Why Summer League Matters To The Warriors

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Saturday July 15th, 2017

LAS VEGAS — Although the Thomas and Mack Center is replete with ballers big and small come July, there are no real rock stars at NBA Summer League, even in Vegas. The player pool generally consists of hopefuls, what-ifs and hangers-on—even prized rookies are still, well, rookies. There’s no use lending heavy credence to the stat sheet or the scoreboard. That said, the Warriors are still the Warriors, and as July stars go, Patrick McCaw suffices.

The youngest member of the Golden State guard corps is the only roster player in Vegas who’s ever touched the court in an NBA Finals, much less the one that happened almost exactly a month ago. There’s some stature that comes with that. Whether it’s teenage admirers screeching bird noises through cupped hands from above the tunnel, McCaw himself taking photos with fans and the Larry O’Brien in the hallway postgame or team staffers presenting him with black T-shirts bearing a blue and yellow, tropical macaw across their chest (hence, birds), the 21-year-old St. Louis native and youngest reigning NBA champion is no longer anonymous, particularly not in the gym where he played his college ball.

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As such, locally based reporters have more questions for him than most, some pertaining to the whirlwind schedule, others about returning to UNLV, and many about the merits of simply spending an entire 365 days around a championship franchise that doubles as a traveling circus during the season. “I don’t know what rest is,” McCaw says. “I came here to play. I’ve got a year under my belt, better feel for the game, I’ve been working extremely hard and just preparing. [Summer League] is what I’ve been waiting for.”

You can wait all year for Summer League, but it’s still Summer League, a draining, whirlwind stretch full of games, practices and distractions…unique to Las Vegas. McCaw seems impeccably calm, as are most of his teammates and as is the franchise’s well-publicized modus operandi. Loud music still echoes throughout practice gyms in Vegas. The wins and losses matter less here (Golden State went 2–4 this week), but there’s value to be found in, say, players mobbing an end-of-bench guy after a massive, meaningless block late in the fourth.

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To spend any inch of time around the Warriors in Vegas is to briefly inhale the collegial atmosphere that surrounds not only the more senior, famous version of this team, but also the most temporary one, many of whose constituents will never take the court at Oracle. At least for the time being, everyone gets to be part of it. They’re not Supervillains yet, but there are T-shirts for that too, courtesy of Steve Kerr. He was amused after someone found them online, and then he bought them for the entire team. Another one bears the bemused expression of general manager Bob Myers, circumscribed by a humorous plea, sans question mark: “Can somebody give Bob some F*#king credit.”

The truth is that a majority of people around Summer League and the league at large give Myers (and Kerr) ample and proper praise. It’s damn rare to win two titles in three years, draft three max-caliber players, lure another from a conference rival and then convince him to take a pay cut, but it’s almost as tough to be simultaneously this dominant, and also this well-regarded by 29 other teams. The elephant in the room is sustaining that, and that’s why Summer League matters. Finding talent in the middle of the draft that’s willing to buy in, improve and accept a role is paramount any time you’ve got a top-heavy cap sheet. But there’s also substance to the philosophical trickle-down, with Steph Curry the original tone-setter and guys like McCaw fortunate enough to become disciples. In person, it’s more than a feel-good narrative.

“That’s the biggest thing for me,” McCaw says. “In college, [sometimes] you don’t really have to work that hard. Being around Steph, KD, Klay [Thompson], Draymond [Green], seeing how hard those guys work, that only makes you want it more.” In less than a year, McCaw went from 38th pick to logging rotation minutes in the Finals, and now he’s pacing the Summer League roster with his sharpshooting and increasingly creative off-the-dribble game. He averaged 20 points over five games to lead the Summer Warriors in scoring. “Everybody makes it so easy, so comfortable to come in and work every day, because everybody’s supporting you no matter what. Regardless of if I was playing or not, the coaches were always happy for me, wanted to make sure I was fine and doing well.”

Take Jordan Bell, defensive specialist, this year’s 38th selection (coincidentally) and lone Warriors draftee. Good fortune isn’t lost on the Oregon product, who after posting a rare 5x5 line on Tuesday against Minnesota tweeted that he’s “just trying to be like Draymond.” He also set a team record with 16 rebounds the next day, but gave himself a C+ on the week due to recurring turnover issues although Green has already reached out and offered guidance, it’s pretty hard to be like Draymond.

Mining the annual talent pool for future role players is imperative, which is why the Warriors paid the maximum amount of $3.5 million to acquire Bell from the Bulls on draft night. He laughs openly at how well Golden State might be able cover for his main on-court deficiency. “Obviously, I’m never trying to score,” Bell says. Now, it’s the thing he’ll barely be asked to do. The team is hopeful he’ll become inexpensive, indispensable cover beneath the rim for years to come. Bell knows this, as evidenced by his grin. “I don’t think I had a game over eight points here.” 

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“Most people are happy about going to a team [picking] high in the draft, but I’ve got two MVPs, a defensive player of the year I get to learn from,” Bell says. On draft night, he’d stormed into his garage during a party at his family’s Los Angeles-area home, upset that he had fallen into the middle of the first round (multiple teams told SI.com before the draft that they were concerned about Bell’s history of foot injuries). He was alone when he was drafted by Chicago at 38, and still there when he got the call from his agent, with the news he was bound for the Bay Area. “I was like, what are you talking about?” he recalls. “They don’t have a pick.” 

Bell hung up, dropped his phone, celebrated in solitude, then decided to keep it a secret at dinner, while his family dreamed of the Windy City. “I tried to play it off like I wasn’t happy,” he explains. He held out, anticipating the reaction and marveling at his good fortune. “When I got drafted to the Bulls, they were excited, but didn’t know what had happened. When I told them it was the Warriors…that’s when they went crazy.”

While it’s true that Golden State wins because it often fields four of the 10 best players on a given court, the Warriors also win by planning ahead. On draft night, Golden State also agreed to a two-way contract with Bell’s Oregon teammate Chris Boucher, a stretch-four with upside, and the Warriors later created a coaching position specifically dedicated to developing its two-way players, who can move back and forth between the NBA and G-League throughout the season as exclusive team property and become full roster players when there’s space and the team sees fit. Outside the draft lottery, value is often manufactured, not discovered. Even Superteams need quality player development, and even then it’s not always enough. 

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Franchises like the Clippers and Bulls flirted with contention over the past half-decade, but were largely unable to flip draft picks into assistance for stars in their prime, and never cashed in. Even the Warriors will soon become financially vulnerable: over the past year, McCaw gained Andre Iguodala as a mentor, grew his skills exponentially, and as a second-round selection just scratching the surface of his talent, is now poised to receive a massive offer sheet in restricted free agency after just two seasons. For Golden State, taking on a ”poison-pill” deal with a massive salaryspike in its third year, even for a guy like McCaw, is tricky business with Thompson and Green approaching extensions and Durant unlikely to take continually large pay cuts into his 30s. 

The Warriors can dominate the draft and still never receive the full fruits of their labor, but those scenarios remain relatively far off. The cycle of making promising rookies comfortable will continue. it’s still July, and the franchise makes its real money in a different, preceding month. “This is nothing. I don’t look at Summer League like an accolade, or like I’ve gotta prove myself,” McCaw says. “Once the regular season rolls around, training camp, that’s when I’ll really be prepared to play.” Relax as much as you want, because there’s only one T-shirt that really matters to Golden State.

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