With less than two weeks to go before the end of the regular season, the D-League playoff push is officially in full swing. Three teams have clinched playoff berths, and only four teams have been eliminated from playoff contention. That means there are 10 teams vying for the final five playoff spots as the season comes to a close (current standings). But the D-League playoff push is affected by more than just which teams are or are not playing well because it occurs at the same time that the regular season is winding down for all the NBA franchises that will not be qualifying for postseason play.
This is traditionally the time of year when lottery-bound NBA teams look to the D-League. Some teams need to fill spots opened by injured players while others are looking ahead and thinking about D-Leaguers as potential Summer League roster players. Whatever the reason, call-ups in late March and early April are inevitable. The effect of these particular call-ups on the outcome of the NBA season—at least this year’s NBA season—is negligible, but the impact felt in the D-League can be significant.
Naturally, many of the top D-League’s top NBA prospects double as key contributors to their respective D-League franchises. Therefore their call-up to the NBA also serves as a blow to the D-League team they are departing, especially as they are preparing for the playoffs. It’s a situation that is particular to minor league sports. At any other level, winning the championship is the ultimate goal. D-League franchises still cater to their fans and strive to make that happen as best as possible, but the dilemma comes in on the player side.
Given the option of competing for a D-League title or competing for a contract via a 10-day on-the-job “tryout” for an NBA team, I think most players would choose the latter. And it’s hard to blame them. Ultimately, the dream remains to play in the NBA. The D-League is a path to get to The League, and it’s a path that is proving to be increasingly effective as more and more teams invest in it and recognize its value.
Although some D-League teams will lose key players prior to the postseason, other teams will likely benefit. In the past few seasons, it has become a popular move for NBA franchises, especially those teams who are in the playoff hunt, to assign young players to the D-League specifically for the playoff run. Rather than spending NBA games in street clothes or earning DNP-CDs for the stretch run, players can benefit from playing meaningful minutes in games of increased magnitude during the D-League playoffs.
Whether it’s March Madness, the NBA playoffs, or the D-League playoffs, everyone knows the intensity level goes up a notch when elimination hangs in the balance. That sense of finality affects people in different ways, and it’s a good opportunity for teams to evaluate their young talent under different circumstances.
As we approach the final 10 days of the 2012-13 D-League season, several teams are still jockeying for playoff position. Sioux Falls holds the seventh spot at 23-21, and Fort Wayne is 8th at 23-22. They are closely followed by Erie (23-22) and Maine (24-23). If you’re a fan of one of these teams, one call-up or assignee could be the difference between qualifying for the playoffs or starting the offseason early. It’s all part of the D-League experience.