D-League evolving into true feeder system for NBA

MINNEAPOLIS – It was January 2012, just days after the NBA lockout had ended, and a group of Boston Celtics was dining at a nice restaurant in Washington D.C. Cameras flashed from fans and photographers alike; after all, this was Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and company.

These were stars, and that was what they were accustomed to: attention, autographs, and the incessant annoyance of flashes. It was hardy a night to remember, hardly deserving of comment, except, of course, from the lanky, blond center sitting with the group. A month earlier, he’d been living in Sioux Falls, S.D., population 150,000. A month earlier, no one knew his name, save the most devoted of Wisconsin fans. A month earlier, Garnett was a far-off idol, not the man sitting a few chairs away.

And so Greg Stiemsma remembers exactly what was going through his head that night.

How on earth did I end up here?

Stiemsma was one of 44 players called up to an NBA roster from the D-League in 2011-12. (That number does not include players signed to NBA rosters, sent down, and recalled.) Of those 44, 14 appeared in the NBA again in 2012-13, and seven were on NBA rosters for the entirety of this past season. For guys like Stiemsma, Jamaal Tinsley, Ish Smith, Greg Smith, Gerald Green, Alan Anderson and Cartier Martin, the D-League a year ago served as a means to an end — an end some saw and which shocked others — in order to get them their first shot at the NBA, another crack after a long career, or something in between.

In its 12 seasons of existence, the league has evolved into something of a feeder system for the NBA, with the ties growing closer since 2005, when the league announced its expansion from eight to 15 teams and a more direct partnership. Since then, there been shifts in ownership and business models, innovative ideas and crossover between this lower league and the NBA, all of which saw the evolution begin, but this season in the NBA, D-League teams became a bigger part of the conversation than ever before.

Prior to 2012, teams were only allowed to send players with two or fewer years of experience to the D-League, and they could do so a maximum of three times per season per player. In 2012-13, though, that all changed; teams now may send any player with three or fewer years of experience to the D-League an unlimited amount of times, and they can also assign players with more experience if the players consent. These changes opened up a host of scenarios, everything from the Thunder shuttling rookies Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones back and forth between Tulsa and Oklahoma City in the interest of their playing time to the Knicks sending Amare Stoudemire to the Erie BayHawks in December as part of a rehab assignment.

With that simple rule change, the D-League evolved into something different, and it’s just the most recent step in a process that’s bringing the league closer to something resembling the minor leagues in hockey and baseball, something that might in 10 years have fundamentally altered the conventional path of development for pro-level basketball players.

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There are currently 16 D-League teams, five affiliated with three or four NBA franchises and 11 with one. Those 11 that follow the single-affiliation model have emerged since 2006, when the Lakers became the first NBA team to purchase a D-League team, the Los Angeles D-Fenders. The Thunder (Tulsa 66ers), Spurs (Austin Toros), Cavaliers (Canton Charge) and Warriors (Santa Cruz Warriors) have bought into that model in recent years, and the Texas Legends also follow a similar model, whereby Mavericks general manager Donnie Nelson, not the Mavericks organization itself, holds majority ownership in the franchise.

Another single-affiliation model has emerged, as well: hybrid affiliation, in which an independent owner retains the team but the NBA franchise runs the basketball operations side of the business. This was introduced in 2009, when Houston entered into such a partnership with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, and since then the Knicks (Erie BayHawks), Celtics (Maine Red Claws), Nets (Springfield Armor) and Trail Blazers (Idaho Stampede) have followed suit.

That leaves 19 NBA teams for five D-League franchises: the Fort Wayne Mad Ants (Bobcats, Pistons, Pacers, Bucks), Iowa Energy (Bulls, Nuggets, Pelicans, Wizards), Sioux Falls Skyforce (Heat, Timberwolves, Magic, 76ers), Bakersfield Jam (Hawks, Clippers, Suns, Raptors) and Reno Bighorns (Grizzlies, Kings, Jazz). In such setups, relationships with the NBA are typically more distant, with less player movement in either direction, and D-League teams often must take a much more active role in terms of communication than do the NBA personnel.

