LAS VEGAS — Next to a full-service bar stocked with enough tequila and high-end whiskey to be an acceptable place to drink in Sin City is a lounge with cushioned chairs, sofas, and an ottoman.
It’s at the Thomas & Mack Center, where the NBA holds its annual Las Vegas summer league, not, say, the Overlook Lounge at the Wynn. Any client of the annual summer tournament can sit down there for a drink.
There was a time when an NBA star taking the field for a summer league game was a big deal. Now, it’s common not only for LeBron James or Russell Westbrook to attend the same Lakers summer game (whether they talk to each other or not), but also for entire lines of veterans to gobble up a series of seats along the lines of base. Literally, Darius Garland of Cleveland, Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen were at the Cavs’ first summer game.
Richard Jefferson is a 17-year NBA veteran, a champion and now a league media personality whose stock is on the rise. He donned gray and black and officiated a quarterback in a Summer Championship game this week.
For years, summer league founder and NBA coaching agent Warren LeGarie’s welcome home party took place in a bright, sterile hotel ballroom with a few trays of food warmed up against the walls, beer and wine in the corner and tables to stand and chat. Now it’s a swanky rage at a Wynn hotel bar, where the bartenders are straight out of “Cocktail,” the room is lit with black lights, a DJ blasts blazing tunes through speakers and cornhole boards are set up on the patio next to a lily-covered lagoon. Agents, influencers, basketball decision makers, spokespersons and, yes, us writers are invited.
In this way, and in so many others, the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas is a spectacle that grows bigger every year. Games get wall-to-wall TV coverage, on ESPN and NBA TV, though not a single game counts and the vast majority of players on the field won’t make the league.
Imagine if every spring training game for Major League Baseball went like this. You can’t because it would never happen, even though Mike Trout is a million times more likely to play in some of these games than LeBron James or Steph Curry are in the summer league.
The purpose of summer league is to A) wet the feet of newly drafted rookies in a professional setting; B) give G Leaguers and EuroLeaguers a chance to show up in 30 NBA front offices; C) get a few young NBA players already on the team, like, say, Quentin Grimes of the Knicks, a few more reps; D) attend LeGarie’s party.
When possible, the league and network (ESPN or NBA TV) promote the big game between two highly touted rookies, like No. 1 overall pick Paolo Banchero and the Orlando Magic against No. 2 Chet Holmgren and the Oklahoma City Thunder last Monday. The game was scheduled for ESPN, under the exact billing you imagine: Banchero vs. Holmgren. To agree!
Only… Banchero didn’t play that night against Holmgren. And he won’t dress for this summer league anymore. Before the tip, Orlando pulled him from all remaining summer meets because, basically, his decision makers had seen enough.
This is just the latest example of what I think is the biggest problem facing the NBA. The players fans want to see the most aren’t playing enough.
By the way, the league is doing very well despite this problem. Among the topics NBA commissioner Adam Silver discussed Tuesday in Las Vegas was projected revenue north of $10 billion for 2021-22, a league record. He was asked about Kevin Durant’s trade demand for the Brooklyn Nets, even though he signed a four-year, $198 million contract extension last summer that won’t even start until next year.
“We don’t like seeing players asking for trades, and we don’t like seeing things go the way they are,” Silver said.
What’s behind aversion? That’s not the drama Durant created. The NBA thrives on soap opera stuff, literally changing its free agency start time so tweets can fly and TV coverage skyrockets while most fans are awake.
Yes, a player of Durant’s stature and contract demanding a trade is bad for league business, as in actual trades for front offices trying to build their teams. Traffic jams and holding patterns and stocks of mid-level free agents form when there is so much uncertainty about where a megastar like Durant might be moving, and how much it will cost suitors potential to trade for him.
But there’s a more central problem, one that puts a team like the Nets in that position of having to make a deal, even though Durant is under contract for a term as US president.
That’s what happens if Durant doesn’t get what he wants. Either he makes life so miserable for the organization that playing with him is untenable, or he doesn’t play.
And the NBA already has way too many.
Last season, Ben Simmons, John Wall, Kawhi Leonard, Jamal Murray and Zion Williamson didn’t play a game. They have 13 All-Star selections and two Rookie of the Year awards among them. Murray has neither, but he’s an All-Star-caliber guard who averaged 21 points on the season before a torn ACL sidelined him.
We will continue. Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, Paul George, Klay Thompson, Anthony Davis and Bradley Beal missed 291 games combined last season. Between them, they made 36 All-Star teams. For good measure, LeBron, Curry and Durant missed 71 games a year ago. How many All-Star selections between them? I can’t count that high.
As you well know, the reasons for their absences are varied. Injuries are the leading cause for most, but age, vaccination mandates, mental health, conditioning and business demands were all factors. In Wall’s case, he and the Houston Rockets couldn’t agree on a role or a trade, so they both decided he should stay home. Wall has played 113 games over the past five seasons due to injury and infection — and then last year’s weird situation with the Rockets.
Injuries are a timeless concern. Silver refutes the notion that the NBA’s 82-game schedule leads to more injuries, arguing that players generally don’t suffer from overuse injuries as he prepares to implement an in-season tournament (which ostensibly means more matches, not less).
Thompson missed more than two full seasons recovering from devastating leg injuries. Durant, who has played just 99 of a possible 223 regular season games over the past three years, tore his Achilles tendon and suffered several other less serious leg injuries (and bouts of COVID-19). 19) who delayed it. These are the unfortunate breaks from the practice of a sport that puts a lot of strain on the joints, ligaments and muscles.
With injury risk in mind, can anyone really blame the Magic for deciding Banchero managed to squeeze out the rest of the summer league schedule – a list of games that don’t count? for the squat in the standings? Of course not.
But too often, for whatever reason, a showpiece NBA game is announced, and fans who drop the cash or settle in to watch at home do so without their favorite players on the court. It’s a league built on glitz, glamor and the personal identification of athletes who don’t wear hats or helmets and who perform within feet (or inches) of the fans.
When a dozen of the sport’s most recognizable stars miss 67% of games combined – like the 14 stars listed above did last season – it’s not good.
It’s also not good for the NBA when a player like Durant, with so many years and so much money left on his contract, asks for a trade. Because forcing the Nets to go all the way could force him to… miss more games.
(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)