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.
Not content to watch players take shot after shot after shot at their NBA dreams? For fans who enjoy story lines and characters, the summer league is a wellspring of here-they-are answers to where-are-they-now questions. Gabe Muoneke, an undersized power forward still seeking his first NBA shot at age 29, scored 31 points in a game in Orlando. Coby Karl, a thyroid-cancer survivor, starred for the Lakers' Vegas summer league entry. The Sacramento Kings' summer roster boasts a whopping seven centers, as well as the previously unknown 300-pound brother of Ron Artest.
The Golden State Warriors' summer-league team is the best example of what July basketball is all about. The fun-and-gun Warriors delighted NBA fans with their underdog run in this year's playoffs, but the most ostentatiously entertaining team in pro basketball has been thoroughly outdone by the summer Warriors. Golden State's players seem like the leavings from a reality-show casting call: There's a player who recently got out of prison for burglary, professional street-ball players nicknamed "The Assassin" and "Homicide," a 7-footer from Harvard, and a former lottery pick who spent his collegiate summers as a line chef at an Italian restaurant. Oh, and an undrafted rookie from Creighton named Nate Funk. For some of us, watching this team play is more fun than watching the NBA-champion Spurs do their relentless, efficient thing, missed shots and turnovers be damned.
For basketball nerds—I doubt I need to mention that I am among their ranks—seeing the fringe-ish likes of Funk and "Homicide" in NBA uniforms is kind of fun. (Funk and Homicide wouldn't be a bad name for that reality show, either.) College basketball creates heroes, cult and otherwise, faster than the NBA can absorb them. When these half-forgotten players emerge from the summer-league ether, we basketball dorks are there to greet them as old friends. And while most of them will not make it to the NBA, it's still a sound business decision for them to play in Vegas or Salt Lake: The summer leagues are scouted heavily by well-paying European squads looking to add American stars.
While summer-league games lack formal polish, they do showcase the thrilling skills with which even marginal players are blessed. And this is the summer, after all. If last year's NBA Finals offered all the carefully choreographed dullness of an overbudgeted, Oscar-begging prestige picture, the summer league offers more of a Live Free or Die Hard vibe: lots of explosions, very little coherence, and a few legitimate oohs and aahs. I know which one is "better." When the weather gets hot, though, I know what I'd rather watch.