NBA teams embracing D-League more than ever
RENO, Nev. -- The locker room of the Idaho Stampede wasn't a locker room at all. It wasn't even a room. It was four temporary walls joined together, and it had no ceiling. It sat like a large unfinished cargo container inside the arena behind the court where the Stampede were about to play in front of the most intimidating audience in basketball.
Mike Peck, the Stampede's first-year coach, was pulling on his black suit jacket inside the collapsible locker room. "It's the D-League,'' he said of his team's surroundings. "I'm going to use the same line everybody else uses to explain everything -- it's the D-League.''
It also happens to be the future for the NBA and -- despite crude appearances -- that future has never been more promising. NBA teams are embracing the 12-year-old D-League more than ever as a resource to develop talent. Eleven D-League franchises are managed exclusively by NBA parent teams, and someday, according to a variety of league and team officials, the D-League will expand to 30 teams. The day will come sooner than later when every NBA franchise will have an exclusive relationship with its own minor-league affiliate.
The Trail Blazers manage the Stampede as if it were their version of a Triple-A farm team. Young guards Nolan Smith and Will Barton, who had been sitting unused at the end of the Blazers' bench throughout their 102-97 victory at Minnesota on Saturday, were dispatched to the Stampede to play big minutes Monday and Tuesday here at the annual D-League Showcase. Neither one of them claimed to be offended by the assignment.
"I was actually very excited about this,'' said Smith, the second-year combo guard from Duke who scored 17 points (on 5-of-18 shooting) with five turnovers and five assists in a 110-100 loss Tuesday to the Canton Charge. "Most people look at it as a demotion and 'I'm going to the D-League, poor me.' But I was excited -- you come down here, you get to play, you're not sitting on the bench, and they tell you to just come out and play basketball. Have fun, let loose. To get the opportunity to play in front of everybody in this building right now, it's an opportunity.''
Representatives of every NBA team -- including Trail Blazers GM Neil Olshey -- outnumbered the fans Tuesday afternoon.
"It's invaluable,'' Olshey said of Portland's affiliation with the Stampede. "One thing you can't promise young players on an NBA team is minutes, because you can't put the team in position to suffer in terms of wins and losses.''
D-League franchises that cost $400,000 to buy a decade ago are now being valued at close to $4 million (though no team has yet to be sold at that price). More than half of the franchises claim to be profitable, more than a quarter of all current NBA players have D-League experience and the league has been broadcasting all of its games live on YouTube in an innovative attempt to grow an audience for the long term.
"In the future, there are going to be synergies we can't even see right now,'' predicted Milton Lee, the Nets' GM of minor league operations who oversees Brooklyn's affiliation with the Springfield (Mass.) Armor.
Every NBA team has some kind of partnership with the D-League. A total of five D-League teams are each affiliated with three or four NBA franchises; for example, the Sioux Falls Skyforce's uniform features the logos of four competing NBA parents -- the Heat, Timberwolves, Magic and 76ers -- who send their players to South Dakota with relatively little control over their development. That was the original model for the D-League, and it is now yesterday's news.
Single affiliation is the new way to go, and there are three ways to manage it. Donnie Nelson, the farsighted Mavericks president, has pioneered one method. Nelson owns the Texas Legends and runs it as a profitable business, hiring older, recognizable NBA names like Melvin Ely, Mike James and Chris Douglas-Roberts (Dallas has called up the latter two) while providing a carnival atmosphere in the arena to draw in young fans and families.
The Lakers launched the second method in 2006 when they became the first NBA franchise to buy a D-League team, the L.A. D-Fenders. The Thunder and Spurs are other progressive D-League owners who shuttle young players back and forth between the majors and minors, and, earlier this season, the Knicks had Amar'e Stoudemire work his way into shape with their minor-league affiliate, the Erie BayHawks.
The third and most popular method is the "hybrid'' affiliation, as introduced by the Rockets in 2009 when they bought the basketball operations of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers (while local ownership continued to control the franchise's business end). Portland is in its first season of hybrid affiliation with Idaho: The Blazers assign players, coaches, a trainer and other amenities to the Stampede, who are owned independently by Bill Ilett.
While the 19-15 Blazers are in NBA playoff contention, the Stampede have been developing talent across the board despite their 4-14 record. In addition to creating court time for young players like Smith, Barton, Joel Freeland and Victor Claver, the Blazers have been investing in coaches for the future.
Peck, 42, had gone 157-8 in five seasons at Findlay Prep in Nevada, where he won three national championships and developed a half-dozen NBA players, including Boston's Avery Bradley and Cleveland's Tristan Thompson. "You're constantly feeding the beast and the machine -- it's a never-ending cycle,'' he said of the pressures to recruit and maintain a national program at the highest level. He was the high school version of John Calipari, and just as he was beginning to wonder where it was leading him, he was able to earn a head-coaching job in the D-League.
