No franchise ever aspires to win summer league championships, but a Las Vegas Summer League title might reflect a changing culture for a Golden State Warriors team that hasn't won many titles of any kind since 1975.
"Real significant," said Cameron Jones, who is playing in summer league for the first time after helping the Santa Cruz Warriors reach the D-League Finals. "It means the Golden State Warriors are putting together some good teams for D-League and regular team. I'm happy to be part of a winning team and I'm just going to continue to play hard - we're all going to continue to play hard - and win this championship."
Unlike some other teams in the tournament, the Warriors probably don't have a lot of players in summer league who we'll end up seeing on the roster: Kent Bazemore and Draymond Green are the obvious returners, but the Golden State futures of players like Jones, Ian Clark, or Scott Machado are far less certain. Nevertheless, for those just fighting to earn a spot on a NBA roster, the undefeated run in Las Vegas is an opportunity for more exposure; even for those, looking for jobs overseas, the summer league experience is an easy way to get their name out there.
But something else that Warriors players and others have mentioned is the value of summer league just in getting an early start in forming the team's identity for the NBA's regular season, whether that be Darren Erman's emphasis on defense or an offensive emphasis on moving the ball even in summer league. Even as erratic as the shooting has been, summer league has been a way to initiate roster hopefuls into the culture that the Warriors are building, whether they end up in Golden State or Santa Cruz.
Clark's description of what happened in the second half of the win against the L.A. Lakers is just one example.
"We started finding guys, started playing Golden State basketball," Clark said.
Going up against the Phoenix Suns today, that pre-existing team chemistry aspect of summer league might come into play. While the Warriors have four players accustomed to playing with each other in the D-League - Bazemore, Jones, Machado, and Lance Goulbourne - as well as Bazemore and Green from Golden State, the Suns have five players familiar with each other from NBA competition: Diante Garrett, Kendall Marshall, Marcus and Markieff Morris, and PJ Tucker in addition to 2013 first round pick Archie Goodwin. Add to that group rugged summer league veteran Dionte Christmas and the Suns are a formidable opponent.
For players looking to prove their worth, the matchup with the Suns offers plenty of opportunity. Bazemore will likely be tasked with guarding Bright Side of the Sun-annointed superstar Archie Goodwin, who's looking like a diamond in the rough who the Warriors actually traded to the Suns during their flurry of draft day maneuverings. At point guard, Kendall Marshall has struggled at time to penetrate and if Clark and/or Machado can pressure him and force him into poor decisions, the Warriors might have a shot at stalling the Suns' offense.
But the Warriors' frontcourt will get the biggest test in facing the Morris twins who already have two years of NBA experience. ESPN's Danny Nowell has put together a helpful guide for telling them apart and the best way to sum up what they've done to summer league competition thus far might just be "bully basketball". They've looked like men among boys, which is probably what you'd hope from summer league returners who have played games on a NBA roster.
Working in the Warriors' favor might just be the crowd - though it was far more restrained last night in a game that Charlotte struggled to get anything going consistently, it came alive during Saturday's comeback run against the Lakers.
"It's pretty crazy," Jones said when asked about the crowd. "We had more fans than the Lakers and that's pretty uncommon I think. But it's good that we have a little home court advantage, it feels like, and they cheer from us really loud."
So the summer league tournament format "work"? We'll have more thoughts on that later, but it's no surprise that the two teams who made it to Championship Monday were the the teams who chose not to sit out their stars and make the most out of the experience. And if the Warriors fans in attendance can match their performance from Saturday night, the Warriors might just find themselves having a slight edge.