The contenders are going through their yearly turnovers, looking to find themselves and continue their dominance over the league. They are watching the other teams make moves to get closer to what they have.
The Spurs and Thunder have stayed relatively quiet this summer as the Heat went through major changes and the Pacers saw a key piece to their puzzle leave. The Rockets tried to make major moves and the Grizzlies added second-act Vince Carter, who has been surprisingly effective as a sixth man.
If the Spurs and Thunder will maintain their vice grip over the Western Conference, it will come from within.
For the second straight year, a lot of that future was on display in Orlando during the Southwest Airlines Orlando Pro Summer League. With the D-League’s Tulsa 66ers moving to Oklahoma City to be closer to the parent team, it is clear Oklahoma City has a very specific vision for how to grow their young players. That includes having young players like Jeremy Lamb, Steven Adams and rookie Mitch McGary play in Summer League. Reggie Jackson played last year and dominated the league.
The Thunder love getting their young players as much experience as they can to help them when them when the games count later in the year.
“As the Thunder you’ve got to play to a certain standard,” Steven Adams said. “We’re all trying to play to our standard through everything. We’re going to try to carry it on.
“It helps if you’ve got chemistry with these dudes. I’ve spent a year with them, I’m kind of familiar with them. It’s getting around the system and all the new guys trying to play their way. It’s a process. The young fellas are going through the same thing.”
Adams was one of the players that looked vastly improved in his week in Orlando. He averaged 9.7 points and 4.7 rebounds per game in limited minutes last week (he appeared in just three of the five games). The Thunder were very selective with who played and when throughout the week. Lamb, Adams and Perry Jones III took turns sitting out. Oklahoma City largely knew what they had in these players.
It was still valuable having them come out and gain confidence and familiarity. Adams’ most-used lineup last year included Summer League mates Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Jackson. In fact, Adams played all but 105:40 of his time on the floor last year with at least one player who spent time in Orlando with him — that one lineup was the Thunder’s starting lineup minus Kendrick Perkins.
This is exactly the purpose of the Thunder’s Summer League strategy.
“Definitely those guys are important guys who had important minutes for us in Oklahoma City for us as well in the regular season,” Thunder assistant coach Darko Rajakavic said. “Summer League is an opportunity for them to get on the floor, to compete, to work on their game and continue to improve.
“We are just looking at the way they play together, trying to figure out different lineups, who might be good rotation guys for us during the regular season. That’s the main object.”
This year did not find the same team success as last year.
Last season, the Thunder were the Orlando Summer League champions. Jackson and Lamb dominated play and were probably the two best players at the event (if not on the all-Summer League team, if such a thing existed).
Lamb said the trip to Summer League is an opportunity to improve in all areas. But the main goal is to get to know each other and try to carry over that chemistry to the regular season.
“I’m leaning on them heavily,” Thunder rookie forward Mitch McGary said. “Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones, them guys are very crucial because they’ve been here before. They know what to expect. I’ve been leaning on them, trying to give me a few pointers here and there trying to pick me up.”
This year did not go quite so well results-wise. The Thunder went 2-3 and Lamb, particularly, was poor. He averaged 17.3 points per game but shot just 32.0 percent from the floor. He was relied on to dominate the ball and take a lot of shots, but it was also something of a symbol of his up-and-down season last year.
Oklahoma City likely walked away from its week-long Summer League run feeling much different about some of its young players and how they played together than it did last season.
But it does not count for much. Summer League results do not get you banners and no one will remember stat lines or records. It is about how players fit into the system and how quickly they can acclimate to the players around them moving on to next season. Oklahoma City is not a team that spends a lot of money while contending, and so continuing to replenish talent using the draft is critical to their continued contention with their current core.
“It’s really good to play,” Perry Jones III said. “this is an opportunity for me to get better, show what I can do and help the team in the regular season and the playoffs next year.
“It helps us with our chemistry for the regular season and the playoffs. Hopefully we can carry our chemistry from here throughout the season.”
The Thunder’s youngest players got their opportunity to get better on the floor together and build some familiarity together last week. That might be the biggest move the Thunder could make this offseason.