In Praise of the NBA Summer League

The games don’t matter and the stars stay home, but the players all have something to prove.

The brainchild of super agent Warren LeGarie, who represents a number of NBA coaches, the Las Vegas NBA Summer League is a unique production in professional sports. Unlike spring training or pre-season football, the focus of the 68-game event, which brings die-hard fans and no small number of professional gamblers to the MGM Grand’s Cox Pavilion, is young talent. Big-name draft picks attempt to equal the buzz while developing pros try to hustle their way off the bench. The result can be ugly, but this year’s mini tourney – set to end tonight as the Kings face the Rockets – has been incredibly entertaining. An unlikely list of players dominated while some big names struggled to keep up.

To enjoy the tournament, NBA fans have to learn to watch the game a bit differently. As the Spurs so dramatically demonstrated during this year’s finals, team chemistry produces results. But the players on court together in July likely won’t share shifts during the season when stars are back in the lineup. The Summer League is all about individual skill and wins don’t matter. The fact that Doug McDermott has been putting on a clinic, dropping a 31 point game on the Nuggets, is considerably more important than the fact that the Bulls went down to the Kings. Likewise,Shabazz Napier’s lackluster performance for the Heat is far more worrisome than that loss to the Wizards.

Still, that loss to the Wizards was fun to watch. Glen Rice Jr., who was named the MVP of the Summer League over the weekend, scored 22 while racking up a double-double and Otto Porter (of hip injury fame) looked impressive off the boards. And more people saw those performances than you’d expect. The league averaged 136,000 total viewers per game early in its run, but bigger match-ups attracted a bigger audience. The July 10th grudge match between the Heat and the Pacers drew 552,000 viewers. That’s 7.6 percent of the audience that tuned in to watch the teams during the playoffs, but it’s hardly unimpressive for a game that didn’t feature Bosh, Wade, George, or Hibbert.  The only James on the floor was James Nunnally, who just left the Cangrejeros de Santurce in the Puerto Rican league and put up 19.

The league’s growing television audience makes sense. July basketball is a sort of hybrid product: part college, part pro. And it doesn’t matter at all, which actually turns out to be a good thing. Coaches try new systems and players take chances. The rigid order of the modern NBA gives way – for a few minutes at a time anyway – to a sort of hyper-proficient street ball. Smart players emerge.

James Nunnally may not be a household name, but he can dish the ball and shoot from behind the line. And you better believe he brought his A game. He knows that what happens in Vegas can keep him in the lineup. He’s not playing to win, he’s playing not to lose. That’s drama.

Photos by Mark Goldman / Icon SMI / Corbis