In West, standing still might mean a step back

LAS VEGAS — Summer league can be hard on the eyes.

There’s the almost universally awful basketball, games clogged with rookies and wannabes, but that’s not even the root of the issue. Instead, it’s the constant squinting at the stands in the corners of the courts, the areas that are often roped off by red tape. That’s where the real stories sit.

The real stories, of course, are the coaches and general managers, whichever ones choose to brave the Las Vegas heat in July. The real stories are the NBA power brokers and the opinions they hold, which rookies they like, which teams they like, which predictions they have for the playoffs that won’t start for another nine months.

Summer league begins nearly two weeks into the league’s free agency period, often after most of the chips have fallen. The big-name free agents have signed, the coaches in trouble have been fired and their replacements have (mostly) been put in place. Consensuses are beginning to form, not only about which teams might begin to transform after the draft, but also about which of the top-tier teams are moving forward and which are taking a step back.

It’s an especially fun debate this summer in the Western Conference, where three of last spring’s playoff teams hired new coaches and two All-Star caliber players moved from one playoff team to another. In a conference that was already tough, talent has been redistributed among the top tier, and with those new coaches, cultures are shifting.

Looking at the West last season, it’s easy to see that the playoff teams were divided into two tiers: the Thunder, Spurs, Nuggets, Clippers and Grizzlies, all of whom won 56 or more games, and the Warriors, Lakers and Rockets, who won between 45 and 47 games apiece. That lower tier needed to improve, and perhaps in a big way, but it’s almost trickier for the other teams. Last season, they were jammed together, with the top-seeded Thunder just four games ahead of the fourth- and fifth-seeded Clippers and Grizzlies, respectively. For those five teams, one win or one loss was enough to make a massive difference, meaning that this offseason matters.

It matters not because they needed to improve in spades, but rather because they needed to improve just a bit, to pull away from the pack or climb up within in.

The Thunder, of course, were without Russell Westbrook in the playoffs last spring, and the Spurs are always the Spurs, so those teams’ lack of major moves isn’t quite the concern. Denver, though, lost its coach and perhaps its best player in Andre Iguodala, and the Grizzlies’ biggest move has been to re-sign Tony Allen to a relatively sizeable deal. Among those five teams, it’s the Clippers who have done what they needed to do to take the next step forward, to go from a developing contender to maybe, finally, an actual threat.

A coach of one of last season’s Western Conference playoff teams said at summer league that he’d worry for a team like the Grizzlies, which had matured perhaps to its full potential and then did next to nothing this summer. Combine that with a new coach, and a lack of offseason acquisitions amounts to a step backward. This was a summer where big pieces were up for grabs in the West, and to fail to even try to grab one might spell not a fall from the playoffs, but at least a worse seed, and thus worse chances of advancing.

That’s compounded by the fact that two of the lower-tier teams, Golden State and Houston, made major improvements. The Warriors already looked better by the end of their playoff run than they did even at the end of the regular season. Stephen Curry was the unexpected star of the early playoff rounds. After upsetting the Nuggets and giving the Spurs a run, the Warriors, before free agency even began, already looked like they might be creeping into contention in the near future. Add their acquisition of Iguodala, and they’re likely to push one of those five teams out of the conference’s top tier.

Another coach said that any winning team, even if it’s not a contender, should be aspirational in its approach to the offseason; some players are willing to take a gamble, especially if they’re going to be put in a situation where they’re the featured player. That’s exactly what transpired in Houston, and if you’re uncertain about what happened there, it’s unclear why you’re even reading this. Dwight Howard joined James Harden, who’s still maturing but is already one of the league’s stars. Add that to the terrifying realization that Daryl Morey is Houston’s GM, and the Rockets probably aren’t finished improving. The Rockets are likely to be another top-5 team in the West, another argument that standing still was the worst thing that any of last year’s fringe contenders could have done.

On Friday in Las Vegas, new Clippers coach Doc Rivers sat in the bleachers, and he remained in town through Sunday. Blake Griffin and Chris Paul sat on the sidelines and watched their team’s game, and DeAndre Jordan also stopped by. The Clippers on the court were by and large unremarkable, but that didn’t matter. Instead of hoping their rookies are who the world thought they were on draft night, instead of trotting out second-year players to sit on the bench for morale (See: Damian Lillard, Anthony Davis), all the Clippers had to do was watch. Their first-round pick, Reggie Bullock, won’t need to contribute much come November, and their summer league team is largely inconsequential. They got their coach. They got their free agent. They made their trades.

The Clippers were at once a 56-win team and a project, and with the way the West shook out last season and their disappointing playoff run, they needed to be. Now, no one can accuse them of standing still.