Aside from, you know, making money, the two main objectives of any D-League franchise are (or at least should be) to win games and develop players for the NBA. It seems like a Catch 22 scenario. You want your players to be as good as they can be to help you win games, but if they progress to a certain point, they get called up to the NBA, leaving you with an empty spot on your roster and a gaping hole in production to fill. It would follow that the more players you have being called up into the NBA, the more depleted your roster becomes, and the more you start to struggle and lose games as a D-League franchise.
The Rio Grande Valley Vipers are the antithesis of that reasoning. With the announcement that Kenny Hasbrouck has been called up from the Vipers by the Miami Heat, Rio Grande Valley set a record for the most unique call-ups in a season with nine. In all, five different Vipers players have received the call-up to the NBA this season. Idaho is the next closest franchise with four unique call-ups (of three different players) this season.
Logic says that the Vipers should be struggling this season or, at best, hanging around the .500 mark and battling for a playoff berth. Of course, anyone who has been following the D-League knows that the Vipers aren’t struggling at all. In fact, the Vipers (30-12) currently hold a four-game lead on Austin for the best record in the West Conference and trail Iowa by just a game and a half for the best overall record in the D-League.
They’ve won seven of their last 10 games, including their last two in a row. Even more impressively, they haven’t lost more than two games in a row all season long. None of the five Vipers who have earned a call-up this season (Antonio Anderson, Will Conroy, Mike Harris, Kenny Hasbrouck, and Garrett Temple) have played in more than 76 percent of the team’s games this season. Still, RGV just continues to find ways to win regardless of which five bodies are on the court in a Vipers uniform.
There must be something special about Rio Grande Valley, and there is. The Vipers’ NBA affiliate is the Houston Rockets, and their relationship is unique among all the other NBA/D-League franchise partnerships. The Rockets and Vipers have a hybrid affiliation model where the Rockets do not own the Vipers but do have full control over basketball operations.
I don’t have information on how the hybrid model is working from a financial perspective, but it’s been very successful from a strictly basketball perspective. The Vipers are producing NBA players—four of their call-ups have gone to the Rockets—and the pipeline has worked the other way as well. Joey Dorsey spent 16 games with the Vipers earlier season on assignment from Houston, and just yesterday, Rockets guard Jermaine Taylor was assigned to the Vipers for the second time after previously spending a six-game stint with Rio Grande Valley.
Along with the Golden State Warriors, who have been putting together what amounts to a D-League All-Star team this season, the Rockets are as D-League friendly of an NBA franchise as there is. In addition to assigning Dorsey and Taylor this season, the Rockets’ roster also features D-League alumni in Aaron Brooks (a former Viper) and Chuck Hayes. Both players have started all 65 games for the team this season. Despite not having Yao Ming, they’re currently 34-31, just five games back of the eighth seed in the West. B rooks averages 20 points and 5.2 assists per game while Hayes does all the dirty work as a scrappy, physical, undersized, overachieving power forward.
With the recent surge of call-ups, it’s not out of the question that the Vipers haven’t heard the last from the NBA just yet. Current Vipers Will Conroy and Mike Harris both put their talents on display on Sunday in a 106-101 comeback victory over Tulsa. Harris had 36 points and 18 rebounds. Conroy added 15 points and 15 assists. They would be the most likely Vipers if another call-up is in the cards.
Whether Harris, Conroy, or any of their other call-ups are on the roster come playoff time remains to be seen. But regardless of who is on the roster, this season has proven that Rio Grande Valley is a first-rate franchise and that the Rockets know how to run an organization and develop talent.
Christopher Finch and the Vipers coaching staff also deserve a lot of credit for working through all of the obstacles and shifting lineups accordingly. Every night they size up their roster against the opponent, and most nights they put their players and team in the positions they need to be in order to succeed. The Vipers-Rockets hybrid affiliation shows what is possible when the D-League is done right—individual and organizational success. With that in mind, there are two things to count on down the stretch of the season. One, Rio Grande Valley will be a very tough out in the playoffs. And two, Vipers players will continue to earn opportunities to contribute at the NBA level.