Posted by Kevin Arnovitz
The Las Vegas Summer League is a lot like the Sundance Film Festival of the NBA. Whereas the pageantry of most NBA games has gotten out of control, Summer League games are small indie productions. The event certainly has its share of fanfare, but it also allows participants to brush shoulders with some notables they wouldn't ordinarily have access to during the grind of the NBA season. Just as festival-goers at Sundance might find themselves sitting next to an A-List movie star in a cozy bar, it's not unusual for Summer League attendees to sit down in the stands at Cox Pavilion, only to look over and see a high-profile general manager in cargo shorts and flip-flops.
Since team executives, agents, player development personnel, and veterans who've come to watch their younger teammates are all convened in one place for 10 days, Summer League is one big, casual schmoozefest, and a great place to take inventory of the state of the NBA.
What were all those big names talking about in Las Vegas this year? Here were eight hot topics:
A Lot of Competent Players, but Only One Sure-Fire All-Star
Since early spring, the 2009 talent pool has been regarded as a one-man draft. By and large, NBA folks left Las Vegas with that consensus intact. Blake Griffin was the story of Summer League. Though he wasn't able to replicate his explosive 27-point debut, Griffin's 19.2 points and 10.8 rebounds per game stood out. There were other players who matched his statistical output, but few generated the enthusiasm Griffin did among those who got a look at the full roster of rookies. "It's not only his work ethic and competitiveness," said one scout. "It's the balance, athleticism, body, and control. The stuff he can't do yet? It'll happen in no time." When asked how many certain All-Stars would materialize from the class of 2009, interviewees set the over-under barely above one, with Tyreke Evans earning a few votes. Despite the low expectations for stardom, many observers were pleasantly surprised by the depth of solid, if unexceptional, players. The prevailing opinion in Vegas was that the 2009 group is a far cry from the notoriously fruitless class of 2000. Though there was little unanimity, James Harden, Austin Daye, Wayne Ellington, Jonny Flynn, DeJuan Blair, and Earl Clark were all mentioned as possible contributors, or "third options" as one assistant general manager put it. But conversations about potential greatness consistently and almost exclusively returned to Griffin.
Anthony Randolph is Ridiculous
Summer League play always warrants a disclaimer, because the level of competition falls way short of what guys will confront in an NBA game, but the Warriors' 20-year-old forward seemed almost too advanced for Summer League play. Normally jaded execs and crusty sportswriters alike had their jaws agape watching Randolph command the game when he was out on the floor. Randolph came into the league as a candy dish of disparate talents, but he's graduated from curiosity to crackerjack. He has a band of admirers who gush over his range of talents, and that group got a lot bigger in Las Vegas, as his skill set was on full display. Randolph saw the court, ran the floor, passed the ball, blocked shots, got to the line, and drained mid-range jumpers as well as anyone in Summer League. In his four games, he averaged a Summer League-high 26.8 points per game on 60.9 percent shooting from the floor. He also got to the line 39 times and blocked 12 shots. But it was about more than the stats for Randolph. There's a moment when a player's talents unify into a single, coherent package. Judging from Randolph's performance, that moment has arrived.
The Global Economic Crisis
There's an area behind the near basket at Cox Pavilion where European coaches, general managers, and scouts sit and talk shop during the games. The NBA presents Summer League as a showcase of their future stars, but the real business in Las Vegas is being conducted by these guys, along with the agents and bridge-builders who are trying to get jobs overseas for the less recognizable names on Summer League rosters. Although there wasn't a visible black cloud hanging over this corner of the gym, the anxiety was palpable. They had a lot to be stressed about. Basketball clubs the world over are suffering, but none more than those in Europe. After years of escalating salaries and profits, the market has collapsed. "I've told all my European guys to expect, on average, salaries to go down between 30 and 40 percent," one European agent said. "It's definitely a buyer's market." This dynamic puts pressure on everyone -- the players who are facing a pay cut (even if they're coming off banner seasons), the agents who are terrified to communicate this to their clients out of fear of getting fired, and the teams who still haven't filled out their rosters because they're short on cash. The result is an impasse with neither players nor clubs budging, and a few teams on the verge of economic collapse.
