Speaking at the annual State of Downtown breakfast on Tuesday, Johnson said he has received approval from NBA Commissioner David Stern to present a counteroffer to the league from buyers who would keep the team in Sacramento. He said the city is in a "six-week sprint" to put together a proposal for the NBA's Board of Governors to consider over a potential sale and relocation to Seattle.
The league's deadline for teams to apply for a move for the next season is March 1, though that has been extended each of the last two years for the Kings. And both times, Johnson a former NBA All-Star has convinced the league that Sacramento could help fix the franchise's financial woes and secure its long-term home in a new arena.
"We want this to be the final act of a saga that's gone on for far too long," Johnson said.
People with knowledge of the situation said last week that a group led by San Francisco-based investor Chris Hansen, who wants to return the NBA to Seattle, has contacted the Maloof family about buying the Kings. They spoke on condition of anonymity to The Associated Press because no deal has been reached.
One person said the Kings could sell for more than $500 million, topping the NBA-record $450 million the Golden State Warriors sold for in 2010. Some reports have suggested up to $525 million.
The Kings' future in Sacramento has been uncertain because the Maloofs and the city haven't been able to agree on a deal for a downtown arena.
"While I am sensitive to the important role of the news media in informing the public, our position has not changed, we will not comment on rumors or speculation about the future of the Sacramento Kings franchise," Maloof family spokesman Eric Rose said in a statement Tuesday.
The NBA declined to comment on Johnson's remarks Tuesday.
Hansen's goal has been to find a team and restore the SuperSonics name after they were moved from Seattle to Oklahoma City in 2008. He reached agreement with local governments in Seattle last October on plans to build a $490 million arena near the city's other stadiums, CenturyLink Field and Safeco Field. As part of the agreement, no construction will begin until all environmental reviews are completed and a team has been secured.
Johnson commended Seattle's efforts to bring the NBA back to the Puget Sound. He just doesn't want it to be at the expense of Sacramento.
"We have a city and a community that have done every single thing that is required," Johnson said. "I hope Seattle gets another team. They deserve another team. They didn't deserve to lose a team in the first place. It just won't be the Sacramento Kings if we have anything to do with it."
The Maloofs backed out of a tentative $391 million deal for a new downtown arena with Sacramento last April, reigniting fears the franchise could relocate. The Kings said the deal didn't make financial sense for the franchise.
In 2011, the Kings appeared determined to move to Anaheim before Johnson convinced NBA owners at a meeting in New York to give the city one last chance to help finance an arena. That pitch bought Sacramento time, before the brokered deal between the city and the Maloofs negotiated by Stern and league lawyers fell apart last year.
Johnson said the Maloofs could still "participate in some way" in the new local ownership group "if they want to remain a part of this team and this community."
The mayor called the potential $500 million to $525 million price tag for the Kings an "outrageous number." He admits potential buyers he could pull together in Sacramento will not top that figure, but he also doesn't believe it has to.
Johnson said the Maloof family still must repay a $77 million loan to the city and other lenders if they leave. There also could be a potential relocation fee from the NBA that new owners wouldn't have to pay if the team stayed.
Subtracting those totals and adding the "proven support" Kings fans have shown in the past, Johnson's goal is to line up buyers willing to pay about $400 million to $425 million for the team and argue Sacramento's side to the league.
"We were there two years ago and we prevailed," Johnson said. "We have a very compelling case."