Monthly Archives: April 2015

How to Fix: the D League

Have you been watching the D-League playoffs and Finals on ESPNU? If not, you’re missing some good basketball and talented players—many of whom have already had successful stints in the Association, and others who will get called up to your favorite team soon.

The NBA’s minor league has gone through many changes in its 14 seasons. The name has changed from NBDL to NBA’s Development League to just the D-League. Several franchises from the inaugural season in 2001-2002 have either been suspended, folded by the league or owners or have been relocated and renamed.

But, it has seen more than a handful of successes. League Alums Danny Green, JJ Berea, Ian Mahimi and Shannon Brown have played pivotal roles on teams that have won NBA Championships. Who can forget the rise of Jeremy Lin and “Linsanity” and then there’s one of the best stories of the Association this season,the rise of Miami Heat’s big man Hassan Whiteside. The league has also expanded from eight teams to now eighteen. So even though the casual fan may not know it, this league has benefit the NBA.

Honestly, the on court the action is better than college basketball, in my opinion. To me, the only edge the college game has is the pageantry and the unpredictability of the Conferences and NCAA Tournaments. The on court product continues to suffer with over coaching, over officiating, the lack of star power and iconic teams due to one and done defections to the NBA. It is in need of some serious tweaking, but that’s a different discussion in another post I already wrote. You can read it here. But, the D-League has missed many opportunities to cement itself as a true minor league in the vein of the farm system similar to Major League Baseball, my choice as the best minor league in professional sports.

Before I divulge my suggestions to improve the league, let me point out what I like that works.

Thirty-three percent of players in the NBA have played in the D-League. This season alone there were a record forty-four call ups. That shows the NBA decision makers are actually making the most of this pipeline. When NBA GMs identify a player they feel can contribute to their rosters, the system in place makes it easy for that player to be brought up like a Junior Varsity to player to the Varsity and given a legitimate opportunity to show what they can do on the big stage.

I also like that seventeen teams have single affiliation—the Fort Wayne Mad Ants serve thirteen NBA teams. This shows that Owners and GMs view the League as a valuable resource to find and develop talent that can help them win. You can see with the teams that have single affiliation that there is a unified plan of how they want their players to play and coaches to coach, similar to what is being done on the NBA level. The expectation is that a player called up will already be familiar with the system. You can even see how it trickles into the marketing of the teams.

The best use of the league I’ve seen is the midseason D-League showcase. The teams play in a “carnival” format that gives the players a great opportunity to be seen by scouts and Association management in one location and give them a legitimate shot at gaining the promotion they all are aspiring to earn.

Lastly, I like the coaches challenges. Once a half a coach can challenge an officials call, if they win the challenge, they earn another. But if the lose, then they lose their remaining challenge. I hope this makes it to the NBA, I can’t tell you how many times I wish a critical travel, foul or violation in a pivotal game would get a second look. I’m sure Sacramento Kings fans would’ve loved this during their bitter playoffs battles with the L.A. Lakers in the early 2000’s. But, that’s where the feel good for me stops.

• The first change I’d like to see is another expansion where the NBA would require each of its teams to have their own affiliate. As I mentioned, right now 17 of the 18 teams are single affiliated. To me that means that the thirteen NBA teams without an affiliate aren’t taking the D-League or the players it sends down to the Fort Wayne Mad Ants into any serious consideration of being with their franchise.

• Second, locate affiliates in same state as their NBA parent club, but in an area where fans of the team that don’t get to attend many NBA games can get out and support the Parent club by getting behind the affiliate. Right now the Miami Heat’s affiliate, the Sky Force is located in Sioux Falls South Dakota. What sense does that make? My ideal scenario would be to place an Orlando Magic D-League affiliate in Jacksonville or the Atlanta Hawks D-League team could play in Macon, Griffin or Augusta. It would be similar to how the Cavs D-League affiliate the Charge are located in Canton one hour (59 miles) away from Cleveland and the Spurs affiliate located in Austin is one hour and twenty-two minutes (79.8 miles) from San Antonio.

This would also give fans the opportunity to see the stars of tomorrow and possibly well-known NBA players who are on injury rehab assignments.

I’ll give you an example from my childhood. I grew up in Columbus Ohio where we have the Columbus Clippers, the AAA affiliate of the Cleveland Indians, but from 1979-2006 they were the little brothers of the New York Yankees. During that time fans got to see a young Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera, Deion Sanders, Andy Pettitte and other future key Yankee players develop. There were also the occasional injury rehab assignments by All Star talents like Jason Giambi, Darryl Strawberry and others. Just this weekend Nick Swisher of the Indians, began his 2015 season in a rehab stint with Columbus. And he brought many fans out to the Ballpark. How great would it be for NBA fans to see future key players for their favorite team develop in their backyard until they got a chance to shine on the big stage. I know many people in the Columbus area became Yankee fans growing up for this reason alone.

