Winning lottery combinations, the weather, the apocalypse. They’re all difficult to predict. Sports, in general, are difficult unpredictable. It’s the old “on any given day, Team A can defeat Team B” way of thinking, and it’s one of the biggest reasons people love to watch sports and root for the underdog. But few leagues can rival the unpredictability of the NBA Development League. Trying to forecast how the D-League season will play out is like trying to predict what Lady Gaga is going to wear. There are so many extenuating circumstances that there’s just no way of knowing.
Unlike the NBA, where there are maybe five or six teams with a legitimate shot at the championship, the D-League title race is wide open and subject to change from week to week. Between call-ups, assignments, acquisitions, and departures, D-League rosters are consistently in flux, meaning the balance of power among the D-League’s 16 teams can shift rapidly and often over the course of the season.
That level of unpredictability is one reason to follow the D-League during the 2010-11 season, which tips off tomorrow night when the Rio Grande Valley Vipers host the Texas Legends. Click through the jump for nine more reasons to follow the D-League this year.
Back in August, I wrote a post titled “Five Nancy Lieberman Storylines for the 2010-11 Season.” The season is now upon us, and Lieberman remains one of—if not THE—biggest individual storyline in the D-League this season. She’s not just the first female coach; she’s also the first coach of the expansion Texas Legends, a team that boasts a training camp roster that includes four former NBA first-round picks in Reece Gaines, Sean Williams, Rashad McCants, and Antonio Daniels. She’ll be patrolling the sidelines on opening night, live on Versus, and she will be monitored throughout the season as much as any D-League coach has ever been monitored.To her credit, Lieberman does not seem to be worried about the spotlight. In an excellent must-read piece on the Legends by Rob Mahoney of The Two Man Game, Lieberman said, “This is so normal for me. It’s not normal for you. It’s normal for me. My guys in the office don’t walk around like I’m a chick coaching. We talk like we’re working together, hand-in-hand. We know the judgment. We know the expectation. We know it’s coming.”
Attending a D-League game in person is great if you live in a D-League city, but if you don’t reside near one of the sweet 16 and don’t want to take your winter vacation in Erie, Springfield, or Sioux Falls, FutureCast is the answer. Watch D-League games streamed live on your computer. And best of all, it’s free!
The “I Knew Him When” Factor
Have you ever listened to an unknown band at a local bar and thought to yourself, “Wow, they were awesome. I can’t believe they’re not playing in a sold-out arena,” then you go tell all your friends about this band that’s going to be the next big thing? The D-League is essentially the basketball equivalent to the indie bar scene. Sure, not every band/player is going to make it big, but when you see that player do his thing at the D-League level, it makes you appreciate him a lot more when he earns his NBA call-up, and you can say, “I knew him back when he was lighting it up in the D-League.”NBA teams used 40 call-ups on 27 different players last season, both record highs. Plus, the number of different players called up has increased in each of the past five seasons. If that trend continues this year, the total could near two call-ups per D-League team for the 2010-11 season.
The D-League is adopting FIBA-style goaltending rules, meaning the ball is in play when it is in the cylinder for offensive players to dunk it home or defensive players to swat it away. The D-League is also shortening overtime from five to three minutes. Both new rules should provide some interesting moments throughout the season, especially the goaltending rules, as many players will be experimenting with this new rule for the first time in their basketball lives. I wrote more about the two new rules back in September.
NBA Talent on Display
The season hasn’t even begin yet, and the NBA has already shown that its teams are buying into the developmental potential of the D-League more and more. Three players have been assigned to the D-League already this season and should be in uniform to start the D-League season. Patrick Patterson of the Houston Rockets will be on the floor opening night for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. Soloman Alabi of the Toronto Raptors will suit up for the Erie BayHawks when they host Springfield in their season opener Friday night. And Phoenix Suns forward Gani Lawal will be with the Iowa Energy when they open the season Friday on the road against the Dakota Wizards.
There are numerous D-League players worthy of watching this season, but the spotlight will once again be on Latavious Williams of the Tulsa 66ers, who made history last year as the first player to go straight from high school to the D-League and then be drafted by the NBA. Williams was selected in the second round of June’s NBA Draft by the Miami Heat and then acquired by Oklahoma City, parent club of the 66ers. The Thunder will continue to monitor Williams’ development this season as he factors in to a very talented 66ers lineup.
Three All-D-League Performers Return
A few of the players from last season’s All-D-League Teams are currently in the NBA, including Reggie Williams, Cartier Martin, Earl Barron. Others are currently playing overseas or out of work, but at least three players that earned All-D-League status are back at it to start the 2010-11 season. Curtis Stinson returns to the Iowa Energy. Larry Owens is back with the Tulsa 66ers. And, after an eventful past few months, Mustafa Shakur is with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers after splitting time last year between Tulsa in the D-League and Oklahoma City in the NBA.
In the short time that I’ve covered the D-League (I first launched Blog Talk BayHawk in April of 2009), coverage of the D-League has grown quite a bit. No, every blog isn’t created equally, but it’s great to see the number of D-League-team-themed blogs that have been launched within the past few months. As the stable of people writing about the D-League grows, I hope the readership and interest grows as well. Kudos to everyone out there taking the time to contribute. Check the top of the blogroll on the left of the page for links to specific D-League flavored coverage.
Rio Grande Valley Tries to Repeat as Champion
Only once in the history of the D-League has a franchise repeated as champions. The Asheville Altitude won the title in the 2003-04 and 2004-05 seasons. Since roster turnover is so high, it was hardly a title defense in the same way the Lakers did last season. Only four Altitude players suited up during both championship seasons and not a single player played appeared in more than 23 games for both teams.The Vipers face a similar challenge this season. 2009-10 D-League MVP Mike Harris and 3rd-Team All-D-League guard Antonio Anderson are expected to participate in a banner-raising ceremony prior tot the season opener, but neither player is on the team to start the journey toward a repeat. As for the rest of the starting lineup from the Vipers final game last season? Jonathan Wallace is playing in Germany, Will Conroy is in China, and Julian Sensley is in Greece. As the roster stands now (with one cut left to be made), the only returning Vipers are Stanley Asumnu and Mickell Gladness, who averaged 18.9 minutes and 12.8 minutes per game for RGV last season.
Rio Grande Valley is ranked 8th in Matthew Brennan’s initial D-League Power Rankings. The 2010-11 Vipers will begin the year with Rockets assignee Patrick Patterson in the paint and Mustafa Shakur at the point. In two preseason games, the Vipers defeated the four-time defending champions of Liga Nacional de Baloncesto Professional in Mexico, los Halcones Universidad Veracruzana en Xalapa by a score of 118-116 and lost to the Iowa Energy 112-92. The bottom line is it won’t be easy for the Vipers to repeat as champions, but if they do it, it will be with a mostly new cast of characters.
So, now that I’ve established the premise that unpredictability is just one of the many reasons to follow the D-League this season, it’s time to do the impossible/impractical and predict the 2011 D-League championship.
My prediction: Tulsa vs. Fort Wayne in the finals with the 66ers riding the strong support of the Thunder en route to winning the title.