LAS VEGAS -- Summer league is the closest thing the NBA has to an industry conclave, and industry conclaves tend to be more about the chatter than the official events. Even though the league unfurled its most anticipated draft class in years this past week, the insiders who populate the VIP sections of the Thomas & Mack Center and its little brother, Cox Pavilion, were consumed with the same stories that propelled the news cycle for fans.
Some of that can be attributed to a free agency period that bled into the summer-league schedule, or that LeBron James announced his decision to return to Cleveland nine hours before Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker squared off in their NBA debuts, or that none of the touted rookies really dazzled.
"Ask me in five years," says one NBA head coach about the rookie crop.
Whatever the case, this year's rookie class didn't wow the league's decision-makers. Here's what they were buzzing about instead:
Four summers ago, there was a dark cloud hanging over summer league. David Stern had just projected $400 million in losses for the league. A lockout seemed inevitable (and it was). The global economy was sputtering, and European agents practically had to be talked off the ledge of the Thomas & Mack Center.
This week, the vibe in Las Vegas is downright giddy.
"The Milwaukee Bucks for $550 million?!" howled one league insider. "The Los Angeles Clippers for $2 billion?! A new TV deal. Revenue through the roof. It's a golden age for the league and you can feel it here."
Television is coloring everything from signings to capital expenditures, the notion being that contracts and outlays that might seem expensive under the terms of the current financial structure of the league might not under the next deal.
" Gordon Hayward?" one executive asked, referring to the four-year, $63 million offer sheet the swingman signed with Charlotte and that was matched by Utah. "Yeah, that's a lot of money in 2011 dollars. But it's not a lot of money in 2016 dollars. Guys who got paid the max this year and last year are going to be bargains on the back end of their deal. "
A few scouts and junior executives marvel at the investment they've seen just in the past two seasons. Teams are pouring money into new technology, and analytics departments that used to consist solely of a hamster and wheel are suddenly robust.
It's not all rosy, though, as there's virtual unanimity that a lockout is coming in 2017, even though the pie will be inordinately larger.
"We took a bad deal [in 2011]," said a veteran NBA player. "It's like LeBron said, 'What did we have a lockout for?' Where are they going to hide the money next time when owners are getting two billion dollars?"
Several executives seem exasperated by the fluid nature of free agency. Contracts are shorter than ever -- even for stars -- and players are cycling through too quickly for teams to stay ahead of the market. Teams enter the summer with no idea what their rosters will look like in two seasons, and that makes for a volatile marketplace.
"The days of being able to strategically plan four and five years out are over," a general manager says. "Everyone has [cap] room, so everyone is in the mix."