Sunday, July 27, 2014

Envisioning the Future of the NBA Pt 1: The D-League

Two more teams will be added to the D-League for the upcoming season and the 17 of the 18 teams will be direct affiliates to NBA teams. That number has risen from 11 in just two years. While more teams continue to sense the future potential many have begun envisioning a true minor league system with each NBA team having its own D-League affiliate. Matt Moore talked briefly of what that could mean for the league,

"There's a lot the NBA can do with a 30-team system. Expand the draft, change roster spot availability, improve the salary functions to help keep talent from going overseas (a major problem). It could help with moving the age limit back, a priority for Adam Silver, with rehab assignments, and generally help boost the league in developing its talent, a major issue for it." 

As you can see, a large number of possibilities arise once that one for one system is in place. While it’s hard to say with any certainty when we could realistically expect to get to that point, we all have to be encouraged by the fact that more than half of the teams in the NBA feel there’s value in doing so.

The NBA also recently made a rule change that Gino Pilato helped clarify for us all,

“Under the new rule, NBA D-League players who are on an NBA team’s ‘draft list’ will have the opportunity to automatically play for their NBA team’s NBA D-League affiliate both prior to the NBA D-League Draft and at any point during the season. In the case of players who join the NBA D-League mid-season, NBA D-League teams will have 24 hours to claim or relinquish rights to the player whose draft rights are retained by their NBA parent club. An NBA team’s ‘draft list’ consists of players for whom that team holds exclusive NBA contract signing rights.”

This is the rule that will allow Oklahoma City to ‘draft and stash’ first round pick Josh Huestis in the D-League this year. It’s become rather controversial recently as Zach Lowe explains. Pilato goes on to explain that prior rules forced teams to wheel and deal to keep their own drafted players with their own D-League affiliate to avoid the situation that Pierre Jackson was in last season. Jordan Conn noted,

Because he never signed a contract with New Orleans, the 22-year-old Jackson entered the D-League in the same capacity as its hundreds of undrafted NBA hopefuls. Rather than going to the Pelicans’ affiliate, the Iowa Energy, Jackson was available in the D-League draft to be taken by any team. The Stampede, who are partnered with the Portland Trail Blazers, chose him fourth overall. And so it came to be that Jackson starred for a D-League team affiliated with a franchise that could not, at least while the Pelicans held his draft rights, ever call him up to the NBA.

So while the NBA fixed that particular issue it opened up a new loophole that the Thunder is exploiting. It’s similar to the current MLB draft slot system in which teams draft a lesser player because he will sign for less money. In this case, Huestis basically agreed to forego his rookie scale contract for one year and accept the D-League max $25,000 for this year so OKC can avoid cutting another player & leaving them some wiggle room under the luxury tax threshold.

The rule itself, however, was put in place with the future in mind. NBA teams regularly draft international players and have them stay overseas for a couple of years in the traditional ‘draft and stash’ mold. There are many of them as you can see. In more recent drafts we have seen teams take college players late in the second round who were okay with being ‘stashed’ overseas for a year or two in the hopes of improving enough to crack the team’s roster in the future. The player, who otherwise would unlikely be drafted, benefits from high-level experience, good money & a much better chance to make the NBA in the future. Meanwhile, the team saves a roster spot and valuable cap space to spend on veteran help while also acquiring an asset that can be used in future trades.

In the same article, Pilato also talks about another potential rule change that would allow NBA teams to keep the right to 4 training camp cuts on their D-League affiliate. That’s a change from the current rule of 3 and also a way for teams to double the amount of money those players can get paid. That’s a start in trying to remedy the biggest problem that the D-League suffers from, player salaries. The league has continued to market the league as the best way to get recognized and get an opportunity to play in NBA. In fact, if you go to the official D-League website you’ll see smack dab in the middle ‘149 Current NBA players have D-League experience.” While this is an accurate statement, it glosses over the fact that most of its players are making damn near close to minimum wage.

The reality is that, outside of the NBA, there is a whole hell of lot of places around the world to play and get paid handsomely. Granted, not every player is going command a high salary but this is why you continue to see the league’s best players make a mass exodus overseas every offseason. The NBA dream always remains but at some point the need to support a family wins out. This continues to be the fundamental problem with the D-League but a solution could be on the horizon. As noted in LeBron James' decision to sign a 2-year deal, the salary cap is expected to skyrocket in the summer of 2016 as most believe that each team will at least double the more than $30M they receive from the current TV rights deal. There have been talks to ease that increase but regardless there is going to be a whole lot more money headed towards player salaries.

A wise man would think the NBA & players association would get together to allocate some of that money to properly pay their D-League players. I mean if you quadruple the highest current D-League salary and give that to each of the 10 players with roster spots that is only a million bucks. That’s cheaper than some of the veteran minimum deals teams hand out left and right. It would seem an easy fix and a great way to jump start a true developmental league. As of now, there is roughly zero continuity from year to year. The best international teams have ‘junior teams’ that they use to develop future talent in the lower levels of domestic leagues. Once that player shows a readiness to face better competition they can either be loaned to another team that will provide them with more playing time or join the parent club. The NBA can use the D-League the same way in controlling the player development from an early stage. Teams already implement coaching staffs that will run similar schemes to the parent club which lessens the learning curve when the player receives a call-up.

In regards to the continuity problem, the D-League needs to abolish the draft. I don’t know if anyone has had the pleasure of listening in to the conference call that is the draft but it’s certainly a treat. I love drafts, especially basketball ones, but the D-League draft is absolutely crazy. First off, leading up to the draft, there are a ridiculous amount of draft pick trades which make it damn near impossible to know the correct draft order. Secondly, there are 8 rounds which is at least 4 too many. The whole concept of a D-League draft is a bit strange. Each team can only maintain 10 roster spots + assignment players. Add in the fact that 3 players can be allocated from NBA training camp and that leaves just 7 open spots. So we have 8 rounds of picks for potentially 7 open spots not including any players who actually come back from the previous season. What usually happens is, after a flurry of trades, waiving players and players leaving to go overseas, we end up with 1 or 2 guys actually playing for the team that drafted them. It all seems rather pointless & convoluted to me. On top of that, the draft isn’t held until late October/early November which kills players’ chances to find suitable alternative employment elsewhere as most other leagues have already begun.

I would argue that between summer league, training camp invites & unsigned draft picks, each team could easily fill a 10-man roster pretty quickly. Plus those roster spots could be given out rather early in the summer which would allow players to have a realistic outlook on their chances to make the team or head overseas. D-League personnel could focus on player development within a given system while the NBA team will have a handful of young talent to infuse their team with. D-League players could also become tradable assets that are packaged in NBA deals. Instead of constant D-League trades that always seem to be about the immediate short term, NBA general managers would take over deciding which talent is worth keeping with a focus on the future.

If a complete 30 team NBA/D-League affiliation ever happens it could springboard the NBA to an even better and more complete league. It will offer the fans a better on-court product and increase parity. It will also generate a lot more interest in the D-League itself once 'prospects' start being included in real NBA trades. The future could be very bright and the next couple of years will determine whether or not this possibility can become a reality.

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