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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