On 12 June 2017, the Golden State Warriors were crowned the winners of the NBA Championship for the 2016/2017 season following an arduous 82 game regular season, followed by seventeen play-off matches. The Warriors’ victory marked the third consecutive year in which the franchise had won the Championship and the first time a team from the Bay Area had won a sports championship in their home city since the Oakland A’s beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in Game 5 of the 1974 World Series.
The 2017/2018 NBA season does not commence until 17 October 2017. As a result, thirsty basketball fans are only a month into the four month summer break between seasons. Yet this does not mean that fans have been deprived of excitement in the intervening period.
On 22 June 2017, the 2017 NBA draft took place. As ever, the draft gave fans of poorer performing franchises hope that they may secure the services of a future star around whom a team can be built, thereby securing a change in fortunes. The 2017 draft resulted in Markelle Fultz being selected first overall by the Philadelphia 76ers, while the Los Angeles Lakers selected hometown up-and-comer Lonzo Ball as the second overall pick. The 2017 draft class proved to be the youngest draft class ever, with the most freshmen and fewest seniors selected in the first round.
Once the excitement of the draft had dissipated, the 2017 NBA Summer League commenced on 1 July 2017. The Summer League is a series of off-season competitions during which the NBA franchises come together to try out different summer rosters, instead of their regular season line-ups. The teams usually consist of a mix of unproven rookies, second year players and unsigned free agents. Experienced players tend not to participate in the Summer League and instead spend the summer months recuperating and preparing for the upcoming season.
While summer leagues have existed for many years, historically they tended to be uncoordinated, loosely arranged affairs. Nowadays, there are three separate, NBA-led leagues: the Las Vegas Summer League, the Utah Jazz Summer League and the Orlando Pro Summer League.
The oldest of the current leagues is the Orlando Pro Summer League, which had its inaugural season in 2001. It was shortly followed by the Las Vegas Summer League, which took place for the first time in 2004. The Utah Jazz Summer League joined the party in 2015, replacing the Rocky Mountain Revue, an event which had taken place between 1984 and 2008, before going on a hiatus as a result of declining participation.
The three separate leagues consist of a small number of games per team. Unlike regulation NBA games, which are 48 minutes long, games only last 40 minutes, as well as multiple 5 minute overtime periods.
The leagues provide teams with the opportunity to experiment with untried player combinations and to assess the skills and qualities of rookies, second year players and unsigned free agents. In this way, fans get their basketball fix in the off-season, while the different franchises are afforded the opportunity to experiment with different players and combinations ahead of the upcoming season.
Given the apparent benefits that the Summer League presents to teams and fans alike, it is no surprise to note that participation is popular:
- The 2017 Utah Jazz Summer League involved four teams: the Boston Celtics; the Philadelphia 76ers; the San Antonio Spurs; and the Utah Jazz;
- The 2017 Orlando Pro Summer League was hosted by the Orlando Magic and was contested by a total of 8 NBA franchises.
- The 2017 Las Vegas Summer League was contested by 24 teams (including the Celtics, the 76ers, the Spurs and the Jazz, who also competed in the Utah Jazz Summer League).
So far, the Summer League has been especially notable for Lonzo Ball’s strong performances for the Lakers in the Vegas event. After a disappointing debut performance in which Ball missed thirteen of his fifteen shots, Ball registered the first triple-double seen in the Las Vegas event in at least seven years in his second game, before exploding for a 36 point, 11 assist, 8 rebound, 5 steal and 2 block performance in his third, with another triple double to follow in his fourth, before a double double in his fifth. The Lakers won the Vegas event and Ball was crowned MVP. Lakers fans will surely be excited about their future Championship prospects with Ball in their roster. This is the type of excitement which the Summer League helps generate among fans.
Yet there are downsides to the off-season basketball bonanza. Fultz, the first overall pick, injured his ankle in his debut performance and will now be out of the remainder of the tournament. While Fultz’s injury does not look as serious as first might have been feared, the sheer number of fixtures across the calendar year does raise questions about the physical pressures that are placed on young athletes’ bodies. As the Summer League provides a platform for young players to prove their worth to their employers and fans alike, a lot rides on their performances in what are effectively developmental matches. These hard-fought match ups take place only a few months before the 82 game regular season commences. While injuries can happen at any time, the fear is that young players may risk burn out.
That said, the Summer League is generally accepted as a positive thing. From a player’s perspective, it is an opportunity to make a name for oneself. For the franchises, it is an opportunity to experiment. From a fan’s perspective, it means that the NBA action gets stretched over an even longer period. With basketball excitement present virtually year-round, everyone is a winner.