The Vital Role of the NBA D-League


One of the great moments during last week’s opening night in the NBA was seeing Spurs guard Johnathan Simmons drop a career-high 20 points against the super team Golden State Warriors. It wasn’t too long ago that this guy paid a few hundred bucks to tryout for the NBA D-League. If it wasn’t for his time with the Austin Spurs (San Antonio Spurs minor league affiliate), he might not have had a chance to live his dream of playing in the NBA.

Simmons is one of the many stories on how his D-League experience helped his chances to make it to the NBA. Other players like Hassan Whiteside, Jordan Clarkson, Seth Curry, Jeremy Lin and Danny Green can vouch that the minors have been a big part of their success.

After paying for a D-League tryout, Johnathan Simmons is playing a vital role one the San Antonio Spurs
After paying for a D-League tryout, Johnathan Simmons is playing a vital role with the San Antonio Spurs (GETTY IMAGES).

The NBA Developmental League was founded in 2001 with eight teams. The eight teams were located primarily in the southeast of the United States. By 2005 rolled around teams were purchased by private owners for hopes to bring an connection to some of the NBA franchises. Eventually some teams purchased their own teams. In 2008, the original eight franchises located in the southeast were either folded or relocation to their parent NBA teams.

The D-League saw a big jump in teams in 2008 when the league expanded to 16 from eight. From 2010 to 2014, there was only name changes to a few teams. In 2014 the Knicks purchased their own team and made the Westchester Knicks. The next year, we saw Toronto expanded to the Raptors 905, the first International D-League team. For this upcoming season, their will be three new teams added (Brooklyn Nets –> Long Island Nets, Chicago Bulls –> Windy City Bulls and the Charlotte Hornets –> Greensboro Swarm). The Swarm will be the first team located in the original southeast location since the teams disbanded in 2008. There was also some teams that purchased affilate teams to make them parent club ownership (Phoenix Suns bought the Bakersfield Jam, Utah Jazz bought the Idaho Stampede and the Sacramento Kings bought the Reno Bighorns).

That now has the D-League at 22 total, all owned or connected by a single NBA franchise. Here is the list of teams that have a minor league teams:

Parent-Club ownership: minor league teams that are own by NBA teams and the year were purchased

  • Los Angeles D-Fenders -> Los Angeles Lakers (2006)
  • Oklahoma City Blue -> Oklahoma City Thunder (2008)
  • Canton Charge -> Cleveland Cavaliers (2011)
  • Santa Cruz Warriors -> Golden State Warriors (2012)
  • Delaware 87ers -> Philadelphia 76ers (2013)
  • Austin Spurs -> San Antonio Spurs (2014)
  • Westchester Knicks -> New York Knicks (2014)
  • Fort Wayne Mad Ants -> Indiana Pacers (2015)
  • Raptors 905 -> Toronto Raptors (2015)
  • Greensboro Swarm -> Charlotte Hornets (2016)
  • Long Island Nets -> Brooklyn Nets (2016)
  • Northern Arizona Suns -> Phoenix Suns (2016)
  • Reno Bighorns -> Sacramento Kings (2016)
  • Salt Lake City Stars -> Utah Jazz (2016)
  • Windy City Bulls -> Chicago Bulls (2016)

Single-Affiliation/Hybrid teams: teams that have contracts with NBA teams but are not fully owned by them. The years are for when they signed an agreement.

  • Rio Grande Valley Vipers -> Houston Rockets (2009)
  • Texas Legends -> Dallas Mavericks (2009)
  • Maine Red Claws -> Boston Celtics (2012)
  • Sioux Falls Skyforce -> Miami Heat (2013)
  • Erie Bayhawks -> Orlando Magic (2014)
  • Grand Rapids Drive -> Detroit Pistons (2014)
  • Iowa Energy -> Memphis Grizzlies (2014)

The list of NBA teams that do not currently have an exclusive contract with any D-League teams

  • Atlanta Hawks
  • Denver Nuggets
  • Los Angeles Clippers
  • Milwaukee Bucks
  • Minnesota Timberwolves
  • New Orleans Pelicans
  • Portland Trail Blazers
  • Washington Wizards

Just from looking from the list above, you see that in recent years you see teams having a direct relationship with minor league teams in order to find and develop their own players, whether it is an ownership or a current contract with the team.

