profit motivation than the blind auction that Shelly conducted. If anything, the NBA could be motivated to screw the Sterling's with the sale price at that point. Maybe they tell Ballmer he can have it for the same $12.5M Sterling paid in 1971. (They won't do that of course, but part of me wishes they would.) The sale price could certainly be impacted by the mess.

But the pressure is really on Doc Rivers now. In fact, with this probate date now looming, it would probably have been better had Shelly never tried her end around with the trust. If the NBA had been forced to oust Sterling, we might not yet have an owner, but we'd have a definitive NBA finding against Donald Sterling. In that scenario, Rivers could tell prospective free agents "I don't know who the owner will be, but I know who it won't be, and I know it will be better." He can still say that -- and it's even true -- but he'll have to sell it a little harder, be a little more reassuring, be a little more convincing. We were under the distinct impression just a few days ago that out long Clips National nightmare was over, and free agents thought the same thing. Now that it's not, it just feels that much worse -- even though the end game remains compltely Sterling-free.

Rivers has been a stalwart since arriving in Los Angeles, and was never better than when he became the unofficial spokesmen for the team and essentially the league during the worst of the Sterling fiasco. He may yet get the same free agents even with the ownership question lingering -- but it's not good, let not kid ourselves.

The other bad news is that we're going to have to wait another month or so before there's more real movement on this story. Sadly, it will be in the news almost every day, as Donald and his crazy lawyers preen and posture in advance of the hearing. We may even have a couple more changes of heart, with DTS giving us some hope of a way out -- but don't get your hopes up.

My recommendation -- turn off DTS-TV until the second week in July, at least. There's nothing good on anyway.

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