The Blazers hired two assistants as well -- Barry Rohrssen, 52, a former head coach at Manhattan College who had assisted at UNLV and Pitt; and retired big man Scott Williams, a four-year North Carolina Tar Heel who played 15 NBA seasons and won three championships with Michael Jordan's Bulls. The 6-foot-10 Williams has squeezed himself into coach seats for every team flight this season.
"Everybody wants to be in the NBA,'' Olshey said. "The question is, Are you willing to do what it takes to be in the NBA? These guys are willing to go to Boise, Idaho, to fly coach and be in the bus leagues. It says they're coaches, and that they're the kind of people we want to see.''
Peck spent preseason as a full-time member of Terry Stotts' coaching staff, enabling him to become fully acquainted with the roster and the Blazers' playbook, which he runs to maintain synergy with the parent club. When Smith and other Blazers are assigned to the Stampede, they continue to receive their NBA salary and daily NBA per diem on the road; the CBA mandates that they receive a single room on the road (their teammates double up) and first-class seating on flights whenever available.
Full-time D-League players earn between $15,000 and $25,000 per season. If the business grows and salaries rise with the next collective bargaining agreement, the D-League may eventually become an option for the best high school players who don't want to spend a year in college.
Before the Showcase, the Stampede had won three in a row around the leadership of 29-year-old Coby Karl, the versatile 6-5 son of Nuggets coach George Karl who serves as point guard and coach on the floor. But the presence of guards Smith and Barton (4-of-12 for 14 points) limited Karl to 23 minutes Tuesday as the Charge ran away in the second half. "We're on the verge of a double-digit lead,'' Peck told his players at halftime while encouraging them to cut back on 11 first-half turnovers.
Peck exhibited the patient demeanor of an NBA coach, even as he watched the Charge force another nine turnovers in the second half while attacking the basket for 46 free throws overall. "We've got to go home and win some games,'' he told his players in the temporary locker room after their latest loss. "That's where we're at. That's the position we're in now.''
Peck did what NBA coaches are forced to do habitually -- he maintained composure in front of his players, and then expressed frustration to Blazers assistant GM Bill Branch, who put an arm around his rookie coach and encouraged him to remain upbeat.
"It's hard for any coach in this situation,'' Branch said. "He wants to win -- and we want to win too.''
The ultimate goal for the Stampede is to win games while developing NBA talent. But there are times when you can't have everything, and so the view of the major league executive and the minor league coach was reminiscent of the farewell scene of
The NBA has experienced difficult moves in recent years -- from Charlotte to New Orleans, from Vancouver to Memphis and from Seattle to OKC -- but this is one relocation that rival owners would embrace. The Kings would be moving to a larger market with a long tradition for supporting NBA basketball. The ownership group in Seattle, including Microsoft's Steve Ballmer and the Nordstrom department store family, would be solid, and hedge-fund manager Chris Hansen is on his way to having a new arena in place in three years. After years of unconsummated haggling over a new arena in Sacramento, people throughout the NBA will be quietly rooting for Seattle.
Owner Mark Cuban appeared to remind Nowitzki that the Mavs will have another option if they can't sign Paul away from the Clippers this summer as a free agent: They could use their cap space to make a trade with any number of teams that will be trying to escape the more prohibitive luxury taxes that will take effect next season. In the new CBA, cap space promises to be more useful than ever. While Nowitzki backed off his statements, it wasn't entirely bad form for him to express frustration. He reminded Mavs fans that he wants to win as badly as anyone, providing hope for a turnaround acquisition this summer.
Get To Know: Goran Dragic
The 6-4 point guard from Slovenia is averaging career highs of 14.5 points and 6.3 assists as he inherits control of the Suns from Steve Nash. Dragic, 26, entered the NBA as a Suns second-round pick in 2008 (San Antonio drafted him and immediately traded him to Phoenix) and spent a season and a half in Houston before returning to Phoenix last summer.
? He stopped playing soccer when a tackle opened up a deep three-inch gash along his leg. "I went straight to the hospital, I even passed out because I saw blood," Dragic said. "I was 9 or 10. I was recovering maybe a month, and after that my mom and dad said no more soccer for you. That's how I started basketball. My friends in the neighborhood were basketball players and one day I went to see a practice.
"Basketball was difficult the first couple months I tried it, but then when we started to play games it was really fun. I started waking up 2 a.m., 3 a.m., just to watch some NBA games. I had some trouble with that, especially the next day at school -- I fell asleep. When my mom found out, she let me watch NBA when it was Friday or Saturday and I didn't have any education the next day.
"Steve Nash and Allen Iverson, those players were dominating the point guard position. Steve knows I watched him. When I found out that I was going to play here for the Phoenix Suns with Steve Nash, I was really blessed and I was really happy. He's a big fan of soccer, too, so we had a lot of connections, and he helped me to be professional, how to play pick-and-rolls, and I'm really grateful for that.''
? His relationship with Nash has defined his career. "When I was back in Europe," Dragic said, "I never watched games that I played. I never watched video of myself. Then with Steve sometimes we'd sit down together on the plane just to watch the games, and he told me what should I do here and in these kinds of situations.''
