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Don’t Rub Joey Crawford’s Head, and More Lessons From Vegas Summer League

What’s the Lakers’ plan? How crazy are the Kings? What’s Thibs up to? All this and more, in a roundup of what those NBA insiders and fans were talking about in Vegas.

After a month of never-ending NBA news, summer league will end this weekend, and the NBA year will finally wind down. I wrote about watching Karl-Anthony Towns yesterday, but after a week of talking about the NBA with fans, scouts, and writers at summer league, there are some other things I had to share. Before we say goodbye to basketball for real, here’s what I learned from a week in Vegas.

1. Jeanie Buss is probably playing chess

Timberwolves Lakers BasketballAP Photo/John Locher

There were a lot of great Lakers stories in Vegas — D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, the army of fans who treated these meaningless games like playoff clashes — but the most interesting subplot that came up over and over again was this: What is Jeanie Buss doing? With all her proclamations about landing marquee free agents and contending for titles, she’s either straitjacket crazy or playing a different game entirely.

Once the team lost the chance to trade for DeMarcus Cousins, the Lakers never had a real shot at LaMarcus Aldridge. They never had a shot at Carmelo last summer, either. Yet in both cases, there was so much hype coming from the franchise itself about how good their chances were. Likewise, it’s at least a little suspicious that a team known for pulling off blockbusters in the shadows has recently become the leakiest organization in the league. It made for some fun conversations all week: Who stands to gain from creating ridiculous expectations among fans only to have it all fall apart in the most embarrassing way possible, over and over again?

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And then, the best question: If Jeanie Buss takes over, how long will it take for her to steal Phil Jackson from the Knicks to come help out?

2. The Kings are bringing people together

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This season is going to be special. At one point this week, DeMarcus Cousins spent an entire summer league game across from George Karl and didn’t once go over to speak to him. Not even to fake it! When they finally did meet later on, it was … yep, still not even pretending. What a summer.

No matter who you’re talking to around basketball — fans, writers, NBA employees — you can bring up the Kings and immediately get the other person laughing. The Kings are the ultimate icebreaker. Everyone can bond over this. Then you stop laughing, shake your head, and say something like, “Is this really happening?”

Look at Vivek.

Vivek

This is really happening.

3. The Nuggets are lucky the Kings exist

Scene from a dinner with another writer Monday night:

Me: “What about trading for Ty Lawson??”

Friend: [Shaking head.]

Me: “Come on. It was one DUI.”

Friend: “I don’t know, man.”

Me: “Ty Lawson can help someone. He can. You know it.”

Friend: [Politely nodding.]

Tuesday morning: Ty Lawson gets arrested for his second DUI in six months. [Update: On Friday, it was reported that Lawson would enter a rehab program in California this weekend.]

So, yeah, not a great day for those of us on Team Lawson.

But let’s backtrack for a second: Can you believe how badly the Nuggets have misplayed their hand through all this? There were real offers for Lawson at the trade deadline — with teams offering real first-rounders — but they stubbornly demanded a high lottery pick or two firsts. Getting two picks back in that Timofey Mozgov trade may have been the worst thing that could have happened to them, because it made the Nuggets front office too greedy to ever trade anyone else.

Now Denver is coming into the season with Lawson as the worst mentor imaginable for Emmanuel Mudiay (who looked great this week), they just extended Wilson Chandler for another four years, and … they signed Jameer Nelson to a three-year deal? What is going on? Can they please trade Danilo Gallinari and Kenneth Faried before they get stuck there, too? Also, if someone polled 100 fans in Vegas, asking whether Jameer Nelson still played in the NBA, at least 70 would have said no.

Granted, Mike Malone should be a nice upgrade over Brian Shaw, so things aren’t all bad. And if Mudiay can build on the potential he showed in Vegas, this team’s actually in a good spot to rebuild over the next few years. But right now they also appear to be getting ready for a fierce, veteran-heavy charge to the 11-seed in the West, with Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried around to teach Mudiay about NBA nightlife. If Vivek and Vlade didn’t exist, this team would get a lot more love for making no sense.

Finally: We have to take this opportunity to remind you that Ty Lawson is now more available than ever and a mortal lock to end up in Sacramento somehow.

