I am here to tell you something about sanity, or at least help you save yours. If you choose to watch the NBA Summer League, or, if you’re truly deranged, attend Summer League, you’ve likely done so expecting basketball. This is a rookie mistake.
Basketball may be the the reason you’ve come to Orlando or Las Vegas, but, in this instance, expectation does not conform to reality.
The game on the court can only loosely be defined as basketball. It’s an approximation, a homonculus of basketball, created by these players, these rookies who will soon own the league and free agents whose basketball destiny lies overseas, or perhaps even ends after this week. At times, the game on the court may look like what the sport you’ve come to know and love, but those are usually happy accidents — a pristine pick and roll born out of a perfect confluence of timing and circumstance. It’s a few levels above a glorified scrimmage, and one or two notches below preseason.
Talk to any summer league coach about the week’s goals, and winning is rarely mentioned. “Process” is summer league’s shibboleth. Dig deeper for meaning, and all you’ll unearth is more vagaries and coach-code: “teaching these guys how to play the right way ” and “instilling a defensive mindset.” These two weeks are about development and experimentation — winning’s a nice feeling, but it’s not a top consideration.
What you come here to see is not the present, but the future, and an uncertain one at that. You see what could be, if everything pans out perfectly. We always take Summer League performances with a mountain of salt because the players who perform the best are playing outside of what will be their actual context. Josh Selby rivaling the desert heat as he scorches team after team is great, but he’s yet to do so on any court foreign or domestic. Still, there is a reason to get excited about Nerlens Noel’s 17-month delayed debut or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s re-creation — it’s a glimpse into their peak possibility. Potential plays out on the court, sometimes in full games, sometimes in quick instances, such as Aaron Gordon soaring to snare a ball mid-air. Whether this potential ever comes to fruition during the actual season is a consideration for afterwards.
That’s something to keep in mind in order to keep your sanity: Live in the moment during these games. Don’t get lost in them, for doing so guarantees delirium, but don’t dismiss everything you see. Summer League invites cynicism and insanity, and the best way to relieve the former and stave the latter is to remember that things can be fun even if they don’t matter.