Grading NBA Teams’ Usage of the D-League: Southwest Division

This is part five of our six-part series grading all 30 NBA teams on their usage of the D-League. We’ve already graded the Pacific, Atlantic, Northwest, and Southeast divisions. If you missed the original post and are unfamiliar with the genesis of this idea or want a full, detailed explanation of how the grades were determined, read the introduction of this post.

Otherwise, here’s the quick and dirty recap of how we graded: Bloggers were asked to consider quantity and quality of each team’s assignments and call-ups, ownership and communication with the D-League affiliate, and any other factors that contribute to effective usage of the D-League. For each team, I took the TrueHoop Network team blogger’s grade (THN), Matt Moore’s grade (MM), Ridiculous Upside’s grade (RU), and my grade (MH), and calculated a final GPA.

With that in mind, here are the grades and rationales for the teams of the Southwest Division:

Dallas Mavericks LogoDallas Mavericks: 2.54 GPA
High Grade: A (MM)
Low Grade: C- (MH)
Players Assigned: 8 (0 in last two years)
Players Called Up: 0

THN’s Take (by Rob Mahoney, The Two Man Game): I’d like to give an incomplete, but if forced I’ll say C+/B-. The Mavs haven’t been consistent in their utilization of the D-League, but they do have a few things going for them. The most notable Maverick assignment was J.J. Barea’s trip down in 2007, when he somewhat famously set the D ablaze as a member of the now-defunct Fort Worth Flyers. Barea dropped back-to-back 40+ point games as a Flyer, and his thoroughly dominant performance over a seven-game stretch led to a quick call-up.

However, aside from Barea’s stint, the Mavs haven’t really reaped the full benefits of the D-League. Donnie Nelson strongly considered calling up Kelenna Azubuike before he joined the Golden State Warriors. Dallas assigned Pops Mensah-Bonsu to Fort Worth, but never saw him become a rotation player on the mothership team. First round pick Maurice Ager spent time with the Flyers as well, but nothing ever came of his time there. The Mavs worked out Dwayne Jones late last season, but decided not to sign him. They brought in former D-Leaguer Von Wafer on a 10-day contract last season, but let him go. There’s a lot of dabbling going on, but only recently have the Mavs had their D-League watershed moment.

Donnie Nelson’s decision to purchase and move the Colorado 14ers to Frisco, Texas, will significantly alter the way the Mavs interact with the D-League. Nelson, Mark Cuban, and Rick Carlisle all seem to have high hopes for the curiously named Texas Legends, even if Nancy Lieberman, Del Harris, Spud Webb, and the Legends staff have yet to even assemble any semblance of a roster. Even without players, the endeavor seeps with optimism.

The Mavs have done more than some teams, but—if you’ll excuse the Carpenters-ism—they’ve only just begun. Affiliate ownership is a huge step, but we’ll have to see how the Mavericks use that ownership to their advantage before handing out any kind of conclusive grade.

Matt Moore’s Explanation: Jose Juan Barrea alone is worth a little bump, but point blank, you buy a team, you get an A from me. Simple.

Final Assessment: Say what you want about Mark Cuban, but the man is a pretty shrewd businessman. So it should come as no surprise that he didn’t want to continue to ride the coattails of division and in-state rivals Houston and San Antonio when it comes to D-League usage. It’s too early to bump their grade up high just yet, but the Mavericks appear to be moving in the right direction. General manager Donnie Nelson bought the former Colorado 14ers and moved them to Frisco, Texas. The Texas Legends will play less than 30 miles away from the Mavs, closer than any affiliate in the league. If they use that proximity to their advantage, it shouldn’t take long before they make a move toward the head of the class. But factoring in their lackluster past usage, I can’t give them higher than a C-.

Houston Rockets LogoHouston Rockets: 4.00 GPA^
High Grade: A+ (MM)
Low Grade: A- (RU)
Players Assigned: 7 (4 in last two years)
Players Called Up: 11 (7 in last two years)

THN’s Take (by Rahat Huq, Red94): I would give the Rockets an A. For a comprehensive rationale, check out this post, “Discerning Morey’s Philosophy – Part 4.”

Matt Moore’s Explanation: Manages to get good talent, develop players that aren’t just contributors, but starters (heya, Brooks), and does it using the hybrid system to save costs. What, is this a question?

Final Assessment: As the only team to earns a perfect 4.00 GPA (with a boost from Matt Moore’s A+), the Rockets are clearly a model franchise. Read the link above from Red94.net. The point is, Rockets general manager Daryl Morey is one of the brightest minds in basketball. The man knows how to bring in talent and build a team. His commitment to using the D-League is one of the reasons why Houston is at least a step ahead of almost every team in the league. Last year, they became the first franchise to utilize a direct single-affiliation partnership (with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers), which gives them control over all the basketball operations of RGV while letting the Vipers handle the business side of things running a D-League organization. Assignments, call-ups, innovative use of the affiliation system—the Rockets do it all very well.

Memphis Grizzlies LogoMemphis Grizzlies: 2.11 GPA*
High Grade: B- (MH, RU)
Low Grade: D (MM)
Players Assigned: 6 (3 in last two years)
Players Called Up: 3 (0 in last two years)

Matt Moore’s Explanation: “But they sent Thabeet!” Yeah, for a whole ten days. Instead of using it before, instead of bringing in value players during losing seasons, instead of marginalizing the league like they marginalized their roster most years… maybe they could have done some things better.

