Monday night’s 110-98 victory for the Los Angeles Lakers over the Portland Trail Blazers in the championship game of the Las Vegas summer league saw the official end of competitive NBA basketball, in any form, until training camps begin in late September. It also marked an unofficial end of what has been a crazy few weeks in the Association.
Since the draft in late June, we’ve seen several stars change teams (Chris Paul, Paul George, Gordon Hayward and Paul Millsap), players get squeezed by the lower-than-expected salary cap and the league’s next generation of stars get their first chances to show their stuff on the summer league courts in Orlando, Salt Lake City and, finally, Las Vegas.
Here is a roundup of everything that The Washington Post saw and heard over the past week in Sin City, and how that’ll impact what happens next season and beyond:
● Like everything else in the NBA, this begins with LeBron James. Much of the talk in Las Vegas was about James and his impending free agency next July. Like in 2010 and 2014 — the last two times James was a free agent with a realistic chance of changing teams — where he decides to play after spending next season with the Cleveland Cavaliers will be the No. 1 topic of discussion around the league between now and July 1.
And, not surprisingly, opinions on his ultimate location were split among league executives in Las Vegas. Several felt confident he will head west to Los Angeles next summer, agreeing with the rumblings along those lines that have been going around the league for some time. This speculation was given an extra dose of fuel when James showed up at a Lakers summer league game last Wednesday instead of attending the ESPYs.
James already owns a home in Los Angeles, and his myriad business interests would allow him to continue building his empire in Hollywood while playing for either the Lakers or Clippers (though the leader is the Lakers, given the presence of Magic Johnson and the team’s ability to potentially land two stars on max contracts next summer).
There is a healthy amount of skepticism that James will be willing to play for a team that, even with his addition, doesn’t seem like it will truly compete with the Golden State Warriors. Thus, making that move would end his consecutive NBA Finals streak end at eight — assuming, as the entire league suspects, his Cavaliers make it back there again next June. This is why some could see James hanging on for at least another year in Cleveland to better survey what’s out there before jumping ship.
One thing that didn’t seem coincidental: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who is represented by James and agent Rich Paul’s Klutch Sports Group, getting a one-year, $18 million deal from the Lakers after his qualifying offer was pulled by the Detroit Pistons, which made him an unrestricted free agent.
● Speaking of Caldwell-Pope, his free agency represented one of the more interesting subplots of the offseason thus far. The 24-year-old shooting guard was one of the more intriguing free agents on the market — he’s a strong defender at each guard spot and also possesses a pretty jumper.
That sounds like a player that a team would like to keep, right? From the moment the offseason began, it seemed like that wasn’t going to happen in Detroit. The Pistons drafted a shooting guard — Duke product Luke Kennard — with the No. 12 pick, then signed combo guard Langston Galloway to a three-year, $21 million deal on the opening day of free agency. That deal left the Pistons hard-capped, preventing them from matching any offer to Caldwell-Pope.
Detroit was fine with that, though, because it was comfortable with its offer, a five-year deal in the range of $80 million, and wasn’t interested in making Caldwell-Pope a max offer as a restricted free agent. Once the Pistons traded Marcus Morris to the Boston Celtics for Avery Bradley — a move Boston needed to make to clear room for Hayward’s signing as a free agent — there was no apparent future for Caldwell-Pope with the Pistons, and his qualifying offer was pulled a short time later.
Despite the reasons to be optimistic about Caldwell-Pope’s future, it’s easy to understand why Detroit went this route. The Pistons’ offer was in line with average starter money at the position but clearly not consistent with the hopes of Caldwell-Pope’s camp. Paul, a tough negotiator who has won his fair share of battles, clearly had a number he was gunning for, and Detroit’s offer wasn’t it. Then there’s Caldwell-Pope’s shooting. He never shot better from behind the three-point line than the 35 percent he posted last season; he’s a career 33.4 percent shooter from deep and just a 40.5 percent shooter overall. Bradley, on the other hand, is a career 44.2-percent shooter, 36.6 percent from three-point range, and has shot better than 35 percent from deep in five of his seven seasons.
The Pistons will now have a year to convince Bradley, who will be an unrestricted free agent next summer, to stick around as they try to get back to the playoffs after a disappointing 2016-17 season. Meanwhile, Caldwell-Pope will have a year to prove his value in Los Angeles, where he will start next to Lonzo Ball (more on him in a bit) before hitting the market as an unrestricted free agent in July. It will be fascinating to see which side is proved correct in the long-term — the Pistons by moving on, or Caldwell-Pope by betting big on himself in turning down a long-term, big-money offer.
● While Detroit was figuring out what to do with Caldwell-Pope, the team also took calls on center Andre Drummond, who — like virtually everyone else with the Pistons — disappointed last season. But owner Tom Gores is a huge fan of Drummond, a starter in the 2016 All-Star Game. With many teams sensing dissatisfaction with the big man from Coach and team President Stan Van Gundy, none of the offers merited a serious discussion about Drummond’s future with the franchise.
