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:
Business is good
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?"
The CBA is causing whiplash
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."
When half the teams in the league have big money to spend, multiple bidders emerge for marginal players, and that's when things get loopy. That loopiness is compounded by those shorter contracts, because even if a team spends itself into oblivion, the hurt will be over before they know it.
"Teams' behavior has changed," another general manager says. "The rollover free-agency dollars is impacting supply and demand." More simply put by an exec sitting alongside him: ""There's a lot of cap space and people are using it."
This brings us to a counterpoint that directly contradicts the aforementioned idea that it's impossible to plan under the current CBA:
"All of the sudden, contracts are more manageable," said one general manager. "You can have an eye toward the future."
In other words, the train is moving faster than it ever has before -- it's just nobody knows where it's going.
The Houston Rockets' best-laid plans
Ask two exces about the offseason misfortunes of the Daryl Morey and the Rockets and you'll get three opinions. Morey has always been a polarizing figure in basketball, a case study in the benefits and hazards of disruption. And for those who find his methodology suspect and his public persona off-putting, July has been a cause for glee.
"Daryl wants everyone to think he's the smartest person in the room -- and he is smart, no doubt," says one front-office executive. "But let your influence speak for itself. Stop taking victory laps."
In the eyes of his critics, Houston's offseason amounts to dealing Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin, a first-round draft pick and a second-round draft pick for Trevor Ariza, a first-round pick and a trade exception.
But Morey also has his admirers around the league, and while they might not regard him as a prophet, they see the Rockets' summer as, in the parlance of the analytics movement Morey has helped popularized, a case where a well-drawn process just didn't yield the intended results.
"He took a risk and you can't fault him for that," a team exec says. "Sometimes the best-laid plans don't work out. But they still landed two max players and kept cap room."
Another general manager characterized much of the criticism as sheer jealousy, but added that there's a growing perception around the league that Morey treats his players as assets in a game of arbitrage, something that's alienating players and their representatives.
OK, then which teams are drawing raves?
It's rare to sit with a team strategist or scout without a reference to the San Antonio Spurs as the model, which has been the case each of the past three summers. So let's set them aside, because this is the closest subjective opinion to empirical fact.
More than a couple insiders cited the Phoenix Suns as a managerial success. "They keep acquiring high-value assets," said one general manger, "But the big thing is that they're putting a great product on the floor while they do it. A lot of people in our business forget that part of the job."
LeBron James, mensch or stench?
In 2010, the superteam formed in Miami was the collective obsession of summer league, but James' return to Cleveland is decidedly less intriguing to league insiders than to the general public. Was LeBron's statement in SI.com published in earnest, or was it a public relations stunt? Most execs shrugged and opted for a middle ground.
"He wanted to leave," a general manager says. "He couldn't afford to get saddled with Dwyane Wade on a long-term deal. He thinks Kyrie [Irving] is better than Chris Bosh. He's going to have complete control [in Cleveland], and Pat [Riley] can wear thin. He had plenty of excuses to leave."
NBA execs can be cynical, but on the matter of LeBron, those that profit from broad interest in the NBA expressed some gratitude.
"We should pay LeBron a big piece of the cap for driving interest," says one general manager. "We had a World Cup final going on, but it was a LeBron special for 48 hours. He's carrying us. As far as I'm concerned he's earned the right to play wherever the [hell] he wants."
He shoots, he scores
Once upon a time, NBA offenses were almost entirely about isolation possessions and exploiting mismatches. A corner-3 shooter was a novelty act, and drive-and-kick schemes were regarded as gimmicky.
Goodbye to all that. The shooting revolution reigns supreme, which is why it's difficult to find naysayers in Las Vegas on Channing Frye's 4-year, $32 million deal, and there's more support for Jodie Meeks' 3-year, $19.5 million contract than you might imagine.
"This is where the analytics movement is driving the market," says a general manager who can be fairly characterized as middle-of-the-road on analytics. "We're seeing the extinction of the mid-range game. It's a driver-and-putter league now. Nobody wants to play with their irons."
Players who wouldn't have gotten a look 15 years ago are now in high demand, and non-athletes with a reasonable shot fake are the NBA's answer to the left-handed relief pitcher.
"You have to be able to shoot the ball" said the NBA veteran. "Especially big men. You look at Spencer Hawes. Look at Channing Frye. That's good money. You can have a job for a long time if you can shoot."
The coaches consulted had more holistic views of what's happening on the floor in 2014. Yeah, shooting is vital, but there are plenty of teams leveraging other strengths to succeed.
"You're seeing as much diversity as you've ever seen before," says a head coach. "It used to be that coaches were afraid to be unconventional because they were worried about criticism."
Today, there's cover to be unconventional, and the game and its fans are the beneficiaries. And the very best teams in the league are those that can switch up styles on cue. See the San Antonio Spurs.