Rest In Peace NBA D-League 2001-2017

Updated: April 27, 2017
Screenshot 2017-04-27 at 1.10.48 AM

As Game 3 of the D-League Finals tips off tonight, not only will the season come to an end, but so will the word development.

The winner of tonight’s game against the Raptors 905 and the Rio Grande Valley Vipers will ultimately be crowned the final “D-League” champion.

When the league first came to fruition as eight teams, it was merely a bus league with roots in the Southeast, with quite possibly some of the best team names you could think of. From the Asheville Altitude, to the Greenville Groove, the league was met with little success over the first few seasons. To this day though, nobody can tell me exactly what a lowgator actually is.

There were the days when the league only played 10 minute quarters in its early years (yes, that really was a thing early on). It was a league with a wild, wild west-like background. Nobody was sure it would really work, and it almost didn’t survive.

But through the early struggles, NBA teams finally bought in and in 2006 the first NBA team purchased a D-League franchise as the Lakers brought the D-Fenders to the fold, and thus the trend began and rolled into what it is today, with a majority of the 22 D-League teams now owned and operated by an NBA franchise.

After tonight, the league shifts into re-branding mode and will be known as the NBA Gatorade League (otherwise known as the G-League).

And you won’t be able to miss it next season. The league logo will contain the Gatorade “G” symbol, as will the court, the backboard, the stanchion, and even the basketball will adorn the mark of a new corporate partnership with the D-League.

No longer will the word development be used to describe the league or its players, it’s all about the beverage that rehydrates the body, but not the wallets of the players.

This is unfounded territory in sports. Sure, NASCAR fans have had their championship called the Sprint Cup, and ads have been commonplace on European soccer uniforms for quite some time now (as well as WNBA uniforms too), but this is something else.

The D-League was known for its kitsch, it was subversive but also played a role in getting many players’ careers off the ground. The league offered incredible exposure for players who wanted to compete and vie for an NBA contract. Players who were a part of teams with one-to-one relationships often reaped the rewards from this as they were in direct contact with NBA teams, coaches, scouts, etc;.

Now, the name Gatorade has perverted the notion of what the league stood for. Yes, development was a relative term depending on the franchise as the amount the NBA club on the other end invested in it, and it will remain that way with its removal.

The name changes but the league stays much of the same. The poor travel schedules, (everyone who’s been involved in the D-League has a great travel story, right?), the lack of transparency with the media, and the oft-mentioned low salaries the players receive.

While two-way contracts will slightly shift the landscape of the D-League for the 2017-18 season (players can max out at approximately $275,000 a season), the majority of those who sign contracts next year will be faced with a salary between $19,500 – $26,000. While on paper the two-way feels like a win for the league and its desire to fully integrate with the NBA, its a minimal effort in the direction the league should take.

And yes, the counterargument is that nobody is forcing a player to sign a D-League contract when they can sign overseas for more money. Yes, it is solely the player’s decision to sign, but the league will see its talent pool stretched even further with three more teams joining the ranks (possibly four) next season without an appropriate pay raise for all levels of players.

Yet here are the players, who will wear uniforms next season stitched with the Gatorade logo, bouncing the Gatorade ball over the Gatorade symbol on the hardwood while looking at the sideline Gatorade graphics and see the Gatorade “G” on the backboard as well, all the while not receiving any monetary compensation for becoming what amounts to walking billboards for the sports beverage.

Does the name Gatorade bring legitimacy to the league? Hard to say at this point. While the NBA reaps the financial rewards to the league, its real talent, the players are left behind to be unfairly compensated for their hard work.

Yes, the league does offer insurance and teams provide their own housing during the regular season, another cost alleviated as well. While yes, insurance is a solid gesture for players, the housing argument is incredibly superficial for a number of reasons. The most important being that some teams will trade housing for sponsorship deals during the regular season.

Free housing is not a valid excuse to provide such low salaries to players. If anything, the league should be providing players with enough financial compensation that they shouldn’t have to rely on free housing to supplement their low wages.

“Look, Damien Wilkins can push buttons and run on a treadmill. He’s really working hard for what amounts to being a Gatorade guinea pig.”

Welcome to the Gatorade revolution, where athletes who have made it this far in their career need to be retrained how to train their bodies to maintain top, physical conditioning throughout the year according to the league’s Gatorade announcement video.

It’s a slippery slope. One that should be monitored carefully moving forward in this unique relationship. There’s still a lot of unanswered questions from this relationship with Gatorade. Given they are the title sponsor and the D-League front office controls contracts, who’s to say a representative from Gatorade could determine whether a player signs with the league or not? After all, they are the title sponsor, what if they don’t want that person with a troubled past associated with their brand?

The league has already made some questionable decisions this year, having made the decision to eliminate its Summer League Select team for Las Vegas. The reason being? With 25 teams in the mix for the 2017-18 season, the league had reached peak integration and therefore the team would no longer be necessary.

So what do you do? You eliminate an opportunity for exposure of course, that makes perfect sense. Fringe players are clearly overexposed at Summer League, where a number of players are vying for NBA training camp rosters and a majority won’t make the NBA. But let’s kill off the one opportunity we could afford some players over the summer in front of scouts before they make their next career move. It almost makes too much sense.

Is development dead? No, not really. But players who fully represent the Gatorade name, whether they want to or not, will likely not be compensated for their immediate efforts. For every feelgood David Nwaba story each season, there are dozens of players who won’t ever hear their name called to the NBA. This loose association via exposure only goes so far for a career.

There are a number of parallels between the average D-League player and the basketball blogger. We, as journalists, are constantly told never to write simply for the sake of exposure. Value yourself and your work. Write with purpose, form and passion. To think that professional athletes should sacrifice salary for exposure is a ridiculous premise that the league has leaned on for far too long.

Players don’t want to run on a treadmill, or do shuttle drills and press sensors while training at the Gatorade Sports Science Institute (which the league hasn’t announced if all players will be subject to testing, or how they will go about deciding who is in fact tested. You’ve got to love transparency). They want to be compensated appropriately. Is a player more valuable if he does perform those tests? Why should he sacrifice his body for the sake of the league and Gatorade if he is not to be paid for representing the brand?

Enough of the highfalutin notion that players are valued in this new iteration of the D-League. It all comes down to the almighty dollar. There is plenty of financial support from the NBA’s side if they want to increase player salaries, that much is well documented with their recent television deal with ESPN And Turner Broadcasting. So why don’t they?

What is stopping the league from at the very least putting together a road map to show that they are concerned with the rate at which salaries have not kept up with the overall talent level needed for the league? Why won’t they acknowledge the enormous elephant in the room and simply state once and for all that they want to increase those salaries for the betterment of its league and the players they claim to value?

Two-way players stand to make the most money, but even that is not guaranteed. Those who stay a full season will make at the least $75,000, but nothing else is for certain for those players.

The D-League is not short of willing bodies wanting to play. Just look at any open tryout and see just how many are willing to pay up to $200 in some cases at the hope of making a roster. The question is, are those the kind of players you want filling out your rosters next season?

The league will have 30 teams in the very near future, this is a given at this point. The G-League isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, so why wait any longer to secure these player financially?

If the league isn’t willing to do it, let the teams set their own market and sign their own players to contracts. Put the onus on them to pay the players if the league doesn’t want to address this issue.

Do something instead of what appears on the surface to be absolutely nothing, thus appearing to keep salaries stagnant for the foreseeable future.

But for now, it appears the league is content on treading water instead of taking the next step forward in its evolution.


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