He began to hear people comparing him to Nash in 2010. "The year that we made the conference finals, I played really well and we had the best bench in NBA," he said. "We had a really great chemistry, but for me it was tough. I never want to be Steve Nash. It's really tough to be him -- nobody can be. That year I felt a lot of pressure because I got those limited minutes, and suddenly you have to be great like Steve Nash. That was a pretty tough challenge.
"I didn't want to become him. I knew that was not possible. I just tried to develop my personality, my game and tried to be me. On the plane when I was talking to Steve, he told me, 'Don't put extra pressure on [yourself], don't be somebody else. Just try to play your game like you're in the backyard with your friends. Be loose and then your values are going to come up.' "
? Dragic was grateful for the challenges of moving from city to city. In 2006, he moved to Spain for his first season abroad. "When I was 17, it was my first time that I went away from my parents," he said. "I didn't play so well. It was a difficult experience for me, and I didn't have a great season. Then I went back to Slovenia and I had a great season and I came to the NBA. A lot of people were saying that I made a mistake, that I went away from Slovenia too soon, but I don't think so. Because I matured faster -- it toughened my personality and I learned a lot of things that I couldn't learn if I stayed.''
In Feburary 2011, the Suns traded him to Houston. "When I came from Europe to the U.S.," Dragic said, "it was really hard to adjust -- different language, different culture, different basketball, a lot more physical, tougher, faster. I figured that stuff out and I made a lot of friends in Phoenix. Then suddenly you find that you got traded and it's all over again -- you have to meet all new people, a new city, new fans. It was hard, but also I think that helped me. I matured more as a person, and in the end that was a good move for me because I get a lot more playing time and I played really well over there.''
Now that Nash has moved to the Lakers, leadership of the Suns has been transferred to Dragic, who was signed as a free agent last summer. "I'm a foreign guy trying to communicate with other guys on the floor and with the coaching staff," Dragic said. "I know that I have to be the general out there and try to put players on the right spot and try to be that leader. But at the same time this year it's a totally new team, seven or eight new players. We're still trying to figure out things, trying to establish our team, and we've had some rough times. I think it's because we don't have a lot of experience yet, but we're getting there. It's a great challenge for me and every game I'm looking forward to playing.''
Quote Of The Week
"I don't think for a second this team is too old to win a championship.''
The Lakers' GM was speaking to season-ticket holders at Staples Center on Sunday in the midst of the Lakers latest losing streak, which reached five games with their 108-105 loss at San Antonio on Wednesday.
"I don't think age is a factor, no -- that's an excuse," Kupchak said. "I don't think that's a factor at all when you look at our team. Young teams don't win championships. You have to have a good mix of experience and some legs in this business.''
Age may turn out to be the least of their problems. A torn labrum suffered by Dwight Howard, a concussion by Pau Gasol and a torn right-hip ligament by Jordan Hill sidelined the Lakers' top three big men. There appears to be no reasonable trade the Lakers can make to reverse their poor play and bad luck. Wednesday's loss left them 12½ games behind the West-leading Clippers and 4½ games out of the playoffs, and with each passing week the season has looked less salvageable. We will never know how good this team might have been if we never get to see the Lakers enjoying weeks of good health together on the court.
? A franchise executive predicts that few teams will be seeking to trade for Kings center DeMarcus Cousins. "The league has really changed in the way we look at players," he said. "I think there would have been 10 to 15 teams that would have been interested in him a decade ago. I bet it's half that many teams -- or less -- that would be willing to take him on now. We do all of this research and background work on players now before we draft them. I think half of the consideration when we look at players now is trying to understand who these guys are as people. I really do think that most teams are going to say they don't want any part of him.''
? Another franchise executive on his best guess for the No. 1 pick in the draft: "It's so damn early, but the No. 1 factor is to ask, Who can impact the game? Right now, I'd say it's [Kentucky's] Nerlens Noel, just because he's a shot-blocker. [UCLA's] Shabazz Muhammad can score, but he plays a position [small forward] that comes a dime a dozen. [Indiana's] Cody Zeller was probably rated too high before, and now he might be too low. It may end up being Ben McLemore if he can push Kansas up another notch in the rankings. People are complaining about this draft just like all the others -- each of the last seven drafts was supposed to have been the worst draft in NBA history, and at the same time somebody always emerges to help a team. I guess I keep circling back to Noel as the favorite, because the worst teams can't defend and with him they could get someone who could impact the game defensively.''
? A GM on the problem with GMs: "Too many coaches get fired in the league today. I truly believe GMs shouldn't be allowed to fire so many coaches. The GMs should be firing themselves -- they hired those coaches in the first place, they thought those coaches were the right fit for their teams. Then when it doesn't work out, they fire the coaches to avoid blame.''
Here are the best players to pass through the D-League on their way to the NBA, in honor of Lin, the greatest phenom to ever emerge from the minors: