NBA D-League deserves credit for proactive approach to expansion

Updated: February 11, 2017

I’m a pessimist by nature.

Having covered the NBA D-League for four seasons now, it seems it’s easier to err on the side of cynicism, given the league’s propensity to make questionable decisions (see Facebook Live, moving Showcase to Canada but only use one court, general lack of transparency) over sound ones.

But I have to give credit when it’s due to the D-League and its front office when it comes to the latest round of expansion.

With the Milwaukee Bucks’ announcement on Wednesday, the NBADL will tip-off with a record 25 teams for the 2017-18 season. It’s no longer a matter of if, but when the league will hit the 30 mark with a full one-to-one relationship with the NBA.

The Bucks will own and operate their own D-League franchise in Oshkosh, WI, after much deliberation between the host city, Sheboygan, and Racine. The decision came shortly after the city council approved funds to build a new 3,500-seat arena to host the newest D-League affiliate.

Along with Milwaukee, the Orlando Magic will open up shop in Lakeland, FL next year, while the Memphis Grizzlies will do the same in Southaven, MS after the Minnesota Timberwolves announced their intention to purchase Memphis’ current NBADL affiliate, the Iowa Energy.

And though the Atlanta Hawks announced their plans to open up D-League shop for the 2019-20 season in College Park, GA, they will take over operations in Erie for two seasons before moving the franchise as well.

So Erie gets a temporary reprieve from the clutches of expansion that have dealt a deadly hand to cities such as Bismarck, Boise and Bakersfield most recently. The Iowa Energy, celebrating their 10th anniversary this season, also have found a solution to the expansion bug with the Timberwolves purchase.

According to a source, the team plans to sign a long-term extension with the Wells Fargo Arena once the sale goes through to ensure the team stays put in Des Moines.

These recent moves are significant for a number of reasons. First, when it comes to expansion, the D-League song-and-dance would normally have these types of announcements happen officially at the end of the current season so as not to disrupt the team’s current plans. All of the former cities mentioned that were victims of franchise relocation had announcements that either came at the very end of the season, or shortly after the conclusion of the season, catching many fans off-guard in most cases.

Instead, this year the D-League is, in essence, taking care of some of its long-lasting franchises by working out any sort of affiliation issues that might arise while maintaining the road map to 30 teams.

The Timberwolves, for example, originally had put D-League feelers out in Rochester, MN to see the viability of the city hosting a potential D-League franchise. Nothing came of those plans and now the team will take over operations in Des Moines.

This declaration mid-season is also important because it bodes well for a franchise like the Sioux Falls Skyforce.

Arguably the most successful franchise in the history of minor league basketball history, the Skyforce have survived nearly 30 years through three different leagues including the CBA, IBL, and the NBA D-League. They are the last of the CBA teams that originally merged with the NBADL alongside the Dakota Wizards, and Idaho Stampede.

The team is an incredible draw in the Sioux Falls market and has found nothing but success since teaming up with the Miami Heat as a one-to-one affiliate. Last season, the team set a D-League regular season record for most wins (40).

The Skyforce are an incredible story in their own right, and really the last bit of basketball history left in the NBADL that spans three decades. No other team comes close to that level of historical pride that comes with the Skyforce. Sure, the Santa Cruz Warriors and the Salt Lake City Stars are evolved versions of the Dakota Wizards and Idaho Stampede, but that’s hitting the reset button on history. There’s no reset button for the Skyforce if they fall victim to relocation.

At the recent Memphis Grizzlies press conference to announce their own franchise for 2017-18, the hot ticket word used by D-League President Malcolm Turner was proximity. That distance between NBA and D-League team has been reduced drastically over the last five years, given the need to have affiliates closer to NBA teams to reduce travel time and work more efficiently between both sets of basketball operations.

But, once again, the Skyforce (and the Miami Heat for that matter), reject the premise that proximity matters. The Heat have defied all logic that dictates proximity matters. The Heat are the furthest team from their affiliate (1.824 miles), yet continue to develop players most others don’t see value in.

Look at their current roster and you’ll find guys like Tyler Johnson, 13-0karo White, and Rodney McGruder, all that came by way of Sioux Falls. Miami currently has nine players on their active roster with previous D-League experience. They even gave Briante Weber a cup of coffee late last season during their post-season run.

While proximity rings true in most cases, perhaps Sioux Falls is anti-proximity and that’s the way the Heat prefer it. As Weber so eloquently put in a pre-season Q&A with the Skyforce, “There’s nothing else going on out there,” giving players ample time to work on their craft, distraction free.

If you had asked me at the beginning of the season if I thought the Skyforce would stay put, I would’ve have responded with an emphatic no. Now, I’m cautiously optimistic and building a small condo on Skyforce Island, hoping the team does stay put. Otherwise it would be a mark against the D-League for losing out on such an important team in not just D-League history, but minor league basketball history.

There are only five teams in need of a NBADL team of their own; Nuggets, Trail Blazers, Wizards, Clippers, Pelicans. The Clippers are looking to open a D-League team in Southern California as early as the 2018-19 season, while Wizards owner Ted Leonsis has gone on record stating their D-League team would play at the team’s new sporting complex.

That leaves New Orleans, Denver, and Portland in the mix. The closest of those teams? Denver. Is it a coincidence Denver is assigning their players to Sioux Falls this season? Could this be some sort of dry run before the teams decide to make their own moves on the NBADL front. According to a league source, the Nuggets are scheduled to meet with NBA D-League officials next month to discuss their future expansion plans with a slight possibility the team could open up shop for the 2017-18 season.

Given President Turner’s use of the word proximity, it’s more than likely the Heat will open up shop in Florida, a la the Orlando Magic and their D-League affiliate in Lakeland, FL to help create a new Southeast division with the Pelicans on-board as well in the near future.

Who deserves credit for the league’s recent change in its expansion approach? According to multiple league sources, Vice President of Operations Tommy Smith has been instrumental in the league’s fundamental change in its expansion practices.’

While it certainly was disheartening to see other teams depart for closer locales to their NBA parent clubs, the departure of the Skyforce would leave a permanent black eye on the D-League front office in place of what used to be cherished, basketball history.

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