Raising The Bar
Examining the past and looking to the future of the D-League.
by Jake Fischer / @JakeLFischer
John Lucas III sits at his locker, gently bobbing his head along to the music flowing from his headphones. He looks down and rubs at the fresh tape-job engulfing his ankles and chomps on some of the fruit that was displayed in the middle of the away team locker room in the TD Garden. To his right is Jamaal Tinsley, a man known by many as the starting point guard for the Indiana Pacers for much of the last decade. The two Utah Jazz guards are just a couple of the 103 current NBA players who have logged minutes in the NBA Development League.
“We’ve both been through the grind and we understand that it’s a privilege to be here,” Lucas says. The Oklahoma State alum went undrafted after leading the Cowboys to the Final Four in 2005 and began his professional career with the Tulsa 66ers in ’05-06. The Houston Rockets claimed him for 13 games during that season. “The one thing the D-League instilled in me is that it made me appreciate the game more. I always cherished those days—you know the bus rides, the hungriness of trying to get to that next level. It always stays in the back of my mind.”
Lucas entered the D-League just four years after it’s formation in November 2001—the NBA Board of Governors voted to approve the D-League in October 1999. Back then, Allen Iverson reigned supreme and the vast majority of the basketball world had never even heard of a high school kid named LeBron James.
The D-League debuted with eight teams, located primarily in the southeast. Then, the D-League was strictly the official minor league basketball organization of the NBA. Today, all eight of the teams are defunct, with four of the clubs folding in various years and the four others morphing into affiliate organizations that are still alive and thriving.
Coincidentally, it wasn’t until Lucas arrived in Tulsa that the NBA made a concerted effort to turn the D-League into a true minor league farm system to the NBA.
In 2005, as part of the League’s new CBA, the D-League began its affiliation/assignment system where players with two or fewer years of NBA experience could be assigned to a D-League team up to three times while every NBA organization became directly affiliated a D-League club. In April 2006, the Los Angeles Lakers became the first NBA team to purchase and operate their own NBA D-League affiliate.
Today, 14 NBA teams own their own D-League team, operating in a single affiliate. The remaining 16 teams have been divided into shared affiliations with the Bakersfield Jam, Fort Wayne Mad Ants and Iowa Energy—a setup that has forged the D-League into breeding the next NBA personnel in all aspects of the sport and business.
“Our mission is to develop players, coaches, referees, front office executives and everybody else for the NBA,” says Dan Reed, President of the NBA Development League. “We’ve had 44 coaches called up to the NBA, more than half of the referees currently in the NBA were hired directly from the NBA Development League and there’s over 50 front office executives—sales people, dance team members, you name it—who have come through the NBA Development League to the NBA.”
The NBA’s individual organizations have bought in. Reed is very proud of the fact that 10 of those 14 parent clubs have bought their D-League affiliates within the last three years, the most recent being the Philadelphia 76ers purchasing the Utah Flash and turning them into the Delaware 87ers this summer.
“It seems that every single year, the league has gotten better and better and better,” says Chris Alpert, NBA Development League Director of Basketball Operations. “We’re extremely bullish on the future of the D-League and more and more NBA teams are engaged in what we’re doing.”
The D-League has certainly come a long way since it was born almost 12 years ago, and is still growing. Last week, for example, the D-League vastly improved their annual draft, which we’ll touch on later. And at the conclusion of the ’11-12 season, almost 30 percent of players on NBA rosters had D-League experience, and three earned rings with the Miami Heat. But the truth of the matter is, the D-League still has kinks that could be smoothed out, including losing many players to overseas leagues and low salaries. But there are also plenty of innovative changes the D-League has already initiated that it could continue to progress.
Battling the Overseas Leagues
As the D-League’s main premise is to develop players for the next level, the league recognizes that the basketball world is essentially flat today. Alpert, who coordinates every single D-League contract, says that the NBADL doesn’t view overseas leagues as competition, but merely another opportunity for players to grow and earn a living.
“I think more and more international teams and scouts are looking at the D-League as an extremely competitive league and if players can prove they can play well in the D-League, maybe players can help their stock overseas as well,” Alpert says. “If we have a hand in developing their skills a little bit better to help them obtain a better job than we feel as though we’re accomplishing our goal.”
