Along with the heat, the summer supposedly brings a respite from the NBA – it is the offseason after all – but in recent years, the void has been progressively filled.
There’s the draft, but then, it’s been a grandiose made-for-TV event for years. Free agency, on the other hand, has taken on new life with the best player in the world changing teams twice in the last four years. While July first through tenth can be fun, the week and a half can often become a millstone, with Chris Broussard’s hourly speculation grinding your brain to dust.
Then there’s Summer League, a welcome change of pace from the rumor mill and roster construction of the prior month. Summer League, with its half-filled college arenas in Las Vegas and the doubles-as-a-sardine-can Orlando practice facility, is NBA Lite.
With palates effectively cleansed a month removed from seeing the game’s pinnacle stars duke it out in the Finals, fans are treated to (in some cases, subjected to) seeing potential future stars showcase their game, warts and all.
For over a year, we’ve been bombarded with scouting reports of 18-year-olds and, (fortunately) for a bit less, tortured with lowlights of the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks.
In mid-July, finally, we get to see, if only a glimpse, what the wait was for. There is so much anticipation leading up to the draft, but basketball is the only American professional sport that actually satisfies fans’ curiosity and excitement by showcasing rookie talent shortly after it’s drafted.
Doug McDermott going off for the Chicago Bulls, pregame dunk contests, Andrew Wiggins v. Jabari Parker, Nerlens Noel in a rare second-year rookie unveiling – NBA superstars may be traveling the globe during their short break, but the Orlando and Las Vegas Summer Leagues have their own kind of subset star power.
There is, however, the competition these young stars are playing against – undrafted rookies and veterans from overseas, all scratching and clawing for a place at the end of some team’s bench – which simultaneously adds to the excitement and detracts from the aesthetics of summer ball. As the games go on a player may come out of the woodwork to establish himself as a fixture of the temporary roster, and earn an invite to someone’s training camp. (A few years ago, Wes Matthews was one such player – an undrafted rookie who showed well in Summer League before eventually getting picked up by the Utah Jazz. Now with Portland, he’s one of the better shooting guards in the NBA.)
More often, though, the lower average talent level can lead to some long stretches of ugly play, with teams zipping up and down the court, countering each other’s clanks off the rim. But it’s the offseason, and the Summer League is a platform for development, as well, so that’s expected.
The NBA isn’t dumb; it has recognized the Summer League’s growing popularity and made moves to capitalize on the attention it gets in what is otherwise a typically slow period in the sports calendar.
In recent years, the league has put together a subscription streaming service for those without access to NBATV, the league-owned cable channel all games are broadcasted on.
This year was the second annual Las Vegas Summer League playoffs, an addition that adds some excitement and, perhaps, pseudo-significance to the summer scrimmages.
Ultimately, the result is near-year-round professional basketball. This year, with the FIBA World Cup in August, it essentially is just that. There’s an occasional international tournament in August, training camp in September, preseason in October, the regular season through April, playoffs through mid-June, the draft after that, then free agency and Summer League in July. (Your brain can get out of breath just reading that breakdown of the NBA calendar.)
The NBA has positioned itself for relevancy at least 11 months out of the year, something every other American professional sport fails to do; even football’s offseason has extended lulls in activity.
It’s almost getting to the point (if it hasn’t already) where the constant activity begs the question of whether it’s too much. (Most NBA writers would say yes, I’m sure.) The league, though, with the brief but interesting Summer League, has found a nice balance in its year-long cycle. The offseason transaction period doesn’t drag on quite long enough to numb people to the rumor mill, and it’s broken up with actual (almost) NBA basketball.
It’s a lot, sure, but there’s never been a better time to be a hoop head than now.
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