LAS VEGAS — All kinds of things are happening at Summer League, ferocious competition for contracts being one of them.
The jolt some players feel in their first weeks as professionals when they get their first taste of what it’s like to play against athletes bigger, stronger and faster than them — sometimes for the first time in their lives — is another.
It’s also a big social event, with team officials from across the NBA renewing acquaintances, making new connections or simply catching up with buddies from stops past. It goes for players too, as even established NBA stars can’t resist an all-expenses paid trip to the desert to blow off some steam, see some of the league’s new and familiar faces, and generally have fun before the preparation for the upcoming season gets a bit more intense and serious in August.
In essence, the Summer League is a vibe check, a chance to take the pulse before the league shuts down – finally – for a few weeks in advance of the long marathon ahead.
But things don’t always go as intended.
Not everyone gets a job. Some coaches and league officials are scrounging the hallways and corners of the arenas on campus at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, hoping to tap an old contact for a much-needed lead.
Some younger players look overwhelmed, even at Summer League, which is several notches down from what they’ll face at the NBA level. And sometimes? The new faces a team is bringing in and relying on to lift the existing group, look a long way from being able to do much of that.
Take the Toronto Raptors, for example.
Game 2 of their five-game Summer League schedule had more of the downside of Vegas than what you might hope. It was not pretty.
You could close your eyes and click your heels and believe you were in Toronto in, say, mid-December, if you listened to Raptors Summer League head coach Pat Delany talk about his club’s dismal performance in a 99-76 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers at Cox Pavilion on Sunday that dropped Toronto to 0-2 in league play.
Rookie wing Gradey Dick showed more promise. The 19-year-old finished with 11 points – tied for the team lead – and led the Raptors with eight rebounds and four assists in a better all-around performance than he had in his professional debut Friday.
But that was the only bright spot, and it wasn’t exactly blinding.
The Raptors shot 34.6 per cent from the floor, 5-of-31 from three and put the Cavaliers on the line 29 times in a 40-minute game. It was about as bad as professional basketball can be, this after a not-all-that-stellar showing in the opening-night loss to Chicago on Friday.
“Really disappointing, I think, after we talked about (our play Friday) for the last 36 hours, whether it’s the physicality, the effort areas and readiness to play, the level of competition, the detail stuff we’d watched on film and spoke at length about, just wasn’t there,” said Delany. “It’s really disappointing. Guys are aware, they know it, but those are just words. The actions speak a lot louder than that.”
They speak loudly in other areas too.
It’s become a bit of a tradition for established members of the “big” team to sit on the sidelines for the Summer League games. It’s not mandatory and attendance isn’t 100 per cent, but it’s encouraged, and most teams have a good representation of their vets on hand.
The Raptors have gone so far as to take over an entire ballroom at the swanky Wynn Hotel – where the team is staying – and convert it into their own practice facility. It makes it much more convenient for the Summer League team to train and practise – in years past, they would have to take a bus to a local high school, now they take the elevator from their rooms.
But it was also hoped that having their own dedicated space would entice veterans – who can stay in Vegas at team expense – to stay in town, get their workouts in and begin fostering some of the team spirit that seemed missing at times last season.
But not everything goes to plan. Yes, a good selection of Raptors vets were on hand when the Raptors played on Friday night and got their workout in after the Summer League team practised Saturday, but on Sunday when the tip-off was 12:30 p.m. in Vegas?
The only one to take in the game was Chris Boucher, leaving a whole row of reserved seats otherwise untouched. It was awkward since franchise minority shareholder Larry Tanenbaum, 78, and advisor to the president Wayne Embry, 86, made the effort to be at the game, sitting courtside along with the team’s front office.
The early start didn’t seem to be an issue for Cleveland, which had Evan Mobley, Darius Garland, Georges Niang and others courtside.
For the Raptors, the most notable absence all weekend has been Pascal Siakam, the Raptors All-Star forward who has been featured in trade rumours for the past few weeks.
No one wants to go on the record as to why Siakam has stayed away, but it seems reasonable to guess that since the Raptors have yet to discuss a contract extension, and instead Siakam has been prominently featured in trade talks, he isn’t all that keen to be on-site in Vegas. After all, it would be awkward cheering on Raptors’ prospects only to learn he’s being dealt the next day, or whatever.
Siakam is coming off a season in which he averaged 24.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists, and the 29-year-old Siakam is eligible for as much as $192 million over four years on a deal that would kick in for the 2024-25 season.
As for if, when or where Siakam might be traded?
Per league sources, the Raptors are still listening, trying to gauge the market value for their leading scorer and leading returning – in theory – playmaker. Atlanta remains a possibility, Indiana has reached out while Orlando is another team that bears watching.
The Raptors don’t intend to drag the process out for weeks or months, but they don’t seem ready to close the door on a Siakam trade just yet. Meanwhile, they still remain committed to avoiding a total rebuild — in other words, nothing they do or don’t do with Siakam will make them any more inclined to trade O.G. Anunoby, the 25-year-old all-NBA defender who also has one year left on his deal. Teams are welcome to call about Anunoby, but don’t expect a call back — that’s the message.
But even if the Raptors decide not to trade Siakam – and the seven-year veteran has made it clear his preference is to stay in Toronto – it will be interesting to see how they can foster the kind of team-first, family-type environment the Raptors are hoping to create under new head coach Darko Rajakovic, who has been upfront about making third-year forward Scottie Barnes more of the focal point on offence.
Sure, Siakam’s not the first — and won’t be the last — player to have felt a chill when it comes time to talk contract. Putting someone’s value in dollars and cents is a difficult part of the business.
But even when things get a little frosty, typically the prospect of a big payday goes a long way toward smoothing over hard feelings, and that may end up being the case with Siakam — if the Raptors don’t end up trading the elite forward.
But it’s hard to imagine it won’t be an issue that will need to be addressed if they don’t.
So, between the way the first few games of Summer League have gone on the floor and the way the separation between Siakam and the club seems to be widening, if the mission was to make Summer League the launching point for the Raptors’ new energy after a lacklustre 2022-23 season, it’s gotten off to a slow start.