D-Fenders turn over control to new coach Mark Madsen

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – When Mark Madsen played for the Lakers from 2000-03, there was no D-League. A minor league in basketball was essentially nonexistent, at least in an official sense, and for a player like the 6-foot-9 role player, reps could be hard to come by.

Some days, as a bench player on a championship team, he’d get them in 3-on-3. Other days, he’d be lucky enough to get in on a 5-on-5 drill with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. But when Madsen’s minutes failed to increase much in his second and third seasons, there was nowhere for him to go to stay active or refine his skills.

Looking back, he realizes the disadvantage this presented.

Now, though, a decade after Madsen left Los Angeles with a legacy dominated by awkwardly endearing post-championship dance moves rather than on-court play, there is an option for players of his ilk who struggle for minutes and need to devlop. It’s the D-League, and in the case of the Lakers, the D-Fenders, and four years after Madsen’s retirement, the franchise has been placed in his hands.

At the Tuesday press conference in which he was introduced as the D-Fenders’ new coach, replacing Reggie Theus, Madsen said he can already relate to his players, even though the roster is nowhere near finalized. No matter who eventually suits up next season – and the roster will be both large and fluid – Madsen will have an idea of what his players are going through. He’ll know how hard they want to make it and how important it is for them to get in their reps, albeit at a level lower than they might ultimately hope for.

“I already feel connected to the players,” Madsen said of his career experience. “I can relate to their journey.”

In his new role, Madsen will have to balance the responsibilities of attempting to build a winning team while developing players to be called up to the NBA. Especially next season, when the Lakers roster could be something of a work in progress, the coach’s role as a talent developer will be crucial, and in addition, he’ll have to constantly scour the lower levels of basketball for the next prospect.

In his season as a D-League assistant coach with the Utah Flash (now the Delaware 87ers), Madsen learned all about monitoring the waiver wires and scouring free agent boards for players to be snatched up from overseas. He also learned the converse, when a Flash first-round pick was poached by a Chinese team and never played a game in uniform. That’s how the D-League works, everyone on to the next, best opportunity, with no regard for tenure or permanence.

It can be hard to keep a roster intact, much less to balance the needs of the big league’s with one’s own attempts to win.

Madsen, though, has several things working to his advantage. There’s the rise of the D-League in prominence over recent seasons and its move toward ownership models with direct relationships to NBA teams. That’s what the D-Fenders boast, along with the ability for players to play near stars like Bryant and perhaps Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol. Under that model, Madsen will work closely with Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni, and like other teams built along the model of the D-Fenders, Madsen will use the NBA team’s playbook and system.

For his part, Madsen said he’s wanted to coach since he read John Wooden’s book, “They Call Me Coach,” as a kid. He combs through advanced stats, admits to thinking about plays as he falls asleep at night (some nights, he clarified, not all) and has kept every playbook but one he’s ever received. There are the connections, too, from Phil Jackson to Kevin McHale to Flip Saunders, all major names in the NBA who have informed Madsen’s career and can also now serve as resources. It’s a lot to bring to the table, but with a resume like his and a network of connections so prominent, it’s impossible not to surmise that this isn’t Madsen’s ultimate goal.

And it’s not. He’ll admit it: His goal is the NBA, and after getting his MBA while serving as an assistant coach at Stanford, Madsen decided the D-League was the next step in that path. For now, it’s all about the D-Fenders, of course, but even in that singular focus, Madsen can’t help but see that his job now is connected to the job he eventually wants. He’s already been looking at the D-League’s website, he said, counting the players in the NBA with experience in the lower league. The number is greater than 150.

“You take those … players with D-League experience, and you interpolate their salaries, and there are hundreds of millions of dollars in (salaries of) current NBA players that were developed or have some aspect of their development in the D-League,” Madsen said. “That says a lot about the D-League, and it says a lot about the NBA.”

Mark Madsen is back, with vague promises of dancing and a clear-cut picture of what he needs to achieve in his new role. For the Lakers, a team that has never been known to build through the draft but that could have huge roster holes in 2013-14, Madsen might play a larger role than his title and the relative obscurity of the team he’s leading might suggest. He’s part of a larger infrastructure, one with perhaps the most inherent pressure in the NBA and the expectations to match.

And so he’ll reminisce about the time he pulled up to the team’s facilities in 2000, wearing khaki pants and driving a minivan. He’ll joke about how Shaq tried to make over his image, and he’ll drop names and inspirational quotes from the biggest names in the game. Sounds like a bit much, one might think, for the D-League, but that’s far from the truth.

Madsen’s career – how much he did with how little, and the precise role he played – will inform what he does with the D-Fenders, as will his connections. As the minor league system in the NBA becomes more integrated, he’s poised himself well to not only help the Lakers, but benefit from it as well.