Speaking to reporters before the Golden State Warriors hosted the Houston Rockets, Stern said the Sacramento group's offer has some "very strong financial people behind it but it is not quite there in terms of a comparison to the Seattle bid." He added that "unless it increases, it doesn't get to the state of consideration."
The league has scheduled a meeting April 3 in New York to avoid rushing debate on the issue. Representatives from Sacramento and Seattle will have a chance to present their case at that meeting, Stern said.
The NBA Board of Governors will convene April 18, when a vote is expected to take place on the sale and relocation of the Kings franchise. A sale of a franchise requires a three-fourths majority approval of owners, while relocation requires just a simple majority.
Stern said he is still hopeful that the Sacramento bid, led by 24 Hour Fitness founder Mark Mastrov and billionaire grocery tycoon Ron Burkle, will be comparable to the Seattle offer by the time owners have to make a decision.
"I think right now it is fair to say that the offers are not comparable," Stern said.
Mastrov, among the final bidders for the Warriors before Joe Lacob and Peter Guber bought the team for an NBA-record $450 million in 2010, is hoping to become the majority owner of the Kings. Burkle, co-owner of the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins, is leading the effort to build a new downtown Sacramento arena that he hopes will also lure back a WNBA franchise.
Mastrov was sitting courtside at the Rockets-Warriors game and said he wasn't surprised by Stern's comments. He said his group is still negotiating final terms with Sacramento and the NBA on a bid.
"It's all part of the process," said Mastrov, who will attend both meetings in New York.
The commissioner lauded the work done by Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson to organize the counteroffer, calling the efforts "Herculean." Johnson, a former All-Star point guard, has been trying to keep Sacramento's only major professional franchise from leaving California's capital city for more than two years.
Last year, Johnson had a handshake deal for a new downtown arena with the Maloof family that owns the Kings. The owners backed out of the plan, which included a $255 million public subsidy, saying it didn't make financial sense for the franchise.
Johnson's latest plan is to revitalize the city with an arena at the Downtown Plaza shopping mall owned by JMA Ventures, whose officers have said they are eager to participate. To show Sacramento support for the Kings, Johnson also has lined up at least 20 local investors who each committed $1 million.
Despite all the mayor's efforts, Stern said the financial contribution from the Sacramento group is still lagging behind Seattle's bid.
"There's a substantial variance," Stern said. "I have an expectation, a hope, that the variance will be eliminated by the time the owners give it consideration."
Stern also said he has spoken with Kings minority owner John Kehriotis about a separate bid to keep the team in Sacramento. Kehriotis has floated the possibility of a mostly privately financed upgrade to the team's current suburban arena.
A Seattle group led by hedge-fund manager Chris Hansen and Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer has had a signed agreement since January to acquire a 65 percent stake in the Kings for $341 million from the Maloof family. The group already has petitioned the league to relocate the team to Seattle for next season, restore the SuperSonics name and play in KeyArena for at least two years while a new downtown arena is constructed.
Both the Seattle group and the Maloofs have been asked by the NBA not to comment on the issue.
Hansen has been at the forefront of bringing the NBA back to the basketball-loving Pacific Northwest city. He reached agreement with local governments in Seattle last October on plans to build a $490 million NBA/NHL arena near the city's other stadiums, CenturyLink Field and Safeco Field.
No construction will begin on that project until all environmental reviews are completed and a team has been secured.
If the Seattle bid is blocked by NBA owners, the Maloofs would still have to agree to sell the team to any other group. However, Stern said the board has some influence on these matters and remains confident there will a resolution one way or another.
"If an ownership group has decided to exit our league," Stern said, "it doesn't retain the ultimate right to tell us where it's going to be located."