The upcoming season, Van Gundy’s fourth with the franchise, will be pivotal in Detroit. Given the state of play in the Eastern Conference — with a large collection of teams more focused on ping-pong balls than playoff positioning — there’s little doubt making the postseason is a top priority for the Pistons. Three players will be the focus of everyone’s attention: Drummond, Reggie Jackson and Stanley Johnson.
Drummond is expected to bounce back to where he was two years ago, when he seemed like an All-Star Weekend fixture for years to come. Jackson, meanwhile, underwent knee surgery during training camp and missed the first two months — and never found a rhythm upon returning. That duo was at the center of Detroit’s 44-38 mark in 2015-16 and will be expected to play like it again this season.
Then there’s Johnson, who is entering his third season and is penciled in as the team’s starting small forward after the Morris trade. If Detroit is going to make a leap, it needs Johnson to make one too, and there’s little doubt the No. 8 pick in the 2015 draft has the athletic capabilities to do so. He’s still just 21, but after two up-and-down seasons, he will enter the year carrying the weight of high expectations.
● The San Antonio Spurs were one of the most-talked-about teams in Las Vegas despite having done virtually nothing this summer. Outside of agreeing to a deal to bring back popular spark plug Patty Mills and signing Rudy Gay to one-year deal with a player option for the mid-level exception, the Spurs have been largely quiet.
That wasn’t expected to be the case when San Antonio got Pau Gasol to opt out of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent last month. But after Paul — a player many in the league felt the Spurs had a chance to snare when Gasol opted out — orchestrated a trade to the Houston Rockets instead, San Antonio appears to have adopted the old Brooklyn Dodgers slogan: “Wait Till Next Year.”
Rather than throw money at players now and clog up the books, San Antonio instead will postpone finding names to pair with superstar forward Kawhi Leonard in free agency. With Paul able to become a free agent after the upcoming season — along with James, Paul George, Russell Westbrook, DeMarcus Cousins and more — it’s clear why San Antonio would want to go into next summer with well more than $60 million in cap room.
But how good San Antonio will be this season remains intriguing. Some were surprised by the Spurs’ decision to allow Jonathon Simmons, an impactful player during last year’s playoff run, to become an unrestricted free agent — and subsequently sign a relatively cheap three-year deal with the Orlando Magic. But San Antonio almost immediately signing guard Brandon Paul showed it felt it could find a far cheaper alternative elsewhere. And with Tony Parker out until sometime next season with a leg injury, the point guard position will be manned by Mills and second-year guard Dejounte Murray.
Betting against Leonard and Coach Gregg Popovich is never a good idea. And with Gasol, Mills, LaMarcus Aldridge and (likely) Manu Ginóbili back in the fold, expect the Spurs to be in contention for next best in the West behind the Warriors.
● Most people in Las Vegas expect Koby Altman, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ interim general manager after David Griffin and Trent Redden left the organization last month, to eventually have the interim tag removed from his title. Altman is well liked and well respected around the league and would be deserving of the job. That said, he’d be inheriting a very difficult task.
Working under owner Dan Gilbert isn’t easy. And not only is James a free agent next summer, but Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love can be free agents a year later. And the roster is largely devoid of young talent after a number of win-now moves the past three seasons to maximize James’s time on the roster.
● When the Knicks called off talks about trading Carmelo Anthony this week in the wake of hiring Scott Perry as general manager, the consensus among those in Las Vegas was that the Knicks will resume discussions after Perry gets familiar with the organization and the landscape around a potential deal. But there was also another realization: the process of moving on from Anthony is far more difficult than him simply agreeing to a trade.
Even though Anthony can waive his trade kicker to help facilitate things, moving his $26.2 million salary for this season (plus the $27.9 million player option for next season) requires cap gymnastics that will be difficult for the Knicks to pull off. That’s because Anthony has the ability to steer himself to a specific destination, and the two he’s open to — Cleveland and Houston — are each fraught with difficulties.
A Cleveland trade would have to include Love — something Cleveland, understandably, hasn’t been interested in doing for an older and more expensive player. A Houston trade, meanwhile, would require moving Ryan Anderson, whose remaining $60 million or so over the next three years has proven unpalatable to opposing teams. There was momentary interest in joining a multi-team deal from the Portland Trail Blazers, who have their own series of onerous contracts on their books, but those talks eventually broke down and now the Blazers would like to get Anthony themselves. It is hard, however, to see Anthony agreeing to go to Portland.
That makes getting Anthony out of New York exceedingly difficult, unless the Knicks take on Anderson’s contract or if the Cavaliers part with Love, both of which seem unlikely. That’s why a third path seems possible — potentially keeping him and trying to mend fences while rebuilding his trade value. Given everything that’s happened, though, that will take a lot of work.
