With news breaking yesterday that the Utah Jazz and Idaho Stampede have entered into a one-to-one affiliation agreement, the NBA finds itself on the brink of a new era. 17 NBA teams now have their own exclusive D-League franchises, which is good. 17 NBA teams — the Jazz, the Philadelphia 76ers, Detroit Pistons, Miami Heat, San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, New York Knicks, Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State Warriors, Dallas Mavericks, Orlando Magic, Cleveland Cavaliers, Phoenix Suns, Oklahoma City Thunder, Boston Celtics and Sacramento Kings — are now primed to take full advantage of everything the Development League has to offer.
The other 13 get — for all intents and purposes — nothing.
Right now, there are 18 D-League franchises. As those of you who can do basic math may notice, that leaves exactly one D-League franchise — the Fort Wayne Mad Ants — to serve as the affiliate of the other 13 NBA teams. This strikes me as less than ideal, and it’s why those 13 teams need to pull their heads out of the sand and do something about it before they get left behind.*
*It’s probably worth mentioning that the Brooklyn Nets and Portland Trailblazers find themselves in the group of 13 sharing Fort Wayne despite previously having their own single affiliates. The Nets lost the Springfield Armor when the Pistons purchased and moved the team, making them the As-Yet-Unnamed Grand Rapids D-League Franchise. The Blazers, meanwhile, previously were affiliated with the Stampede, but declined to renew the relationships for reasons that are unclear. So it’s puzzling that neither team has worked — as far as we know — to rectify the current situation.
Let’s start with the basics: The D-League, as it currently exists, is populated mostly by younger players, some of them on assignment from NBA teams, but most just seizing the chance to play basketball professionally with an outside shot at making it big. We’ll come back to the general population in a minute, but we’ll start with the guys on assignment.
The best teams in the NBA face something of a conundrum when it comes to their younger players. Younger guys aren’t necessarily ready to contribute to a winner, but they need playing time to develop. The simplest way to give them playing time while minimizing risk to the team is to send them down. The Thunder in particular have been aggressive about this, with guys like Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones III having spent a fair amount of time in the D-League. If you’re in charge of the team, you can be totally sure those guys will get plenty of floor time.
As for the other guys, they represent a cheap solution if a team finds itself low on healthy bodies during the season. The Spurs, for instance, signed both Othyus Jeffers and Malcolm Thomas from the D-League earlier this season when they needed extra guys. Having your own affiliate allows you to better scout the players on your team so you know what you have, and it allows you to get those players familiar with your system so they can step in immediately if called on. Here’s what Atlanta Hawks assistant GM Wes Wilcox said in January about his experience with the D-League while working for the Cleveland Cavaliers:
“In Cleveland and Canton, we truly built a staff of people on both the business and basketball side,” said Wilcox. “Sticking with the basketball side, our focus was on finding someone who would be willing to install our system and our four philosophical beliefs. Then, build a team that was largely competitive, but also about the developmental agenda of Cavalier players…Building a staff was just an extension of what we would hire for our NBA club is what we wanted to hire, and hopefully we would hire someone in the D-League that had NBA potential.”
Now, rather than imagining yourself as a team with its own D-League affiliate, imagine you’re one of the other 13 sharing the Mad Ants. For instance, imagine you’re the Chicago Bulls, because I wrote about how they should get their own D-League team 10 months ago. You’re a successful, veteran team without much use for young guys like Erik Murphy or Marquis Teague. But you don’t have your own D-League team. What happens?
Two things, as it turns out. First, you do actually send Teague to the D-League, only he’s running an unfamiliar system — having already struggled to grasp Tom Thibodeau’s system — and losing playing time to guys like Kalin Lucas. And because you’re not in control, you can’t do anything about either issue and eventually decide to trade Teague for Toko Shengelia, who plays all of 17 minutes over 9 games before being waived.
Second, Murphy ends up stapled to the bench for the vast majority of the season — he played all of 62 minutes over 24 games — and then eventually gets waived toward the end of the season. On a team mostly devoid of shooting, they couldn’t be bothered to develop a young big man known for his shooting. Because obviously.
So, just to reiterate, if you’re one of the 13 teams stuck sharing the Mad Ants, you’re trusting a coach you didn’t hire to play players he has no particular incentive to play in a system that may or may not bear any resemblance to yours. Or you’re hoping that sitting on the bench all year won’t stunt developmental progress at all. Here’s Hawks GM Danny Ferry making my point for me, from the same piece I linked to earlier:
“I think you can better develop your team systems and your player development in a 1-to-1 system that’s in your region,” Ferry said. “When you share a team for example, they’re not going to be running your offense, they’re not going to be using your language. So there’s definitely a strong advantage, in my mind, to having a single affiliate in your region.”
Now, some of you may notice that the Hawks are one of the 13 teams currently without a single affiliate. That comes down to two main issues: One, there are but 18 teams available, so 13 teams were always going to get screwed without D-League expansion. Two, there are no teams south of Indiana and east of Texas,** and adding just one team down there basically can’t happen because of travel. So it’s going to take a couple of teams in the general region before that can happen.
**This is why the Heat are affiliated with the Sioux Falls Skyforce in North Dakota, and the Magic have the Erie Bayhawks in northern Pennsylvania, and more than likely why the Hawks, the Charlotte Bobcats and Washington Wizards are all currently without an affiliate.
But that really shouldn’t be much of a stumbling block. The Heat seem to have figured out the value of the D-League. Why can’t they put a D-League team in Tampa or something while the Hawks get one in, say, Savannah? The Magic could put one in Jacksonville, while we’re at it, and maybe the Bobcats get one in Charleston? That frees up the Minnesota Timberwolves to take Sioux Falls and either the Brooklyn Nets or Toronto Raptors could take over the Bayhawks. The Bulls could put a team in Rosemont, Illinois — it’s about a half hour from the city with a very nice arena already in place — as I mentioned 10 months ago, the Milwaukee Bucks could do it in Green Bay, the Los Angeles Clippers in San Diego, maybe? Portland could put one in, I don’t know, Spokane or something, the Washington Wizards could go with Baltimore and the Denver Nuggets could use Colorado Springs, I guess. That would just leave the Indiana Pacers, who could quite naturally take over Fort Wayne, and whichever of Brooklyn/Toronto didn’t get the Bayhawks. They can have Buffalo or Syracuse, whichever.
(There are obviously a number of real obstacles to D-League expansion that I have declined to take into account because I’m just some guy on the Internet and I don’t care about the difficulties involved in finding ownership groups, getting arenas built and so on. I just want to see a 30-team D-League system. Sue me.)
There. I just solved the D-League problem. You’re welcome, owners.