• The parent clubs should host NBA training camps in the home city of their D-League affiliate. It would help build as sense of camaraderie between the two leagues, while allowing fans in the small towns to get up close and personal with their favorite NBA players they wouldn’t be able to drive over two hours to see while spending nearly all of their paychecks.

I remember in 2004, the Cleveland Cavaliers with a young LeBron James held their camp at Capital University in Columbus. The team had an open scrimmage where fans packed the gym to standing room only. A couple of nights later, they held a preseason game against the Boston Celtics at Schottenstein Arena on The Ohio State University’s campus. That game actually began the rivalry between LBJ and Paul Pierce when he spit at the Cavs bench.

• Increase salaries. For diamonds in the roughs, the D-League provides the best exposure to make their NBA dreams come true. But, salaries in international pro leagues are more enticing, hence some of the more talented players are opting to follow the money trail to a better financial standing. According to Pro Basketball Talk, the current D-League average salary is slotted in three classifications based on experience. Class A,B and C. The players make $25,500, $19,000 or $13,000 depending on which class they fall in to. The daily per diem on road trips is $40, it’s $113 in the NBA. However, D-League teams do provide housing and medical care to players.

Here’s the kicker, players have to pay nearly $40,000 to $50,000 to buyout their contract if they wish to pursue a more lucrative deal in one of the overseas league. In case you were wondering the average international league salary starts between $65,000 and $100,000. Be honest, which would you choose?

• As I mentioned early, the one and done defections from college basketball is one of the many things that is hurting that game and to some extent the NBA because the young guys aren’t ready. That is why I think the D-League would be perfect for recent high school graduates to have the opportunity to skip college and get seasoned with the pro game, while playing with and against guys who are already professionals. Let them enter the regular draft and get selected by NBA teams, but they must spend at least one full season in the D-League playing for their affiliates before they can be called up to the NBA. This also gives GMs a better chance to evaluate a player before they spend countless years and mountains of cash on a player who may not be worth it. It’s worked for years in the MLB, why not give it a try Commissioner Silver.

• With all the sports networks on air these days and with NBA TV, why aren’t there more games televised? Right now you can watch games streaming on YouTube, but placing them on a network would add more credibility and possibly make it more appointment viewing. NBA TV and the other four letter sports networks don’t have that much quality programming that they can ignore this league. With that being said, you can judge the NBA D-League when the Finals between the Fort Wayne Mad Ants and the Santa Cruz Warriors resumes Sunday at 7 and if necessary, Monday at 10 on ESPNU.

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How to Fix: the Orlando Magic

The Orlando Magic’s 2014-2015 season comes to an end tonight. This is the third consecutive season they’ve finished with one of the top five worst records in the league. But hey there has been a little improvement. 20 wins in 2012-2013, 22 in 2013-2014 and 25—before tonight’s game at Brooklyn—this season. Can you sense the sarcasm?

This third season in the rebuilding of the Magic Kingdom in the aftermath of the Dwight Howard implosion/indecision was supposed to bring at least a lower seed playoff spot. But, the losses have piled up while the wins are more scarce than snacks at a Fat Camp. This was the year the Magic were supposed to be what the Boston Celtics are right now, battling for a lower seed well into the final week of the season. 

A couple of years ago, the organization  used the slogan “The time is now” in its marketing campaign; they may want to revisit that one, because there are several key pieces already in place that can and should jolt them into an Eastern Conference playoff team. Still, there are a few missing variables that need to be filled before that playoff equation can be solved. 

• First, no more experiments with first time head coaches. Three years ago this job was a perfect place to groom a rookie, but in order to move from rebuilding to winning, you need a veteran. Just like you need them in uniform and on the court, you need one patrolling the sideline and leading the huddles. My choice: Mark Jackson.

Jackson rebuilt the Warriors from the Western Conference pit, to the penthouse. Courtesy: Getty Images

With the way the Golden State Warriors have flourished in the aftermath of his mutual parting of the ways, firing or whatever you want to call it, many seem to have forgotten the job Jackson did turning a 23 win team in his first season (2011-12, which was shortened by the lockout) into the Championship contender they are now. His second season he led them to 47 wins and a first round playoff series win in the vaunted Western Conference. His third and final season produced 51 wins and another playoff berth. Overall he is 121-109 (.526),  not bad for a guy who took over a franchise that made the playoffs once in seventeen seasons before his arrival.

It’s his foundation that has allowed the “Splash Brothers” of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson to blossom into the All-Star backcourt they’ve become. Jackson also can be credited with the steady improvement of Draymond Green, who is a key contributor for the Warriors and will be a highly sought after free agent this summer. I bring up Jackson’s Warriors past to highlight his great ability to groom young talent, which Orlando has plenty of. 