It’s not as if one D-League model is an automatic precursor for winning. Plenty of good teams, like the Grizzlies, Heat and Nuggets, share their D-League affiliates, and single affiliation has hardly rescued the Trail Blazers from their struggles. That said, though, there’s an increasingly vocal consensus that the move toward single-affiliation is the way to go in the long run.

“Every year, more and more NBA teams are interested to have their (own) D-League affiliate, and I think in the very near future this league will be a replica of the NBA,” Darko Rajakovic, the coach of the Tulsa 66ers, said. “Every team will have its own franchise in the D-League. That will help a lot those teams to control and develop their young players.”

For his part, Rajakovic has seen what may be the future of the D-League in his first season as the 66ers’ coach. He’s overwhelmingly positive about the experience, in which he works hand-in-hand with the Thunder and has had the opportunity to coach former first-round picks such as Lamb and Jones, and the 66ers’ model is becoming one of the best-known in the NBA. Like other single-affiliation teams, Tulsa shares the Thunder’s playbook, making movement back and forth as seamless as it can be. Rajakovic and his staff also spent NBA training camp with the Thunder, and they travel to Thunder games when the 66ers have the day off and Oklahoma City is in town. Conversely, Thunder GM Sam Presti and other members of the team’s personnel are often travel to Tulsa, which sits just 100 miles down I-44 from Oklahoma City. There’s constant evaluation, primarily focused on the Thunder’s players, but there’s also a very real chance that a 66ers player might be noticed and promoted.

Mike Taylor spent 2011-12 with the Vipers in Texas, learning how to function within the hybrid model after spending years coaching in Europe. In 2012, then, he was hired to be the Red Claws’ first coach under their new hybrid model, and he moved to the East Coast and went almost straight to Celtics training camp, where he, like Rajakovic, learned the team’s playbook and how to function as its direct affiliate.

Taylor isn’t shy about the struggles inherent in his position. Chemistry is good and roles are clear to begin the season, he said, but as time goes by and players – most notably 2012 first-round pick Fab Melo – are sent up and down, things change. It requires a constant effort to keep the team focused and tailor personnel to the Celtics’ schemes, and coaching in the D-League, he says, is like few other assignments.

“That’s the biggest challenge, working through all the roster changes and keeping the team going in a winning direction,” Taylor said. “You’ve got to be creative, you’ve got to be flexible, and you must be able to adapt.”

In 2012-13, once the restrictions were reduced on who can play in the D-League and how often, those challenges mounted. The year before, 44 players had been assigned to the D-League a total of 67 times, but this season those numbers grew to 58 players and a whopping 158 assignments. There’s more turnover and hence more stress on the part of coaches, but there’s also an added level of NBA scrutiny – a good thing, in this case – along with that flexibility.

D-League teams will do whatever they can to garner attention from their NBA affiliates. Whether that’s the constant stream of reports that Skyforce coach Joel Abelson sends to the four GMs under whom his team functions or Taylor’s glee when Jeremiah Rivers, son of Doc Rivers, signed with his team, thus bringing visits from the Celtics coach, these men are thinking about the NBA in a big way. More attention means more resources, more success and perhaps eventually a move toward a one-to-one relationship across the league.

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With the hybrid model just four years old, this evolution is in its most nascent form. It sounds simple, though: Teams with single affiliations rave about them, the single affiliations offer said teams a wealth more development options, so why isn’t everyone jumping on board?

It’s far more complicated than that. The D-League swears by the fact that it’s the best path to the NBA, and for any player lacking name recognition, that’s true. Making the world realize that, though, is another story, and it’s only been in recent years that most of what D-League president Dan Reed calls the “basketball intelligentsia” has come around to that viewpoint. The league is still establishing itself, still convincing players that the tradeoffs between playing overseas and in small-town outposts in the U.S. are worth it. 

The average full-time D-League player makes between $15,000 and $25,000 a year, far less than he might make in Europe or China. (Attrition to Europe has fallen off, though, due to economic circumstances, whereas China has become a higher-paying and viable option.) That’s the No. 1 argument against a D-League career, the reason many players who fail to garner NBA interest at the D-League Showcase in early January will bolt overseas soon after. However, Reed says the league has bolstered its reputation to the point that players know that the right eyes are all too often trained on the D-League.

