The D-League’s expansion question
Let’s start with the part where I say things you probably already know just to make sure we’re on the same page: The NBA D-League currently has 16 teams, and a 17th will begin play next season in Frisco, Texas. Each D-League team is affiliated with at least one and in most cases multiple NBA teams. Conversely, each of the 30 NBA teams has one D-League affiliate, most of which are shared. Three NBA teams (Los Angeles, San Antonio and Oklahoma City) own their own D-League affiliates (Los Angeles, Austin and Tulsa respectively), and one NBA team (Houston) uses a hybrid model in which it does not own its D-League team (Rio Grande Valley) but controls its basketball operations, which brings us to a total of four instances of single-affiliate teams playing in 2009-10.
It’s hard to miss the value of the single-affiliate set-up. NBA organizations in such arrangements can tailor their D-League teams to develop players specifically to fit their systems.
“They have a tremendous amount of resources,” said Chris Alpert, the D-League’s Vice President of Basketball Operations and Player Personnel. “They hire the coaches. They make all the player personnel decisions. A lot of times they’re running the systems the parent club runs. When Mike Harris was called up, he basically knew all the plays that the Rockets were running. It was just a seamless transition for him.”
Alpert also pointed out the value of a single affiliate when it comes to assigning players on NBA contracts to the D-League.
“When they assign those players, they’re not sharing that team with anyone else,” he said. “The player doesn’t have to share the minutes with any other potential assignments. They have full control over that player’s development. They control the minutes. They control the coaches that he’s working with, and I think that’s a tremendous advantage for NBA teams.”
Alpert made no secret of the fact that reaching 30 teams and a one-to-one ratio with NBA teams is a goal for the D-League. The idea of having players familiar with the big-league system by the time they reach the Association (as they are in baseball, where organizations manage their talent through four levels of minor league ball) means having players more prepared to contribute right away, which is especially valuable in an NBA where busy travel and game schedules often render teams without practice for extended periods. This would likely make the D-League an even more appealing place for NBA teams to look to fill open roster spots than it already is. All of this makes sense.
But there’s a concern on the flip side of D-League expansion, as voiced last week by Maine Red Claws President Jon Jennings: talent dilution.
“I don’t think the player pool is big enough for teams to have a one-to-one affiliate,” Jennings said. “I think this league needs to expand very, very gradually, if at all, because you don’t want to water the talent down to a point where it’s just bad basketball. If it’s watered down, then I don’t believe we’re the best [basketball in the world outside the NBA].”
Look down the bench of each D-League team right now and decide how many of those players you think have decent shots at even an eventual cup of coffee in the NBA. Then consider that reaching a one-to-one affiliate ratio would involve nearly doubling the D-League’s current player pool. This stems a legitimate question: Does D-League expansion come with considerable risk of damaging the on-court product?
League brass insists it doesn’t. At last week’s Showcase in Boise, President Dan Reed said not only has expansion not diluted talent, but the opposite has been true: player personnel quality has improved.
“I think the reason for that is it’s coincided with our players seeing success in the NBA, which has made the demand for top players to play in our league go up,” Reed said. “A big reason why players choose to play in our league is about exposure to the NBA. We’re the most heavily scouted league in the world. With additional teams, there are additional roster spots, additional starting positions, more minutes. Players thrive on minutes and possessions and opportunities to shine. So expansion in many ways creates more slots to get that exposure that they want to make it to the NBA. As we’ve grown our league, we’ve increased our share of top basketball players in the world as those who might have been playing elsewhere have increasingly chosen to play with us.”
The league will be relying heavily on international players and former NCAA student-athletes who would have otherwise gone overseas after their collegiate careers ended opting for the D-League as its prominence grows, especially if it wants to maintain legitimacy of its tag line of offering the best basketball in the world outside the NBA.
Not only does Jennings worry that there won’t be enough of those players to go around, but he isn’t sure the system already in place is a problem. While acknowledging that three NBA affiliates may be too many for one D-League team, Jennings noted the Claws love how their arrangement with the Celtics and Bobcats is working out. He also isn’t having any of the belief that a one-to-one system would lead to more NBA teams placing higher value on the D-League.
“I don’t really buy it,” he said. “You’re going to have to show value to the NBA teams who may not believe in it in order for them to buy in.”
The belief from the league office remains that increased prominence of the D-League will lead to greater wealth of competent prospects. One in five active NBA players has D-League experience on his resume. The D-League recently inked a deal with Versus that will include telecasts of 10 regular season games and six playoff contests this season.
“I don’t think we’ll come to a point where even if we have 30 teams, where there will be that much of a fall off when it comes to the talent level,” Alpert said. “There are a lot of prospects out there. As the league continues to grow, more and more of those players will stay here in the states and stay close to the NBA.”
I see both sides of the discussion. The idea of vertical integration of team philosophy down to the D-League level makes a lot of sense to me, and talking to team personnel from Los Angeles, Houston and Rio Grande Valley last week reinforced that. Brian Michael Cooper and Alex Del Barrio of the Vipers’ front office raved about what it has meant to have Daryl Morey and his staff in Houston collaborating with GM Gerson Rosas on the basketball operations side.Morey praised the development of the D-League and mentioned his hope that teams will eventually retain rights to all the players on their minor league affiliates. I expect that will be a caveat of further expansion down the road as it’s a key to confirming the value of installing pro systems at the minor league level (currently, any NBA team can sign any D-League player not on assignment from an NBA team).
However, I also wonder just how many players in the D-League have the ability to play at the NBA level and whether the increased appeal of playing in the D-League over the next decade (two decades?) will be enough to cover a nearly 100 percent jump in player populace.
But while I’m on the fence about whether high-volume expansion would hurt the D-League from a fan watchability standpoint (yes, I made that word up), if the goal here is really to develop players for the NBA, the risk seems worth it: The earlier players become acclimated to the NBA systems that they will be playing in should they be called up, the better they will perform once they reach the next level. It stands to reason that a one-to-one affiliate ratio would make the cream of the D-League crop more prepared to step in and contribute in the Association, and that’s the primary goal here.
On the buy-or-sell expansion front, count me as a buyer but with a nod to Jon Jennings’ hope that the league expands judiciously.