LAS VEGAS — Rarely have meaningless games felt so important. The takeaway from this year’s Las Vegas NBA Summer League wasn’t the winners and losers — it was the interest. It helped carry the league’s momentum forward from a highly watched NBA Finals and another news-heavy free agency period.
2016 NBA summer league: Full coverage
The regular season is still a few months away, but prospects, second-year players and roster hopefuls are already on display during the NBA summer league. Follow along with our coverage.
The NBA has dominated the sports landscape for 2 ½ months, ever since the final name was called in the NFL draft at the end of April. Other events pop up and fade away — golf majors, tennis grand slam events, baseball’s All-Star Game — and the NBA keeps carving out its spot in the news cycle. It helps that the NBA’s summer leagues provide the quickest turnaround from draft-to-action of any sport; Orlando summer league participants were in uniform a mere nine days after commissioner Adam Silver called their names. In addition to filling a gap in the sports schedule, these games serve to “pre-sell” the next season, as Las Vegas league founder Warren LeGarie puts it.
The night of the heavily hyped UFC 200 fight card, which packed 18,202 spectators into the new T-Mobile Arena on the Las Vegas Strip, there were 16,000 NBA fans in the Thomas Mack Center/Cox Pavilion complex to watch top-two draft picks Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram square off in the Philadelphia 76ers-Los Angeles Lakers game. It’s far from playoff-caliber basketball, but the mixture of rookies eager to show their chops and well-traveled veterans still pursuing their NBA dreams keep things competitive. I was a sideline reporter for eight games, and three of them were decided on last-second plays, including that 76ers-Lakers matchup.
It all points to the overall health and relevancy of a league that’s awash in lucrative television-rights money and rich in social-media currency. That doesn’t mean there aren’t concerns.
“It’s a young league … and an inexperienced league,” said one team executive as he watched the action at Thomas Mack. For two decades now the top talent has entered the NBA after just one year of college or straight from high school. Casual fans might not notice the impact on the game, but former players and longtime executives worry about the quality of play suffering.
There’s also concern about a lack of competitive fire when stars are so quick to team up. Kevin Durant‘s name came up every day in Las Vegas — especially when the NBA’s board of governors met last Tuesday. Small-market teams remain concerned that they’ll be left out of future star alignments, so there are rumblings of tightening player movement if the league’s collective bargaining agreement is reopened after the 2016-17 season. Still, there isn’t a consensus feeling that a work stoppage is inevitable, as there was ahead of the 2011 collective bargaining negotiations.
If the league is reluctant to radically change the Hack-a-Shaq policy because it affects so few players, why should it fundamentally alter the collective bargaining agreement just to control an even smaller number of players? Durant and LeBron James are the only players who can single-handedly tilt the balance of power right now … and if Durant doesn’t roll off a string of trips to the NBA Finals with the Golden State Warriors, then it means we’re really only talking about LeBron.
Players are making too much money and the owners’ franchise values have risen too high for there to be a protracted fight over dollars. But the other lesson from all this prosperity is that fans will forgive lost games for a work stoppage. There sure doesn’t seem to be any leftover hard feelings from the 16 games that were dropped from the schedule in 2011-12.
Everything’s better once there’s ball again. The crowds in Las Vegas, even the decent ones that showed up on weekday afternoons, show there’s interest in any basketball that carries the NBA brand. When games came down to the last possession, the crowds stood and cheered as if the Larry O’Brien trophy was on the line.
Fans got to see for themselves how Ben Simmons combined a power forward physique with a point guard’s passing skills. They saw Brandon Ingram score over people, even if he had difficulty powering through people. They saw Kris Dunn show that the Minnesota Timberwolves have the makings of another budding star to go with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins (while Tyus Jones will be either a useful reserve or valuable trade candidate). Bobby Portis looked like a player the Chicago Bulls can pair with Jimmy Butler for a long time, once they decide what direction they want to team to take. And Tyler Ulis looked ready to continue the Phoenix Suns’ new tradition of small guards.
There’s an eye-glazing amount of basketball in Las Vegas — 67 games over 10 days. There’s an audience that’s willing to watch it, though. In the reality TV show era, presence matters just as much as product. The NBA has plenty of both.