The NBA Summer League is a series of off-season competitions during which National Basketball Association teams come together to try out different summer rosters instead of their regular season line-ups. Typically consisting of a mix of rookies, second year players, and unsigned free agents, the current summer league consists of three separate leagues: the Las Vegas Summer League, the Utah Jazz Summer League, and the Orlando Pro Summer League.
Meaningless games rarely have 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.
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, Major League 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 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 keeps things competitive.
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, though that doesn’t mean there aren’t concerns.
Casual fans might not notice the impact on the game, but former players and longtime executives worry about the quality of play suffering.
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 James.
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.
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.