And even though playing in the D-League has created many more lucrative playing options overseas for its players, Alpert and Reed believe that the D-League is the second best professional basketball league on the globe.
“If you look at the number of players with NBA experience that have come out of the NBA Development League, five times more NBA players have played in the D-League than any other league in the world,” Reed says. “We would put a D-League team against anybody.”
While Reed recognizes that competitive opportunity doesn’t exist today, it’s also important to note that his argument for the D-League’s prominence is somewhat flawed. The sheer number of players in the NBA with D-League experience compared to other pro leagues is likely more related to the farm system aspect of the D-League rather than the league’s talent pool. Many NBA scouts actually view the Euroleague as a more competitive league. If that’s the case, it’s likely because the European teams have drawn more talented players to their organizations with more money.
D-League Salaries and Contracts
As previously mentioned, Alpert coordinates every D-League contract. If a player is on a D-League roster and isn’t on assignment and thus doesn’t have an NBA contract, that player is under contract directly with the D-League and not his specific team. The benefit of signing a D-League contract as opposed to a contract with, say, the Austin Toros, is that any D-League player can be claimed by any NBA team at any given time.
But that proposition comes with a price—or in this case, a lack of one. While the D-League officially keeps it’s financial information confidential, several agents have told SLAM that the league operates its contracts by offering A, B and C contracts of differing values. That A Contract’s salary is roughly $25,000, with a B Contract coming in at around $19,000 and the C Contract totaling around $13,000.
In fairness, those contracts come with housing, medical and dental benefits, per diem on road trips, transportation to and from games and compensatory bonuses based off of performances over the span of a 50-games.
“There are individual bonuses for getting an end-of-season recognition, and there are performance bonuses based on how the team does,” Alpert says. “When you add all those things up and you take into account that the season’s only about five months long—not saying it’s something players can make a career out of and do for seven or eight years—they can actually sustain themselves and the biggest thing they’re here for is to try and get called up to the NBA.”
Indiana Pacers forward Chris Copeland is one of those players who hoped for a chance in the NBA while playing in the D-League. But ultimately, as Alpert suggests is common practice, Copeland put his NBA dream on hold to make more money overseas.
“I think anybody that’s trying to get to the NBA and doesn’t get a shot, needs to go and give [the D-League] a shot,” Copeland told SLAM this summer. “But I had to start trying to secure my future financially a little bit. It’s cool to keep trying, but it just didn’t seem like that would have been the best move for me at that point.”
Copeland played his first professional year during the ’06-07 season in the D-League with the Fort Worth Flyers before spending five seasons in Europe. He then triumphantly made the Knicks roster after impressing in training camp last fall.
But if the D-League’s maximum salary wasn’t $25,000 and was maybe $75,000, perhaps players like Copeland and dozens of undrafted free agents each year would stay stateside. Tinkering the contract structure is something Reed says was on the “b-list” of the 2011 CBA discussions and that the “discussion is an ongoing process.”
How could the Reed and Alpert offer players more money? They could experiment with advertising and ticket promotions. In the 2012 D-League playoffs, BBVA advertised on every team’s jersey. Chris Makris, the general manager of the Iowa Energy, has an interesting idea as well.
“If [NBA teams] have the rights to 10 players or five of the players, that would naturally make NBA teams feel more comfortable to invest more financially and would in turn improve salaries,” Makris says of the current assignment system only allowed D-League teams to carry a maximum of two players on NBA contracts on it’s 12-player roster.
His idea would open the door for the creation of an entirely new D-League contract and perhaps transition the league into a functioning more like AHL Hockey and Minor League Baseball.
“I think the best example of that is AHL Hockey,” Makris says. “They have what is basically two-way contracts where teams keep players’ rights and if they’re at the AHL level they get paid one thing and if they’re brought up to the NHL level, they get paid another thing. I think something like that is really intriguing as our league continues to mature and will at least hopefully be in discussions. I’m very excited about the league’s future and to be a part of it.”
Overall, if NBA teams aren’t delegating more money to their farm system, the entertainment value of the D-League would need a boost. More in-game entertainment would breed more revenue, which in turn could increase salary. Finding that increase in entertainment is something the league will have to keep experimenting with. When it comes to testing new league strategies, the D-League already does a phenomenal job of doing so.
NBA Experimental League
While the D-League is most commonly thought of as the place where raw guys like Hasheem Thabeet and Fab Melo go to mature their games, it’s also a league that allows for great experimentation by the NBA.