Final Assessment: The Grizzlies made the most high-profile move of the D-League season last year when they assigned Hasheem Thabeet to the Dakota Wizards. As the number two overall pick in the 2009 draft, Thabeet was the highest-drafted player ever assigned to the D-League. Unfortunately, too many people outside of the D-League saw this move as a demotion or a knock on Thabeet rather than a smart move by Memphis, investing in long-term player development. Because that stigma still exists, Memphis didn’t keep Thabeet in the D-League long enough, but they deserve some credit for making the move in the first place. Other teams should follow suit in the future with rookies who aren’t seeing playing time at the NBA level.

New Orleans HornetsNew Orleans Hornets: 0.50 GPA
High Grade: C (MM)
Low Grade: F (MH, RU, THN)
Players Assigned: 3 (0 in last two years)
Players Called Up: 3 (1 in last two years)

THN’s Take (by Ryan Schwan, Hornets247): The Hornets are easy, an F. The only time I can remember the Hornets using the D-League was to send Marcus Vinicius there for about two weeks back in 2006-2007. They may have sent Adam Haluska down once, but I’m not sure about that.

The team has never drawn on the talent in the D-League either, preferring old marginal veterans to young development projects over the past few years.

Now, that may change in the near future. The Hornets are now run by Dell Demps, who served as the GM for the Toros.  I would be surprised if the Hornets didn’t try to make a little more use of the NBADL in the future.

Matt Moore’s Explanation: I give them a C. It was an F until Demps took over. Then he gets hired and they sign Mustafa Shakur. Three more months and that’s a B.

Final Assessment: The Hornets almost received a unanimous F from our panel of graders, but Matt Moore graded on a curve by factoring in the future of the Hornets. Indeed, the Hornets appear to be a new player in the D-League game with Dell Demps running the show, as evidenced by the signing of Mustafa Shakur. That said, they’ve been among the worst historically using the D-League with a total of just six combined assignments and call-ups and just one in the past two seasons. Their past D-League usage is bleak, but they are trending upward.

San Antonio SpursSan Antonio Spurs: 3.92 GPA^
High Grade: A+ (MM)
Low Grade: B+ (THN)
Players Assigned: 11 (8 in last two years)
Players Called Up: 18 (8 in last two years)

THN’s Take (by Andrew McNeill, 48 Minutes of Hell)

The Austin Toros are viewed in some circles as the D-League’s model franchise. Though the Toros have yet to win a D-League Championship, they’re contenders year-after-year. Austin consistently develops NBA-caliber talent, and this summer, Toros head coach Quin Snyder joined the Philadelphia 76ers as an assistant coach on Doug Collins’ staff, and general manager Dell Demps took the GM post for the New Orleans Hornets.

So why, then, did they receive a grade of B+ from me?

Because the San Antonio Spurs barely reaped the benefits of the work done in Austin. As mentioned previously, Snyder and Demps both left before similar options presented themselves in San Antonio. Although, to be fair, Demps did serve as the Spurs’ Vice President of Basketball Operations in addition to his duties as Toros GM.

The player side of things has been just as promising, yet disappointing. Ian Mahinmi was a D-League All-Star in Austin, but failed to scale his ability up to the big time. He was injured for a large portion of his first full-time season with the Spurs. In his second, the Spurs declined to pick up the team option on his rookie contract at the beginning of the season and Mahinmi never earned consistent playing time. This summer, he signed a bargain free agent deal with the  in-state rival Dallas Mavericks.

Malik Hairston also developed his talent in the D-League and made little impact in San Antonio. A power forward at the University of Oregon, the second round pick in the 2008 NBA Draft converted himself to a wing in Austin. Last season he bounced back-and-forth between San Antonio and the Toros, making a positive impact in his minutes for both sides. He looked primed for a role with San Antonio in the playoffs, but a sprained ankle late in the season ended his year. Many expected Hairston to have a spot in the Spurs rotation this coming season, including us, and then he signed a two year contract to play in Italy.

Alonzo Gee is the next great Austin hope for Spurs fans. He was named the D-League Rookie of the Year last season for the Toros and was called up for two 10-day contracts by the Washington Wizards. The Wizards declined to sign Gee for the remainder of the season and the Spurs swooped in and made sure he wouldn’t leave the system again any time soon, signing him to a contract for the remainder of the season and a second, unguaranteed year for 2010-11. Gee still has another year of D-League eligibility left, and if he becomes a rotation player for the Spurs in the next two seasons, my grade immediately jumps to an A.

Matt Moore’s Explanation: A+. Best D-League franchise. Best use of a D-League franchise. Best rosters. Best talent. Best coaching. Win.

Final Assessment: The Spurs are one of the best-run organizations in sports. Despite being in a small market, San Antonio has found a way to be competitive year-in and year-out by making smart personnel decisions and getting great value out of their draft picks (lucking into David Robinson AND Tim Duncan at number one didn’t hurt either). As Andrew McNeill wrote above, they have had some trouble reaping the benefits of their D-League investment, but there’s no denying the investment. The Toros have produced a number of quality prospects on the court—plus the likes of Demps and Snyder off it. When it comes to using the D-League as a developmental tool, the Spurs get it. Simple as that.

^Matt Moore went off the charts with a pair of A+ grades. They were weighted at 4.33 on the 4.0 scale, which explains the grades for Houston and San Antonio.

*TrueHoop Network blog 3 Shades of Blue did not respond to inquires to provide a grade, so the Grizzlies’ GPA was based on just three grades.

How would you grade the Southwest Division teams’ usage of the D-League? Let us know in the comments below. And be sure to check back for grades of the other NBA teams in the upcoming days.

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