There's no good reason why Kevin Durant, a 6-9 forward, would spend a whole game guarding Marco Belinelli, a smaller, quicker guard. But since the NBA's Vegas summer league doesn't operate based on reason, that's just what happened last week. Their coaches decided it might be fun to let the two rookies have a run at each other, and the pair combined to hoist 45 shots (30 of them misses) in 40 minutes of play. It was business as usual in the NBA's annual showcase of first-year hopefuls, veteran no-hopers, and the middle-class strivers in between. Sure, the NBA's summer leagues—just-concluded ones in Las Vegas and Orlando, and the ongoing Salt Lake City-based Rocky Mountain Revue —can be little more than sloppy simulations of authentic pro basketball. But they're also more exuberant and less scripted than the hoops we choke down all season, and a welcome reminder that pro basketball can still be fun.
Minor league sports are defined in opposition to the majors. Minor-league baseball is more or less the same game as major-league baseball, albeit with goofier team names and more throwing errors. The now-defunct NFL Europa looked like a slowed-down version of NFL Americana played in empty stadiums. The NBA's minor league, the NBDL, is an awkward cross between a developmental league and playground anarchy. Summer-league basketball, though, is a different ballgame entirely, an entity with no real analogue in American pro sports.
The only thing that summer league hoops and NBA basketball have in common are the team names. The purpose of the summer league is to evaluate talent. Each NBA team cobbles together a roster of draft picks and prospects—there for their first exposure to professional competition—and journeymen scrambling for an invitation to training camp. As a consequence, it's worthless to watch summer-league basketball in hopes of seeing how good someone like Kevin Durant is going to be in the pros. If you'd like to see how good Durant would be if he played in a freakishly competitive game at the Y, however, you've come to the right place.
If you've ever played in a pickup game, you've played summer-league-style ball. You've almost certainly never seen it played this well, though—and chances are you haven't seen it at all. (Most NBA teams' cable outlets broadcast some summer-league action, and games from the Vegas summer league were on NBA TV and streaming video at NBA.com.) That's a shame, because summer-league games are exceptionally entertaining—a hyper-speed assemblage of fast breaks and often-dazzling one-on-one offense, interspersed with the odd blocked shot, 3-pointer, or errant pass. That lack of structure leads to sloppiness—most games in the Vegas summer league averaged about a turnover a minute—but it also lends these barely coached contests an endearingly casual quality. If you'll forgive me for pointing out the obvious, NBA players, even marginal NBA players, are very good at basketball. Watching them play pickup ball, in which defense is secondary and creativity is king, is thrilling.
It's no accident that the Knicks' Nate Robinson was the MVP of this year's Vegas summer league. In the NBA, Robinson is an inefficient ball hog. In the frenetic summer league, though, his worst tendencies—the inability to slow down or pass up a shot, ever; a predilection for jumping before deciding whether to pass or shoot—become crowd-pleasing, stat-stuffing pluses. For the same reasons that Robinson annoys Knicks fans, he'd be a lot of fun as a pickup teammate; he is the ultimate summer-league player.
Summer league's shoot-first, all-out form follows its ostensible function. Unsurprisingly, improbable stat lines are a summer-league staple. Here's former University of Iowa bruiser Greg Brunner garnering five fouls in a little under three minutes of court time. (It takes 10 to foul out in summer-league play, a feat Greg Oden accomplished in his first game.) There's ex-Florida State gunner Von Wafer putting up an astonishing 26 shots in 26 minutes and change, a chuck-tacular stat line that might have resulted in the only 42-point game ever to decrease a player's chances of making a team.