Summer League load management? Zion among many top picks sitting in Las Vegas

Michael Reaves/Getty Images
1 Comment

LAS VEGAS — This was the most anticipated Summer League ever. 

For the first time in its history, the first two days of the NBA’s July convention were completely sold out days in advance — more than 17,500 fans filling an arena in the middle of the desert, in the hottest part of the year, to watch a rookie play basketball. More than 1,000 media credentials were issued. The Zion hype was palpable. In an NBA that has become more about off-season chess moves than the games themselves, here were fans buying scalped tickets into a sold-out arena to watch a young star burst onto the scene.

Or not.

Zion Williamson has spent most of his Summer League in street clothes, and he is not alone: Only one of the top six players in the last draft has played regularly in Las Vegas (R.J. Barrett of The Knicks), and other stars never touched the court. A quick rundown:

• No. 1 pick Williamson played nine minutes in one half of one game before New Orleans broke out the bubble wrap, citing knee-to-knee contact and an “abundance of caution.”

• No. 2 pick Ja Morant had arthroscopic surgery to get his knee cleaned up at the start of June and was not rushed back for any games in Vegas.

• No. 4 pick D’Andre Hunter played in his first game Sunday night after missing the start of Summer League for Atlanta.

• No. 5 pick Darius Garland has not played and is unlikely to suit up for Cleveland (nor has the Cavs’ high profile No. 30 pick, Kevin Porter Jr.).

• No. 6. Jarrett Culver officially signed with Minnesota on Monday but is not expected to play for the team in Las Vegas.

• No. 10 pick Cam Reddish is not suiting up for Atlanta in Summer League.

• Denver’s Michael Porter Jr. — a guy thought to be a steal in the 2018 draft who sat out last season to get healthy — was going to make his debut at Summer League but sprained a knee just a day before games started and is out.

Las Vegas has been robbed of some of its star power, but most of that was about Zion.

Summer League felt deflated after Williamson was put in street clothes.

“It was a crazy experience, the gym was sold out, I didn’t expect that many people to be here,” Williamson said of his one game, adding that his being sidelined for Summer League “was more precautionary.”

The impact of him being out could be seen immediately.

By the time word started to circulate through the arena he would not play in the second half of that July 5 game, fans had begun to file out of the building. There were a lot of empty seats in the Thomas & Mack arena by the time an earthquake shut the night down. Beyond that, a couple of Las Vegas residents I spoke with talked about people they knew who were planning to come for Summer League games turning around and deciding to stay home instead.

The concern among Summer League observers is this is the start of a trend of sitting stars.

Call it “Summer League load management” — or risk management may be more accurate — but what happened with those top players could become more of a norm.

With the larger rookie-scale contracts in the new CBA, meaning teams making substantial investments in these players, will teams start to reduce or eliminate the amount of time their prized young players are on the court in Las Vegas? If that happens, it would begin to erode what has become a happening — and for some fans a pilgrimage — in the middle of the offseason. With Summer League — much like the NBA itself — fans come to see stars.

This year, teams had reasons not to suit up their rookies. Ask coaches or team officials about the guys being out and you got some variation of the Pelicans’ “abundance of caution” statement.

“The guys are a little beat up. We don’t want them to get hurt, then we could never develop them,” Cavaliers Summer League coach Antonio Lang said of Garland and Porter not playing.

From the teams’ perspective, this is logical — what are they risking these players for? Summer League do not matter. In fact, plenty of teams quietly will tell you there are too many games — go to the Summer League Tournament Finals to play for the title and team will have played in eight games. Often after four or five games teams are shutting down their best players. Or, as some of the veteran players get offers from teams overseas, they shut themselves down to avoid injury risk (as Jimmer Fredette did this year).

There is no financial incentive for teams to play the best guys. Teams do not make a lot of money in Summer League (teams basically want to break even, which happens if they make the tournament) and many executives don’t want to be in Las Vegas longer than they have to be.

That said, there is value for teams in seeing their top players in different settings. For example, the Wizards have No. 9 pick Rui Hachimura on the court playing in Las Vegas for developmental reasons.

“Just to have him see different situations, to be exposed to the NBA game,” said Robert Pack, Wizards’ Summer League coach. “He’s going to see different coverages, schemes that he may not have seen in college, and you want him to get a taste of that before he gets into vet camp and into the regular season. Playing here he’ll get a lot more touches than he’ll probably get in the regular season.”

Coaches have long seen Summer League as a chance to get a baseline on players — what are they good at, and what needs to be worked on the rest of the summer. It’s a starting point to build from. Cavaliers coach John Beilein said to NBC Sports, during the Salt Lake City Summer League, that with Garland and Porter out it gave him a chance to put the ball in No. 26 pick Dylan Windler‘s hands and see what the Belmont star could do as a playmaker.

“That’s why you put [Hachimura] in different situations, you’re seeing where he can go strong right, go strong left, is he good in the midrange, is he ready for the NBA three,” Pack said. “Those are things you get to see, you get film on, you can teach him and study film with him on things. These minutes are so valuable to us as a staff to continue to develop him.”

Is it valuable enough to keep star players on the court at Summer League?

Or, as it has during the NBA regular season, will the “load management” trend of keeping players out for health and risk-management reasons start to impact Summer League? If it does, will the NBA league office start to get involved in an effort to keep an event where games are broadcast on ESPN and NBA TV going strong?

The NBA loves the buzz, the sold-out games for Summer League. It loves the way the event has grown. Which is why this summer’s reduced-star version has been a bit deflating for everyone.