4. Thibs is ready and waiting and watching film

Chicago Bulls v Phoenix SunsChristian Petersen/Getty Images

At one point this week, I spoke to a former employee of Tom Thibodeau, and he couldn’t have been more complimentary about his ex-boss. Everyone around the league says Thibs is actually a funny guy away from basketball. As for the basketball side of things, I asked whether Thibs worked his employees as hard as Jimmy Butler, and I got a very diplomatic answer that downplayed my concern. There was only a little bit of PTSD-twitching before he assured me that Thibs isn’t quite what people imagine.

On the other hand, I was talking about Thibs with a different friend who’s worked with him, and he said the best part about him is that he’s exactly what people imagine. Jake Johnson’s Thibs fan fiction on NBA After Dark (41-minute mark) was cited specifically for its spiritual accuracy — a bench press in the basement, a TV for watching tape all day, and the occasional fast-food cheeseburger when he remembers to eat.

When I met a reporter who’s close to Thibs, I said that I hope he’s off relaxing at a resort and lowering his heart rate this summer. Answer: “Yeah. He’s not.”

I miss him so much. If he can’t coach this year, I want to crowdfund an online basketball show called MTV Thibs, where we watch Thibs in a basement for 30 minutes a week, lifting weights and watching tape. He could break down games, curse out bad rotations, interview old players, whatever. The only real requirement is that he goes hoarse by the end of each episode.

5. Assistant coaching makes a big difference

I was in the middle of marveling at Jason Kidd’s seamless transition to coaching when someone from a team explained to me that his assistants in Brooklyn and Milwaukee have been crucial to that process. It was a helpful reminder that assistant coaches make a much bigger difference than people realize. It’s borne out all over the league: Doc Rivers had Thibs when Boston was at its peak; the Spurs have had one of the deepest coaching rosters in the league for the past decade; the Warriors had Ron Adams and Alvin Gentry onboard to help Steve Kerr. Remember that Mavs team that won in 2011? I swear to god, Rick Carlisle had 15 different assistant coaches working with him.

Caring about assistant coaches is probably a bridge too far for most casual fans — even I can’t bring myself to think too much about NBA assistants who aren’t Sam Cassell — but it’s important for two reasons. First, as the league gets smarter and competitive advantages disappear, keep in mind that this is one part of a team’s basketball operations that doesn’t have a salary cap, so there’s room to pay for real talent. Second, great assistants can go a long way toward making a good team one of the best teams. It’s just something to note as we look at all of these teams. For example, Alvin Gentry was probably a great hire to turbo-charge the Pelicans’ offense, but add in Thibs disciple Darren Erman to build the defense and suddenly that team starts to look pretty scary.

6. That cliché shit makes a big difference

One consequence of cramming an entire sport into two gyms is that you end up standing next to a lot of basketball players. My favorite instance in 2015 came in a pizza line, standing in front of one player and his friends.

Friend No. 1: You were killing when you were out there today. Killing.

Friend No. 2: They need to get you out there with the starters next game.

Player No. 1: They won’t play me with the young guys! I don’t know, man.

Friend No. 1: Don’t know what else he needs to see.

Friend No. 2: You gotta clap on the bench, though.

Player No. 1: I am!

Friend No. 1: Hey, I saw you out there. You were clapping.

Player No. 1: I mean, I’m not gonna be out there standing up the whole game. But I’m clapping. I’m clapping.

Friend No. 2: I’m just saying, man, they love that cliché shit.

[Player from another team approaches.]

Player No. 1: Ohhhhhhhhhh shit.

[Points to a giant tattoo on Player 2’s arm.]

Player No. 1: Your mom finally let you get tats!

Player No. 2: Yeahhhhhh, boy, it’s a WRAP now.

See, this is why you come to summer league.

7. Do not rub Joey Crawford’s head

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Again, these gyms are cramped, so sometimes you end up sitting 18 inches behind Joey Crawford. I can’t even describe how much restraint it took to keep myself from reaching out and rubbing his head like a magic crystal ball full of technical fouls.

8. Then that mariachi band showed up

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THIS IS WHY YOU COME TO SUMMER LEAGUE.

9. The world is full of pit bulls and poodles

The best quote I heard this week came from a friend who was describing his GM’s favorite scouting question before the draft. He asks, “If he were a dog, what kind of dog would he be?” And then: “Is he a poodle or a pit bull? I’m looking for a pit bull. We’ve got enough poodles on our team.”

It’s great. And yeah, of course I spent the next 20 minutes matching different players with dogs.