In Victor Oladipo and Nik Vucevic, the Magic have two budding stars with All-Star ability. Rookie Elfrid Payton, who is a triple double waiting to happen, has the look of a young Rajon Rondo and is the kind of facilitating point guard that Jackson, a former point guard can help accelerate his growth.
The wings are loaded with long, agile, athletes in vets Channing Frye and Tobias Harris (more on him later), Maurice Harkless and rookie Aaron Gordon. All of these guys—except Frye—are in their mid 20’s and younger, perfect for what Coach Jackson has proven he relates to.

Skiles to the Suns, Bulls and Bucks to the playoffs in his 13 years as a coach. Courtesy: Bucksbasketball.com

If you can’t get Jackson, former Magic point guard Scott Skiles (1989-1994) would also make a great coach for this young squad. In his time in Phoenix, Chicago and Milwaukee, he revived those struggling franchises and led them back to the playoffs while compiling a record of 443-433 (.506). 

Skiles played five seasons in Magic pinstripes. Courtesy: NBA.com

Skiles is known for having a tough defensive minded philosophy that is similar to the style in which he played during his ten-year career. This Magic team desperately needs an infusion of that.

I hear the Billy Donovan rumors and supporters wanting to try this union again, but this is like an ex-boyfriend and ex-girlfriend that’s considering a reconciliation; there’s a reason why it didn’t work out the first time. As Drake and Jay said on the Blueprint III album, “On to the next one.”

• Orlando will likely be selecting in the top five of the draft again come June. The Magic’s biggest need is a tough defensive minded, agile post man who does the dirty work, like Draymond Green is to Golden State, DeAndre Jordan is for the Clippers and Tyson Chandler is for the Mavericks, you get my point. 

Unless they get some magic… I said unless the get some magic, it won’t be a top three pick, so that means no Jahlil Okafor from Duke or Karl Anthony Towns from Kentucky, the top rated big men in this class. But that’s okay, because there is another guy who fits Orlando’s need and will be a perfect complement to fellow post man Nik Vucevic.

In order for this team to make the playoffs in 2015-16, It’s imperative that this selection is someone who you can plug-in as a game one starter. Willie Cauley-Stein the Junior 1st Team AP All-American big man from Kentucky can be that guy. And if by chance the ping-pong ball doesn’t bounce Orlando’s way to a top five selection, WCS is likely to still be available around picks number 6,7 and 8 according to the multitude of mock drafts available via the Internet. 

 

At 7-0 240 pounds, Cauley-Stein is the elite shot blocking, defensively versatile big that Vucevic isn’t. He can guard centers and stretch power forwards and stick with guards in the pick and roll game, plus he has superb leaping ability to control the defensive backboards and get after it on the offensive glass. Maybe he and Elfrid Payton can mimic the “Lob City” play Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan have perfected in Clipperland.

 

The negative on Willie is his unpolished offensive skills, but that won’t be as highlighted or a team weakness playing next to the current dominant big man in central Florida. There’s a possibility organization brass will let backup power forward/center Kyle O’Quinn walk in free agency, so this selection would kill two birds with one stone.

The current mock drafts—there are more than two handfuls—are split between the Magic selecting Stanley Johnson a 6-7 forward out of Arizona or the 7-0 Kristaps Porzingis stretch power forward out of Latvia if they earn a top four pick. Both players are more known for their offensive skills and could be a key in stretching the floor for Vucevic to dominate the post without double teams, while also keeping driving lanes open for Oladipo and Payton to slash. 

The only concern selecting another wing would be a log jam at the four spot. The Magic’s hope is to keep Tobias Harris, and you also have Channing Frye and their top pick from last year in Aaron Gordon who all play that position. But, when you’re picking in the top five three years in a row, you need all the talent you can get.

• As soon as possible, resign Tobias Harris. Harris was a steal for the Magic when they began this rebuilding process (acquired 2/21/13 from Milwaukee for J.J. Redick). 

While Harris has been often injured in his short time in central Florida, his skill set is just the type that causes matchup nightmares night after night. He has an inside-outside offensive game that compliments both cornerstones in Oladipo and Vucevic. 

 

Defensively he has the ability to guard a Kevin Durant or LeBron James on the perimeter and in the post. Harris gives the Magic versatility that more than half the NBA covets. 

The other key variable about Harris is he’s a vet, and this roster doesn’t have many who are actually playing major minutes. You need that experience on the court as much as his physical ability.

The Magic have potential and talent that GMs across the league salivate over, but there needs to be a breakthrough in development individually and collectively in order for this team to accelerate this rebuilding process or they’ll be back to square one. They’re already one step closer having bounced their coach.  If the Magic don’t make a significant jump in this coming fourth year of rebuilding, it may be time to push that big reset red button and start from scratch, again.