The D-League is great for many reasons. Some teams use the D-League to experiment while other D-League to find promising prospects. It even gives old NBA veterans (remember Baron Davis with the 87ers not too long ago?) a shot to prove they still can play at a competitive level. We have also seen players like Rajon Rondo and Brandon Jennings use the D-League as a way to come back slowly from serious injuries. If the NBA wants it to work potentially like how the MLB does it, they must have control over the D-League team and that is how it will work for all 22 NBA/D-League teams.

So what does that mean for the other eight teams without a single-affiliate? Here is where it might get tricky. They’ll be able to call up unsigned players, but when it comes to them assigning young player it’ll be a process.

If one team, say the Atlanta Hawks, want to assign a player to the minors, they’ll look for volunteer D-League teams. If multiple D-League clubs want to take on the player from the Hawks, then they can choose between those teams on which scenario works best for them. If no teams volunteers, then the D-League holds a lottery among the seven “hybrid” D-League teams (the one that are not fully owned by a team), and the winner will recivce the Atlanta Hawks player.

This sounds like an annoying process, but this will eventually get those eight teams to buy and operate their own minor league system. As recent statistics have shown, the D-League process can sometimes help out teams.

When the NBA first connected with the D-League in 2004, only 15 players with D-League experience made their teams opening night roster. That number have only increased from there and this past opening night, 135 players on NBA opening night rosters had D-League experience one way or another, with each team having at least one player from the D-League. The Celtics, Heat and Pistons led the wat with eight former D-Leaguers and the Raptors were not too far behind with seven. From the looks of it, that number will only increase in the next couple of seasons.

Not only has it helped teams, but the players benefited from that. Take Hassan Whiteside for example. Whiteside was a former 2nd round pick for the Sacramento Kings behind struggling with injuries and play time. After stints with the Bighorns (Kings minor league affiliate) and overseas for a few years, he joined the Iowa Energy where he played in three games. In those three games he dominated, averaging 22.0 points, 15.7 rebounds and 5.3 blocks. He signed with the Miami Heat as they saw a potential piece to their roster. He was sent down to their affiliate the Sioux Falls Skyforce and played in one game and recorded 21 points, 12 rebounds and 4 blocks. He was recalled the next day and proved that he was worth their time. Right away he contributed to the Heat and signed a nice contract this past offseason worth almost $100 million. Not bad for a guy who was only making $980,000 the year before with the Heat.

Guys like Hassan Whiteside have found the D-League helpful. After a short stint with the Iowa Energy, Whiteside has become a nice building piece for the Miami Heat (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images).

Whiteside is one of the many NBA players that have used the minors to help re-vitalize their careers. Another example is Gerald Green. Green was drafted out of high school by the Boston Celtics with the 18th overall pick in the 2005 NBA Draft. He struggled to find a spot on any team was eventually out of the league and playing overseas in 2009. In 2011 he signed with the Los Angeles Lakers in hopes to make an NBA comeback. Green was wavied and signed with the Los Angeles D-Fenders. During his time there he played in 22 games; averaging 19.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.4 blocks. He impressive play led him to signed with the New Jersey Nets and has been a solid role player wherever he has played, currently with the Boston Celtics.

Gerald Green’s impressive stint with the Los Angeles D-Fenders might have saved his NBA career (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images).

Of course there are a few things that need to be done in order for the NBA to use the D-League as a full-time farm system. Right now a current D-League salary is $25,000 while some players are being paid lower than that. This is the reason why most players bail to play overseas after they get cut from their NBA team. In the next Collective Bargaining Agreement, there will need to be disussions on raising the teams salary caps.

Another thing to look at is roster spots. NBA teams that are contending for playoff spots typically don’t have roster space for developmental players. Since this happens, potential prospects get waived in training camp and might get picked up from another team without the originally team having any sort of exclusive rights.

If the NBA can add some development roster spots to allow teams to hold D-League rights on players who they might be interested in the future, this can potentially help teams to develop young players. It can also remove some teams strategies on “drafting  and stashing” second round foreign players and instead take risks on college players with thier second round picks.

Again, these are all my ideas on what the D-League can do to make this a fully operational farm system. Clearly some stuff can be done to make it better but right now it has shown that players are benefitting with the D-League. In the coming years, we can see those teams that do not have a D-League affiliate eventually have one and soon all 30 NBA teams will have 30 NBA Developmental League teams.

The D-League has come along way from eight teams in 2001 to 22 in 2016. With every NBA team having one player with D-League experience and a couple of current role players using the D-League as a tool to help them become better, the D-League will become more vital to the NBA for years to come.


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