LAS VEGAS – Before the start of the annual Las Vegas Summer League tournament, I made the offhand remark that when it was finished, every team but one would tell you the truth -- that winning a summer-league championship is about as big a deal as a single melting ice cube on a typical 113-degree day here.
The other team – the one that won the tournament – would tell you, though, how meaningful and important it was. That it is a sign of good things to come.
But I didn't expect the Los Angeles Lakers to take it to the extreme, with Magic Johnson telling the assembled crowd and a national television audience, “The Lakers are back.”
Sorry, I don’t buy that. Especially with the Lakers, They have a long way to go to be “back” – that is, at the point when they were “Showtime” and the most popular team in the NBA.
Johnson knows better than anyone that summer league stuff is mostly meaningless and no guarantee of future success (or failure).
Portland’s summer-league experience was a little different than most teams here. The Trail Blazers were not loaded with a crop of youngsters who will someday be wearing a Portland uniform.
Sure, you’you'll be seeing more of Jake Layman, Caleb Swanigan, Zach Collins and (maybe) Pat Connaughton. But the Trail Blazers’ march to the championship game was fueled by some very tough and experienced free agents here playing for a job.
It would be nice to say that a few of those guys will be in training camp this fall trying to win a roster spot with Portland, but barring a trade that frees a couple of roster spots, that isn't’t likely to happen.
The free agents wearing Portland uniforms likely played well enough to earn invites to teams that offer a much better chance of them earning a spot. The Trail Blazer roster is, for right now at least, on lockdown.
So what does this fun run to the last night of the tournament mean for the Portland franchise? I’m glad you asked.
I think it was important. First, the franchise showed it could make some shrewd moves in bringing in experienced free agents who could help its roster players in important ways – like getting them the ball where they needed it, on time, and were unselfish enough to defer to those players when necessary. The group followed orders and played hard.
Of course the summer also showcased the Portland coaching staff, which I’m more impressed with every season. Jim Moran was the head coach and looked very comfortable in that position.
But all the assistants have input in the summer and they did a terrific job of instituting the Portland system and getting the most out of the players they had.
This Portland team played to its strengths, which meant pounding the ball inside with Swanigan and Jarnell Stokes. And this was a physical group that did that very well.
I think the showing of this team was good for the franchise, reflecting favorably on its organizational abilities and system. And it was especially good for Swanigan and Layman, who showed they could handle the responsibility of being important players. Both improved with each game.
I believe Swanigan will earn rotation minutes with sheer effort and versatility. He is a willing banger and a very good passer who chases every rebound.
Of course doing those things against veteran NBA players is a lot different than doing it in summer league.
And come on, Magic, you know that as well as anyone. I love the guy but for now, the only thing "back" with the Lakers is Johnson himself.