Knicks, Lakers learning to rebuild the hard way

LAS VEGAS -- Not to damn the vibe with faint praise, but the atmosphere for Monday evening's summer league game between two of the NBA's flagship franchises more than matched the intensity of Madison Square Garden or Staples Center on a lot of nights last season.

Fans filled the lower bowl of the Thomas & Mack Center for the meeting between the summer squads of the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers. Top executives from both teams sat in courtside seats.

In L.A. East, as former Lakers point guard and current Knicks coach Derek Fisher calls Las Vegas, there was a lot of purple and gold in the stands. There was also a lot of energy, much more than the norm for a July game played primarily by NBA wannabes.

"I thought it was good for the young guys to get an experience like this where the ebbs and flows of an NBA game and the crowd getting into it and out of it and how quickly momentum can change," said Fisher, the rare NBA head coach who serves in that role during the summer. "Guys are getting a little bit of a taste of what it might be like in the preseason or the regular season if they're able to make it that far."

The action on the floor wasn't exactly NBA-caliber in the Knicks' 76-66 victory. But let's be brutally honest: That was often the case with the varsity squads of the Knicks (17-65) and Lakers (21-61) last season, when both teams sunk to historic franchise lows.

Which is why this year's summer league matters as much to the Lakers and Knicks, two of the NBA glitz-and-glamour teams, as any of the 24 teams represented in the desert.

If these proud franchises are to be soon restored to respectability, much less glory, it will be in large part because of the prospects playing in Vegas.

The Knicks have a pair of first-round picks in power forward Kristaps Porzingis (fourth overall) and point guard Jerian Grant (19th overall). Shooting guard Langston Galloway and forwards Cleanthony Early and Travis Wear all got significant playing time as rookies and have a chance to develop into quality role players.

The Lakers' team features three first-rounders: guard D'Angelo Russell, the No. 2 overall pick; forward Larry Nance Jr., 27th overall pick; and Julius Randle, the seventh overall pick last year who is essentially a redshirt rookie after suffering a season-ending leg injury in his NBA debut. Point guard Jordan Clarkson is coming off an All-Rookie campaign. Center Tarik Black is also a rotation candidate.

"I don't know if it takes on an added importance," said Lakers coach Byron Scott, who watched from a courtside seat across from the team's bench. "I think what it does is gives us a chance for these young guys to really jell together and see what they can all bring to the table. It gives us a chance to really get them on the floor and get them to see what this is all about right now."

For most franchises, the summer league provides a glimpse into the future. For the Lakers and Knicks, much of their present is playing in July.