Watch Pacers’ Andrew Nembhard drain game-winning 3 to beat Lakers

0 Comments

LeBron James and Anthony Davis were on the court together (and combined for 46 points and 20 rebounds). Russell Westbrook continued to thrive as a sixth man with 24 points.

But the biggest shot of the night belonged to Pacers’ rookie Andrew Nembhard — a game-winning 3-pointer as time expired.

It was a well-designed play and when Westbrook chased and doubled Bennedict Mathurin in the corner it left the screen setter, Myles Turner, wide open for a clean look at a 3 — but he hit the front of the rim. The long rebound caromed out, Tyrese Haliburton grabbed it and tried to create, but then he saw Nembhard wide open and kicked him the rock.

Ballgame.

The Pacers split their two games in Los Angeles at the start of a seven-game road trip through the West that will test the surprising Pacers.

For the Lakers… they have some hard decisions to make coming up.

Karl-Anthony Towns helped off court after non-contact calf injury

0 Comments

Hopefully this is not as bad as it looks.

Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony was trying to run back upcourt and went to the ground — without contact — grabbing his knee and calf. He had to be helped off the court.

The Timberwolves officially ruled Towns out for the rest of the night with a calf strain.

A right calf strain would be the best possible outcome, but an MRI will provide more details in the next 24 hours. This had the markings of something much worse, but ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports optimism that Towns avoided something serious.

Towns is averaging 214 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and while his numbers are off this season — just 32.8% on 3-pointers, down from 39.3% for his career — as he tries to adjust to playing next to Rudy Gobert, he’s still one of the game’s elite big men.

The Wizards went on to beat the Timberwolves 142-127 behind 41 from Kristaps Porzingis.

Suns promote GM James Jones to to President of Basketball Operations

Phoenix Suns Open Practice
Barry Gossage / NBAE via Getty Images
0 Comments

James Jones put together the roster that took the Suns to the Finals two seasons ago and had the best record in the NBA last season (64 wins). At 13-6, the Suns sit atop the Western Conference this season.

The Suns have rewarded Jones, giving him the title of President of Basketball Operations on top of GM.

“In the nearly 15 years I have known James, he has excelled in every role he performed, from player to NBPA Treasurer to his roles in our front office, most recently as general manager,” Suns interim Governor Sam Garvin said. “James has the unique ability to create and lead high-performing teams in basketball operations and his commitment to collaborating with our business side, including at the C-level with partners like PayPal and Verizon, is second to none. We are fortunate for his contributions across the organization and this promotion recognizes his commitment to excellence.”

Jones moved into the Suns’ front office in 2017 at the end of a 14-year playing career, then became GM in 2019. The move gives Jones a little more stability during the sale of the franchise. Not that the new owner would come in and fire a successful GM.

“I am grateful for the privilege to work with and support the players, staff and employees of the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury,” Jones said in a statement. “The collective efforts of our business and basketball operations have allowed us to provide an amazing atmosphere and best-in-class experience for our fans and community. I remain excited about and dedicated to driving success for our Teams on and off the court.”

Jones has made several moves that set the culture in Phoenix, including hiring Monty Williams as coach then, after an undefeated run in the bubble (that left Phoenix just out of the playoffs), he brought in Chris Paul to take charge at the point.

Report: Leaders in Lakers’ locker room think team ‘only a couple of players away’ from contending

0 Comments

There’s a sense of optimism around the Lakers: They have won 5-of-6 and are expected to have both Anthony Davis and LeBron James healthy Monday night, plus Russell Westbrook has found a role and comfort level off the bench and other players are settling into roles. They may be 7-11, but it’s early enough there is a sense this could be turned around.

That is echoed by “locker room leaders” who think the team is just a couple of players away from being a contender in the West (where no team has pulled away), reports Dave McMenamin at ESPN.

There is belief shared by leaders in the Lakers’ locker room, sources said, that the team is only a couple of players away from turning this group into a legitimate contender. But acquiring the right players could take multiple trades.

Let’s unpack all of this.

• “Leaders in the Lakers’ locker room” means LeBron and Davis (both repped by Rich Paul). Let’s not pretend it’s anything else.

• If the Lakers don’t make a move to significantly upgrade the roster, how unhappy will those leaders become? How disruptive would that be?

• It is no coincidence that McMenamin’s report comes the day the Lakers face the Pacers, a team they went deep into conversations with this summer on a Myles Turner/Buddy Hield trade, but Los Angeles GM Rob Pelinka ultimately would not put both available Lakers’ first-round picks (2027 and 2029) in the deal and it fell apart. Turner said the Lakers should “take a hard look” at trading for him. The thing is, the Pacers are now 11-8, not tanking for Victor Wembanyama but instead thinking playoffs, so are they going to trade their elite rim protector and sharpshooter away? Not likely. At least not without an overwhelming offer, and the Lakers’ two picks may not get there anymore.

• While Westbrook has found a comfort level coming off the bench (and not sharing the court as much with LeBron), he is still a $47.1 million contract that no team is trading for without sweeteners. To use NBA parlance, he is still a negative value contract, even if it feels less negative than a month ago.

• Are the Lakers really a couple of players away from contending? While they have won 5-of-6, three of those five wins came against the tanking Spurs, the others were against the so-injured-they-might-as-well-be-tanking Pistons, and the Nets before Kyrie Irving returned. The Lakers did what they needed to do and thrived in a soft part of the schedule, but that schedule is about to turn and give the Lakers a reality check on where they really stand. After the Pacers, it’s the Trail Blazers (likely still without Damian Lillard), then an East Coast road trip that includes the Bucks, Cavaliers, Raptors and 76ers. The next couple of weeks will be a better marker for where the Lakers stand, and if they can build off of the past couple of weeks.