“You’re taking a little bit of a short-term financial sacrifice, but you’re investing in your future,” Reed said. “We’ve demonstrated very clearly that that investment pays off.”

There are still questions for players facing a future in the D-League, though. Players sign contracts with the league, not individual teams, and if a prior team doesn’t express interest, they can be drafted each year in a system which Timberwolves center and D-League veteran Chris Johnson likens to a fantasy draft. It’s a complete roll of the dice whether they’ll be picked by a team with a close affiliation – and thus more attention – or one like the Skyforce, where movement can be close to nil. 

The D-League simply isn’t far enough along in its development to be that one-to-one system just yet, and Reed cautions against the notion that expansion in the imminent future is the way to go. He knows the goal, 30 D-League teams, but he’s not ready to set that ball in motion just yet. 

Adding 10 teams a year, he says, is a recipe for disaster, and the league has to be measured in its approach, balancing its desire to move toward single affiliation with its ability to remain relevant and helpful for those teams that choose not to go in that direction – at least not yet. In addition, the league likes the model of being the team in a smaller community, which adds some structure to the expansion model, and it also must keep in mind that it needs to retain value while growing. Valuations of teams in the D-League have grown from the hundreds of thousands to the millions, and there’s no reason they can’t continue to get bigger even as the system evolves. Add all that to NBA teams’ uncertainty that the resources and organizational manpower they’d have to expend to enter into the single-affiliation model would be worth it, and there’s something of a roadblock toward that goal.

“Expansion is something we want to be cautious about,” Reed said. “We study every other league out there, both successful and failed, and one of the things that is key to a league’s success or failure is expansion and how they manage that process.”

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So many of the pieces essential for D-League growth are in place, and the fact that the system is seen by many as a prototype for a full minor league operation is promising in and of itself. There’s a bump in awareness thanks to bigger names being sent down and players such as Stiemsma and Johnson finding some NBA success, and personnel have moved up, too, like New Orleans GM Dell Demps, who was previously with the Toros, and Charlotte GM Rich Cho, who oversaw the 66ers. New ownership groups in the NBA, too, are often incorporating D-League involvement into their initial plans, and multiple-affiliation teams are actively marketing themselves to the NBA.

Looking at it one way, the options are endless. What if D-League salaries rose to the point at which players might purse the Brandon Jennings model of skipping college to play in Europe, except that they’d do their year in the D-League? What if teams were to be permitted to draft players out of high school if those players played their first season in the D-League? What if what the Knicks did with Stoudemire became commonplace, and smaller cities like Sioux Falls and Des Moines would be able to see the likes of Ricky Rubio and Derrick Rose, respectively, for routine rehab assignments? 

There are several years and several waves of expansion before any of those outcomes might become reality, and Reed says that the perfect 30-team system won’t be a reality in the next five years. Even then, it will still be a system unlike any other, with just one tier and in which many players know they’re unlikely to get a crack at the big time. It won’t be like Triple-A baseball, where nearly everyone thinks he might have a chance, especially when rosters expand, and there will always be that incongruous balance between trying to win and marketing oneself to the NBA.

This week, Santa Cruz and the Rio Grande Valley will face off in the D-League Finals. Few will watch, although games are televised on the CBS Sports Network (regular-season games are also shown live on YouTube), and few will care who wins. Few, that is, except the handful of players actually on those second-rate courts, playing for their futures.

When Chris Johnson arrived in Minneapolis in January, he was quick to point out that he never really allowed himself to imagine that his call-up would happen. “You’ll go crazy if you think about it,” he said. “You’ll go insane.” You just have to focus on winning where you are, he said, and as simplistic as it sounds, he’s probably right. To most players in the D-League, the system that Rajakovic calls “the future of the NBA” is just day-to-day life in makeshift locker rooms and close to empty arenas, on buses and in shoddy hotels. 

It’s a sacrifice, but one that’s rapidly evolving, and more and more, it can pay off in a big way.


Follow Joan Niesen on Twitter.