D-Fenders on Track for a Truly Remarkable Season
We’re roughly three quarters of the way through the NBA D-League season, and the LA D-Fenders have been at the top of the league for most of it, currently holding a 28-10 record. Los Angeles had a pedestrian record last season, only to make a run in the playoffs and get to the D-League Championship. So with largely the same core group of players on the roster this season, how and why are they are they leaps and bounds better this year?
We’ll start with last season’s squad. The team was coached by Casey Owens, and led by league veterans in Vander Blue, Josh Magette, and Justin Harper. Outside of those three, Ryan Gomes was the only other major contributor to the D-Fenders. With a 27-23 record (a win total that this season’s team has already surpassed), LA was around fifth in the league in total points, pace (estimated number of possessions per 48 minutes), and offensive rating, according to Basketball Reference. Nothing too earth shattering that would signal a hidden giant, right?
After losing the D-League Championship to Sioux Falls, the D-Fenders came into the 2016-2017 season with the same core of Blue, Magette, and Harper. One of the biggest changes was on the sideline. Owens was promoted to the Lakers coaching staff, and former Laker and D-Fender Coby Karl was tabbed to fill the vacancy. From the start of pre-season, Karl has been utilizing the speed of Magette and Blue to run an extremely fast-paced offense, reminiscent of the “7 seconds or less” offense of the Mike D’Antoni Phoenix Suns of the mid 2000’s.
“I see some comparisons,” Harper said, on the similarities between his squad and the famous Phoenix teams. “I think Josh plays somewhat like Steve Nash. We share the ball well, and we shoot the ball well. It’s fun playing that way.”
The result is one for the record books, as LA leads the league in several statistical categories this season, including offensive rating, total points, and assists. At first glance, it can be easy to pinpoint the offensive pace surge as the main factor in LA’s massive improvement. But below the surface, there’s more.
While Blue, Magette, and Harper have been mainstays in El Segundo over the past few seasons, the pieces that surround them have changed. This season, Karl and General Manager Nick Mazzella have found a perfect mix of players to complement the D-Fenders stalwarts in their speedy offensive system. David Nwaba, Julian Jacobs, and Kenneth “Speedy” Smith are quick guards who can attack the rim. Add a stretch four in Travis Wear and a three-point specialist in Troy Devries, and Karl has a multitude of options of offensive attack. That’s not even counting Lakers center Ivica Zubac, on assignment with the D-Fenders for 13 games this season, who adds a defensive presence in the lane in addition to his offensive skills at the rim.
“It’s really valuable,” Magette said, on the makeup of the roster. “The front office did a really good job of putting this team together. We’re deep, we’ve got a lot of guys with experience. Some vets, and some young guys, so it’s been a good mix.”
So that explains it, right? A new coach with a faster offensive approach, and the right mix of players surrounding the core equals the best team in the D-League. Well, almost. As Steve Jobs used to say, “but wait, there is one more thing…”
Most successful teams, in any sport, will have that extra oomph, that never-say-die attitude, that constantly-flickering flame of fortitude. Think the New England Patriots coming back to win Super Bowl LI, or the Cleveland Cavaliers winning the NBA Championship despite being down 3-1. This LA D-Fenders team certainly has that. All opposing D-League teams should know by now that you can’t count LA out until the final buzzer sounds. The D-Fenders have made 12 double-digit comeback wins this season, including a 22-point comeback win against the Texas Legends on Feb. 1st.
“I think it’s just the experience that we have,” Magette said. “When we get in close games, we’re really confident. We stay calm, and continue to play our game. We don’t really get rattled by anything. We just find a way to win.”
With one quarter of the season left to play, and the playoffs looming, it will be fun to watch the D-Fenders down the stretch to see if they can continue this run of form. If they can maintain it throughout the playoffs, there’s a pretty good chance there will be a D-League championship banner hanging in the new UCLA Health Training Center next season.