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Middle ground of D-League affiliation is disappearing fast

The Spurs and Warriors each have their own single -affiliate D-League franchises, but other teams have been slow to catch on to the trend. (Photo by Jack Arent/NBAE via Getty Images) The Spurs (Austin Toros; left) and Warriors (Santa Cruz Warriors; right) each have their own single-affiliate D-League franchises, but other teams have been slow to catch on to the trend. (Photo by Jack Arent/NBAE via Getty Images)

The NBA D-League is a worthwhile developmental resource, albeit one that doesn't pay the obvious dividends of the model minor-league programs in other major sports. But its value becomes apparent on closer inspection: Role player types all around the league have either come up through D-League channels or spent time on assignment, to say nothing of the coaches and front-office staffers who honed their trade working for a D-League outfit. It amounts to on-the-job training without the stakes, and for that reason allows those NBA teams with single affiliates -- whether outright or through the hybrid model (in which the NBA franchise pays to control the basketball ops of its affiliate, but doesn't actually own the team) -- to take personnel chances that may not pay immediate dividends. It can be a slower path to reward, but teams willing to invest time and resources into their affiliate programs can functionally create an even deeper bench for their teams and a create a developmental tree of coaches and talent evaluators.

But those opportunities are drying up quickly, as was noted by Bill Oram in his fantastic Jazz-centric D-League feature for The Salt Lake Tribune. Utah came and went on the D-League scene with the now-defunct Utah Flash -- the rights to which have since been sold to Philadelphia for relocation -- and is now is left without a direct affiliate and all the tangible benefits it provides:

Earlier this month, the Sacramento Kings became the 14th NBA team to enter a single-affiliation D-League partnership, forcing the Jazz out of a shared arrangement in Reno and on to Bakersfield — where they are one of five teams affiliated with the Jam.

The remaining 16 NBA teams share three D-League affiliates. While teams with single affiliations hire their coaches, provide support and direct on-court decisions, others like the Jazz have to live with the decisions of their independently owned affiliates.

"There certainly is a breaking point where the system might not work as well for everyone involved," said Dan Reed, the D-League president.

The Hawks, Clippers, Suns, Raptors, Bulls, Nuggets, Pelicans, Timberwolves, Wizards, Bobcats, Pistons, Pacers, Grizzlies, and Bucks are in the same boat. Between those 16 teams are the resources of just a trio of general affiliates, creating a situation where players on assignment from the NBA can't always get the coaching attention and playing time intended by the minor-league structure. As a result, the dwindling number of group affiliate D-League franchises and the scarce resources available have pushed teams toward the extremes. Those franchises wise enough to see the merits of the D-League likely own their own affiliate already, or run its basketball operations through the hybrid model. Those that don't are barely involved in the D-League at all, as developmental opportunities are now crunched under the current arrangement.

Things could conceivably get even tighter, too, if any of the three remaining group affiliates -- the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, Bakersfield Jam, and Iowa Energy -- is snatched up by a late-coming NBA team. Again, from Oram:

Chris Alpert, the D-League's director of basketball operations, mused about the possibility of one of those teams affiliating with one team, leaving seven and eight NBA teams sharing two D-League teams.

Because Alpert said the D-League wouldn't be likely to put a moratorium on affiliations, there's only one alternative.

"We're going to have to seriously consider expanding," he said.

Said his boss, Reed, the D-League president: "We're terrified of growing too fast and losing all our momentum. But at the same time, we're seeing a lot of demand in the marketplace right now."

That risk of overstretch is very real, as further expansion often requires delving into questionable markets and a clear dilution of the league's talent pool. Still, that an ever-increasing number of teams are willing to subsidize their affiliates for the sake of exclusivity -- and in spite of the general challenges of running a minor league team -- should help articulate the expected return.

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