Salary Cap Troubles & the NBA Financial Situation
The international game is in meltdown mode, while the NBA game is suffering from its own set of monetary issues. In Sections 104 and 115, where most of the NBA execs and team personnel sit, the dominant conversation of the week was about the financial pinch NBA franchises are feeling. In his press conference here in Vegas, NBA Commissioner David Stern said that fewer than half of NBA franchises made money last season. Ticket sales, sponsorships, and television contracts are all down. With the salary cap and luxury tax level dropping -- and scheduled to do so for the foreseeable future -- teams are having to calibrate their spreadsheets. This affects everyone: owners, general managers who are under pressure to build legitimate NBA rosters, free agents sitting on the sidelines, their agents, and also the journeymen and undrafted rookies trying to earn a spot on an NBA roster. To save money, a team that would normally carry 15 guys might trim that number down to 13 -- meaning fewer jobs. And players who would've inked rich, multi-year deals are finding that, with some exceptions, they have fewer suitors, with thinner wallets.
The Point Guard Class
Several point guards who came to Las Vegas made strong impressions. Jonny Flynn, despite all the turmoil surrounding Ricky Rubio, stood out. Though many in Vegas questioned the wisdom of playing Tyreke Evans at point guard long-term, few doubted that his strength, size, and capacity to get to the rim would make him a scoring machine. Observers had reserved praise for Brandon Jennings and Stephen Curry, the former for his unrefined shot, the latter for looking more like a gunner than a floor general. Some of the mid-first-rounders earned a lot of praise. Dallas' Roddy Beaubois led Vegas point guards in oohs and aahs, zipping through the lane in traffic and filling it up from beyond the arc. Of all the point guards in Las Vegas last week, Darren Collison was among the most polished before going down with an ankle injury. After starting Summer League 1-for-15 from the field, Ty Lawson bounced back to turn in three dominant performances, averaging 23.7 points over that span. Lawson is the kind of point guard who needs to be surrounded by scorers to excel. He'll have that in Denver.
LO, AI, Booz, and the Blazer
As much as NBA fans love speculation about trades and free agency, nobody appreciates the rumor mill quite like the NBA chattering class. Talk of the disintegration of Lamar Odom's negotiations with the Lakers provided plenty of fodder for late-night dinners. The same was true of the l'affaire Allen Iverson, where Carlos Boozer may land, and what the Blazers will do with the money they threw at Paul Millsap. The Odom situation was far and away the most intriguing to the insiders. Odom and the Lakers are in the second act of a romantic comedy: They need each other. The Lakers would slip measurably without Odom, and Odom needs the Lakers to solidify his place among the Lakers greats -- or at least the Lakers very, very goods. The Iverson and Boozer matters exemplify the financial issues mentioned above. So far as Portland, few teams run as much informational interference, and even some of the wiliest insiders were stumped about what the Trail Blazers might do.
The Death of the Back-to-the-Basket Game
"Name one guy here who can hit a jump hook over their left shoulder," an NBA assistant general manager asked. "I can't think of one." Whether it's the trickle-down effect of the European game, the rule changes implemented by the league a few years ago, or college teams appropriating Mike D'Antoni-style basketball, the vast majority of the young bigs who were in Las Vegas are face-up players who work either along the perimeter or out of the pinch post: Anthony Randolph, Earl Clark, James Johnson, Taj Gibson, Dante Cunningham, DaJuan Summers, Austin Daye, and even Blake Griffin. Is this a momentary trend, or will the pendulum eventually swing back? "If I were a big man about to enter college, I would develop that back-to-the-basket game," the executive said. The implication: At some point, those skills will be at a premium, and that kid will be impossible to defend. Forward-looking teams are all about buying low and, right now, traditional post players are undervalued because they don't conform to the current climate of the NBA game.
Dysfunctional Organizational Structures Breed Dysfunctional Franchises
What is going on with Minnesota? That was a popular topic of conversation among senior NBA people in Las Vegas. The team still has no coach. Though it had one of the Summer League's most prolific players in Flynn, there's no telling if the system he played in over the 10 days will be the one installed by a new coach -- whoever that might be. This makes the Summer League evaluation process a lot less useful. Who's in charge? CEO Rob Moor? General manager David Kahn? Will the new coach be fully empowered to do his job? Critics also looked at Memphis. How did the Grizzlies end up with Hasheem Thabeet? Because owner Michael Heisley reportedly made the call. The Clippers, too, generated buzz this week with the Iverson speculation. While owner Donald Sterling wants to make a splash with Iverson, Clippers management would like to target Ramon Sessions. These historically beleaguered franchises all have one thing in common: There's no clear hierarchy that allows basketball people to make basketball decisions. The best franchises have well-defined roles that emanate from the top. Owners allow their senior executives to do their job. Those executives give their head coaches full reign, and so forth. Look no further than the San Antonio Spurs.