  • Jahlil Okafor — Saint Bernard
  • Nik Stauskas — bichon frise
  • Otto Porter — golden retriever
  • Kelly Oubre — poodle
  • Frank Kaminsky — sheepdog
  • Bobby Portis — Labrador retriever
  • Devin Booker — labradoodle
  • Justise Winslow — pit bull
  • Karl-Anthony Towns — Great Dane
  • Mario Hezonja — lion

There you go. Hope everyone knows this is how I’m previewing the NBA draft for the rest of my life.

10. Kevin Durant is signing a one-year deal next summer

Assuming he stays healthy and can afford to bet on himself, almost everyone expects KD to follow in LeBron’s footsteps next summer, signing a short-term deal (two years, with a player option after one) that will allow him to opt in to free agency again the following year. By 2017, he’ll have played 10 years in the NBA, and he’ll be eligible to sign an even bigger max deal, and by then, all of the new TV money will have kicked in as well.

If this is the case, it just improves Oklahoma City’s chances of bringing him back. If he’s signing a short-term deal anyway, why would he leave Oklahoma? He’ll still have plenty of flexibility in 2017. Until then, it makes the most sense for him to give it at least one more year with a stable situation that guarantees him a title shot, at least until Westbrook and Ibaka are free agents the following summer.

Don’t listen to the hype. OKC has nothing to worry about.

11. John Wall explains the NBA summer

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It’s a strange time to talk about any kind of NBA contracts. I should also be very clear that the most alarming detail in the prior section is that Kevin Durant has been in the NBA for almost 10 years. We are all so old.

12. Jordan Crawford just wants to wet his beak

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Jordan Crawford made his NBA debut five years ago, and he’s back in summer league. There should be an award every year for the oldest NBA veteran at summer league. This year’s award technically would have gone to Keith Bogans with the Blazers, but I don’t care — we’re calling this the Jordan Crawford Award.

13. Nuclear winter is coming

GET YOUR BALANCE SHEETS READY. START MEASURING THE INFLATION OF FRANCHISE VALUATIONS OVER THE PAST 10 YEARS AGAINST THE NBA’S PROJECTED REVENUE LOSSES. START DIGGING INTO RESTRICTED FREE-AGENCY RULES AND AGE LIMITS. IT’S TIME TO SPLIT UP THE BRI PIE. BUT MAKE SURE YOU’RE ALSO ACCOUNTING FOR HIDDEN EXPENSES THAT THE NBA DEDUCTS BEFOREHAND. IT’S ALMOST LOCKOUT SEASONNNNNNNNNNNNNNN.

I’d left Vegas by the time Adam Silver announced that “a significant number of teams” are losing money — most, I’d assume, are doing so because of unfavorable local TV deals that were negotiated a long time ago — but after his comments, everyone seems to be bracing for a lockout in 2017. That was true before Silver stepped forward to bemoan the finances of his league.

I’m not quite as pessimistic as everyone else seems to be. Maybe this is just wishful thinking (along the lines of Ty Lawson turning the NBA upside down), but if Silver’s warning in Vegas is the most ominous news he could come up with, that’s gotta be considered a good sign. What Silver is really saying is that most teams are profitable, while all 30 teams appreciate in value by hundreds of millions of dollars every five to 10 years. That’s a pretty healthy business for everyone involved. Likewise, while Michele Roberts will undoubtedly fight to win back some ground that was conceded in past lockouts, players are making more money than ever, and it’s in their best interest to collect those checks. Reggie Jackson deserves every cent of his $80 million.

Most of all, I’m not worried about a lockout because Roberts presents a more credible threat to owners than any NBAPA regime they’ve ever encountered — and Silver is smart where David Stern would’ve been stubborn. If there’s a lockout under Roberts’s watch, things will get ugly. Teams will get audited in public, “creative” accounting practices will be exposed, and with Roberts’s litigating background, the whole thing will likely end up in court pretty quickly. Given how healthy business is for everyone involved, it seems like a work stoppage is more trouble than it’d be worth to either side. Time will tell.

On a brighter note …

14. There’s never been a better time to be a basketball fan

If you’ve lived through the past few months, it’s pretty obvious. A week ago, as the NFL world was debating the ethics of publicizing leaked medical records, Blake Griffin was staging a fake hostage situation so that DeAndre Jordan could hide from a billionaire. Following the NBA has never been more entertaining, and nothing else in sports comes close right now. It should get old, but it never does. Talking about basketball for five days in Vegas only made this more clear.

Anyway, nine months of basketball is really over as of Sunday. But you can take solace in knowing that things are only going to get crazier from here.

Look at Vivek.

Vivek

We are living in the golden age.