Sticking with personnel, the D-League provides a great opportunity for teams to explore all avenues of coaching. For example, the Oklahoma City Thunder employ Darko Rajakovic as the head coach of their single-affiliate D-League club, the Tulsa 66ers, but also have him in practice and on the bench during games with the Thunder when the D-League is out-of-season.
“It’s a great learning experience for me,” says Rajakovic, who’s entering his second year at the helm of the 66ers. “It’s a great chance for me to learn in those six months from the coaches in Oklahoma City and when I come back to Tulsa, I try to make a replica of the whole program and everything they’re running within the Thunder.”
In just his one year with the Thunder and 66ers, Rajakovic has helped develop Daniel Orton, Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones, Reggie Jackson and Thabeet into players worth of quality rotation minutes in the NBA. Additionally, almost 40 active NBA coaches began their career in the D-League and every NBA referee hired since 2002 began in the D-League as well.
The D-League also provides the NBA with the chance to experiment with a few on-court rule changes, although Alpert points out that the D-League’s similarity in rules with the NBA is another attractive aspect to players.
“We do also play with the international goal-tending rule, the live ball rule and we also play with a three-minute overtime, which is a little different than in the NBA rules,” Alpert says.
The D-League has experimented quite a lot with technology over the past few years as well. Most notably, the League now broadcasts all of its games over a YouTube livestream, making the contests accessible all around the world. Most recently, the D-League conducted its annual draft last week through the Cisco WebEx Meeting Center, the first American professional sports draft ever conducted electronically.
Lastly, the D-League has also instrumented several innovative ways for players to simply come into landing a spot on an D-League team.
“All contracts in the D-League are non-guaranteed contracts,” Alpert says. “Outside of NBA-assigned players, all players that are in the D-League are signed to D-League contracts and then there are various mechanisms by which they can get into a training camp or get to a team. It’s either they’re a returning player, they’re a potential affiliate player, they’re a local tryout player or they’re a drafted player.”
The D-League’s minimum age of 18, as opposed to the NBA’s minimum age of 19, also provides the league with an interesting talent pool of players hoping to use the D-League as a springboard into the NBA Draft—essentially opening the door for high school players to play professionally and forgo college. This past June, Glen Rice Jr was selected by the Washington Wizards in the NBA Draft after spending the ’12-13 season with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. This season, the Delaware 87ers have drafted Norvel Pelle, Athanasis Antetokounmpo and Aquille Carr—all players who will likely enter the 2014 NBA Draft.
Overall, the NBA Development League has grown exponentially since it first came into existence and its potential ceiling is as high as that of many of its players’ respective games. With all of the above in mind, it’s important to not lose track of the fact that the D-League is a fully functioning league on its own. It has its own playoff system, players can be traded among teams and general managers are ultimately trying to build a winner on the court.
“When you get to compete in a different realm, to be able to put together that team and go to battle with that team, and match wits with other NBA teams and other NBA D-League teams, it fuels me every day,” Makris says.
That competitive atmosphere is what ultimately fuels guys like John Lucas, who are simply trying to make a name for themselves, and guys like Jamaal Tinsley and Rasual Butler—who played for Rajakovic in Tulsa last season and is now with Copeland in Indianapolis—to get back into the League after falling off their games a touch.
“I took everything in stride,” Lucas says. “You know, the bus rides, catching Southwest flights, being delayed in the city, getting to the city maybe four hours before the game starts, getting off the plane and playing, then getting right back on the plane and going to the next game. You don’t take anything for granted.”
NBADL teams are officially allowed to open their training camps for the ’13-14 season today. While the D-League represents a lot of things to many different people and its product and league model may, and likely will, completely change five seasons from now, the possibilities have the D-Leagues higher-ups excited and should thrill fans of the NBA, too.
“We do have a variety of models and we think they all will work,” Reed says of the league’s future plans. “We eventually see a 30-team league with every team singly affiliated with an NBA team, but we’re not in a rush to get there. In the meantime, we think our current model works quite well.”
Ultimately, that model boils down to what fuels NBA, the topic that drives the two Jazz backcourt-mates’ conversations and careers each day.
“We talk about trying to get a win,” Tinsley says, as Lucas nods and flashes a smile. “We just take it one day at a time.”