● There was plenty of focus on the shoes Ball was wearing at summer league, but there is undoubtedly a new level of excitement surrounding the Lakers. Ball deservedly was named summer league MVP for his play in Las Vegas, with a pair of triple-doubles while averaging 16.3 points, 7.7 rebounds and 9.3 assists. Kyle Kuzma showed potential as a stretch-four, including scoring 30 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in the Lakers’ championship game victory.
Ball still has doubters. He could struggle to get into the lane against NBA defenses, and there are some who wonder what his offensive game will look like once teams know they can sit on his, er, unique shooting form. But multiple people gave him a floor akin to Ricky Rubio with a jump shot — which would be a very good player — and he spent his time in Las Vegas showing off his jaw-dropping floor vision and ability to make the spectacular pass, hitting several full-court bombs for easy run-out layups.
Kuzma often was just as impressive. While he didn’t show an interest in passing, he can definitely fill it up. And in a league in which every team is looking for a power forward with three-point shooting ability, Kuzma showed he can do that repeatedly.
Even with Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart missing most of the team’s time in Las Vegas with injuries, one can only call the Lakers’ run to this title an unqualified success. Between Ball, Ingram, Kuzma, Hart and Caldwell-Pope — as well as potentially Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson — there will be plenty to watch as the Lakers (who don’t have their 2018 first-round pick) try to prove they can be attractive to free agents next summer.
● Ball and Kuzma weren’t the only young players to get rave reviews this summer. Top overall pick Markelle Fultz looked strong for the Philadelphia 76ers before going down with an ankle injury. De’Aaron Fox also shined for the Sacramento Kings, looking like he can be the face of a franchise desperately in need of one in the wake of the DeMarcus Cousins trade in February.
The most impressive rookie point guard, however, may have been Dennis Smith Jr. After slipping to ninth in the draft, where he was scooped up by the Dallas Mavericks, Smith stole the show in Las Vegas. He put up good numbers while showing off mind-blowing athleticism — including nearly throwing down a dunk over two Kings that would’ve been the highlight of the summer if he’d made it.
Smith drew comparisons to Westbrook and Derrick Rose — strong, explosive point guards with exceptional athleticism. He has the potential to be the best player in this year’s draft if everything breaks right — and could potentially make Knicks fans cringe if he surpasses the performance of their first-round pick, Frank Ntilikina, who went one slot ahead of Smith. The Knicks are rumored to have liked Smith over Ntilikina if not for since-departed Jackson’s preference for the latter, who was seen as a better triangle point guard.
Smith, for now, looks like he’ll be the front-runner to win next season’s rookie of the year award. But between Fultz, Ball, Celtics forward Jayson Tatum and others, he will have plenty of competition in what looks like a very talented rookie class.
● The first question Commissioner Adam Silver was asked last week at his annual news conference following the meeting of the league’s Board of Governors focused on a familiar topic to basketball fans — potentially ignoring conferences and simply seeding the NBA playoffs by the best team records.
Silver danced around the issue, saying the league has decided it doesn’t make sense to go to a balanced schedule — which it would need to employ to fairly institute such a system — for a variety of reasons. The truth is, though, that such a proposal is dead on arrival, and will remain that way for the foreseeable future, if not forever.
Why? Because it would require a significant number of teams to vote against their best interest. The NBA confirmed to The Post that it would require two-thirds of its teams to vote in favor of changing the playoff format for such a change to be enacted. To do so, the NBA would have to convince five Eastern Conference teams that it would be in their best interest to change the current playoff system.
It’s hard to see how anyone could turn that into a winning argument. As it stands now, eight of the 15 teams in the East will make the playoffs. If all 30 teams had the ability to nab one of those 16 spots, the likely outcome would be five or six teams from the East making the postseason.
So for as much as everyone might wish for a true outcome in the playoffs, moving away from the current playoff format seems very unlikely, if not impossible. Instead, get ready for a crazy fight for the top eight spots in the Western Conference, where it seems at least 11 teams will be in the mix, and a pillow fight in the East, with the Pistons, Miami Heat and Charlotte Hornets looking likely to replace the Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers next spring.
● One other piece of business that didn’t get a lot of discussion during last week’s Board of Governors meetings is the rise in three-shot fouls that’s occurred in recent seasons, discussed in detail during the playoffs.
While Silver didn’t publicly discuss the issue, sources said it did come up during the meeting of the league’s competition committee, and it will almost certainly arise again when the committee meets in September. Given how much attention those plays received during the playoffs, it seems exceedingly likely there will be some attempt to address them before next season.
The assumption here? They will be made a point of emphasis for the league’s referees going into next season, with some attempt to curtail them. One possible solution would seem to be along the lines of what was done with the “rip-through” move made famous by Kevin Durant: determining whether such a play was made as a genuine act of shooting — and, if not, preventing free throws from being awarded.
Whether that is the solution, what will be surprising is if the NBA goes into next season having done nothing about this. It only seems to be a matter of what is done, not if something will be.