Summer league this year is going to be like the community swimming pool on the hottest day of the year. It’s going to be crowded, as the Pistons move from the Orlando Summer League — which had just eight teams — to the Las Vegas Summer League, which will feature all 30 NBA teams for the first time.
In the expanded tournament format, each team will play three preliminary games before the tournament begins, with at least two additional games. All 82 summer league games will be televised on NBATV or the ESPN networks and will be hosted at Thomas & Mack Arena or Cox Pavilion, beginning Friday, through July 17.
It’ll be a summer extravaganza for the NBA, in the midst of the free agency bonanza and the looming decisions by some of the top players, including LeBron James.
Here are some things to watch as the Las Vegas Summer League begins this week:
That’s what Pistons forward Henry Ellenson has to show for his two appearances in the summer leagues in his first two seasons. The Pistons fell in the championship game each time but will have a more difficult road if they’re to make it to a third title game.
The previous two were different, though. Those were in the eight-team Orlando Summer League. This time, it’s something new, something bigger.
They got to see some big steps forward for first-round picks Stanley Johnson and Ellenson two years ago, and again last summer, with Luke Kennard arriving in the draft.
This year’s summer roster again will feature Ellenson and Kennard, who will be two young focal points under new coach Dwane Casey. Ellenson had limited playing time in his first two seasons under Stan Van Gundy, but like Johnson last year, the coming season will be a big one for Ellenson’s NBA future.
Is he strong enough to be a stretch center with 3-point range? Is he a power forward who will share time behind Blake Griffin and a healthy Jon Leuer? Look for Ellenson to show his wares in a featured role in summer league.
After losing their first-round pick in the trade for Griffin, the Pistons dealt for an additional second-round pick and finished the draft with wings Khyri Thomas and Brian Brown. The Pistons are looking for depth at small forward behind Johnson and both rookies will get plenty of time to audition
They’ll look more at their defensive contributions — as any offensive acumen will be a plus — but after giving up two future second-round picks to get Thomas, there’s a sense the Pistons already know what they’re getting and will look to get two future role players at a minimum salary to augment their high-priced starting lineup.
A third player to watch is Keenan Evans, who joined the team last week on a two-way deal after going undrafted from Texas Tech. Evans eventually could fill the role of third point guard behind Reggie Jackson and Ish Smith. He’ll get a look in Las Vegas but he’ll likely spend more of the season with the Grand Rapids Drive in the development league to start the season.
The Pistons are over the salary cap and have about $4 million to maneuver with under the luxury tax. They won’t make a big splash in free agency but will go bargain hunting after some of the big contracts are handed out.
They could look at trading some of their unwieldy contracts in favor of cap relief and adding a smaller piece, but the market isn’t favorable with teams looking to add unwanted salary — and they will want other trade chips in return. The Pistons will sniff around for opportunities, but more than likely, they’ll have mostly the same roster as last season.
Reggie Bullock’s team option of $2.5 million will be picked in the next couple weeks but the focus is on Anthony Tolliver, who will be a hot name in the second tier of free agency. He could get $8 million or more — a contract similar to the three years and $22 million that the Pacers offered Doug McDermott.
With a new coach on board and a new system in place, the Pistons will get their first glimpse of the new regime in action. It could involve some new wrinkles, including Luke Kennard distributing more with the offense running through him.
Of course, seeing Ellenson will remind some of Pascal Siakam in Toronto and hoping for a similar metamorphosis. Most of the Pistons improvement will have to come from within, so seeing how Casey deals with the young players will be critical. Some of that infusion of a new culture will have to begin with Kennard and Ellenson and the rookies, so summer league will be the start.
SUMMER LEAGUE SCHEDULE
The Pistons will play three preliminary-round games at the Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas, with at least two more games after that. Here are the prelims:
July 6: vs. Bucks (NBATV)
July 7: vs. Grizzlies (NBATV)
July 9: vs. Pelicans (ESPNU)