Scoff if you must, for these are meaningless exhibition games full of flawed basketball players, but during a time in the sports calendar when Americans pretend to like soccer and pretend not to like people shoving hot dogs down their throats at rapid rates, NBA Summer League provides a sense of normalcy. It’s not the best basketball, but it’s basketball nonetheless.
And, thanks to the sportsbooks, it’s bettable basketball.
For the first time, Las Vegas will host all 30 NBA teams for a competition in which preliminary play spills into a tournament bracket. Kind of like the World Cup, except less diving, and less global interest. But there is interest.
The 2017 Las Vegas Summer League — featuring Lonzo Ball and other high-profile rookies last July — recorded highs for attendance and TV viewers. Los Angeles Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma emerged, scoring 30 points in the title game against the Portland Trail Blazers; Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum also provided hints of what they would do in remarkable rookie seasons.
So gear up for 82 games in 12 days, beginning with the Houston Rockets against the Indiana Pacers at 3 p.m. Eastern on Friday. If you’d like to make a bet or two to somehow boost your excitement even higher, heed this highly unscientific analysis of who might win.
Phoenix Suns (8-1)
By winning fewer than 25 games in each of the past three seasons, the Suns have built a loaded Summer League team. It consists of the No. 4 pick in back-to-back drafts (Josh Jackson and Dragan Bender) to go with this year’s No. 1, Deandre Ayton, who will get the chance to prove himself against Sacramento’s Marvin Bagley and Orlando’s Mohamed Bamba, two of the other top big men from this draft. Fellow rookies Mikal Bridges and Elie Okobo also could be big contributors.
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Sacramento Kings (10-1)
We’ve already gotten a glimpse of the Kings during their hometown California Classic, and their roster there was frighteningly similar to what they might trot out in October. It’ll be really bad when they’re playing against Kevin Durant or James Harden, but for now, Frank Mason and Justin Jackson are solid contributors, and Bagley has already provided a GIFable jam.
Charlotte Hornets (10-1)
The actual Hornets are mired in mediocrity, but their summer squad is full of high-achieving college players. Devonte’ Graham was a first-team all-American at Kansas, Miles Bridges a second-teamer at Michigan State. And J.P. Macura, ever-polarizing at Xavier, is bound to irk somebody. They join Malik Monk, who scored 47 points in a game for Kentucky but had a dull rookie year in Charlotte.
Dallas Mavericks (12-1)
Luka Doncic teaming with Dennis Smith Jr. — what’s not to like? Well, the fact that Doncic will be limited after a grueling professional season in Europe, and Smith has already said Dallas won’t play him for the entire circuit. So the Mavs might be intermittently fun, leaning heavily on Villanova point guard Jalen Brunson and Kostas Antetokounmpo, the not-as-freaky but equally Greek brother of Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Atlanta Hawks (25-1)
Good thing these matchups are meaningless, because Trae Young has been brutal through two games in Utah’s summer league. No need to panic, right? Right? (Getting a tad bit worried for Hawks fans). His Lonzo-like shooting thus far is concerning, but Young can get hot fast, and if he rolls for a couple of weeks in Vegas, look out. This is another team with plenty of members of its warm-weather roster capable of earning legitimate minutes when the regular season begins.
Cleveland Cavaliers (30-1)
Trivia: Who scored the final four points of this year’s NBA Finals? Answer: Ante Zizic. He’ll man the paint for the Cavs in Summer League, and he’ll be joined by Cedi Osman, another end-of-the-bench player who scored in garbage time as the Golden State Warriors ran out the clock in Game 4. Post-LeBron Era 2.0 could get ugly. To the rescue is No. 8 pick Collin Sexton, who proved he could be a one-man band in the SEC tournament last March for Alabama.
Portland Trail Blazers (12-1)
So many story lines for the defending runners-up. Archie Goodwin is 19 points away from breaking the career scoring record at Summer League, according to HoopsHype, so if officials stop a game to give a plaque to some guy you’ve never heard of, you’ll know why. Portland has much more experience: John Jenkins was drafted out of Vanderbilt in 2012 and played five years in the NBA before going to Spain, making him a dinosaur by Summer League standards. On the younger side of this roster, Zach Collins got significant playoff minutes in April and will be donning a mask after breaking his nose in practice this week.
The man Collins collided with? Fellow big Caleb Swanigan, the team’s star in last summer’s run to the title game. Most intriguing might be No. 24 pick Anfernee Simons, who’s a bit of a mystery after foregoing college.
Jake Layman, Gary Trent Jr., Wade Baldwin IV, Casper Ware, Georgios Papagiannis, K.J. McDaniels, Kyle Wiltjer, MiKyle McIntosh, Langston Morris-Walker . . . there’s no telling how Coach Jim Moran will deploy all these potentially usable players.
So put $10 on the Blazers to win it all (in July) while chuckling at the absurdity of it all.
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