When it comes to developing young men drafted by their league, Major League Baseball’s “minor leagues” is the premiere system. Unlike the NBA, which immediately guarantees a roster spot to a first round draft pick and guarantees the player millions of dollars, MLB has a system of incremental player growth administrated by the team that gradually prepares the player for the rigors of the sport.
In the past, the NBA had no real concern about developing players. When players had to prove a “financial hardship” to enter the league prior to exhausting their college eligibility, and Soviet rule kept players from defecting before they had passed their prime, the league used free methods of transitioning players from their parent’s (or government’s) oversight to a life of extravagant wealth. Then, about twenty years ago, the trend of players to quit school and start making money began. General Managers, not wanting to miss out on an elite talent, stopped emphasizing things like “preparedness” and “development,” instead caring more about “potential” and “athleticism.” The result was that a good number of players whose immaturity and inability to grow, that in the past would have become apparent when they clashed with their college coach, were drafted into the NBA and given multi-year guaranteed contracts. Even if some of those players could become valuable pieces, their development was stunted due to inability to get floor experience.
Over the past decade, basketball has attempted to emulate the plan of their baseball playing brethren. In creating the National Basketball Developmental League (“D-League”) some effort has been made to address the trend of players beginning their careers earlier. In ____, __ teams, mostly in the Southeast, were spawned by the NBA as a de facto minor league. It mostly consisted of second rounders cut by teams and free agents whose dreams of playing in the NBA still had a flicker. As time has progressed, the D-League has expanded, some teams (including the Thunder) have purchased franchises, and in the most recent CBA, the players relented to allow first and second year players to be assigned to teams affiliated with their club. This past Summer, the league allowed a bit more control regarding how teams filled out their D-League rosters by giving D-League rights to the affiliates of teams that cut the player during training camp.
Unfortunately, despite the advances, teams have been hesitant to utilize the D-League. When players are assigned there, the team loses a modicum of control over how they are developed—especially when the affiliate is attached to multiple teams—and more importantly, the assigned players still receive a full paycheck, so the big club really wants to monitor their investment. Couple that with the fact that players don’t want to be in the D-League taking buses to games and living in budget motels and it’s hardly reaching its potential.
To reach that potential, it will require a lot of concessions by the players in the CBA negotiations.
What will it take for the D-League to function anywhere close to what Minor League Baseball does?
- Allow teams to assign all draft picks (including picks that are not guaranteed NBA contracts) to their D-League affiliate
- Then, expand the draft to three/four rounds
- Any player on a rookie or minimum (with less than five years experience) can be assigned
- 1st Rounders assigned to the D-League are paid, say, 5X (2nd Rounders, 3X) the rate of an ordinary D-League player, but far less than their NBA contract
- When a player is assigned, their roster spot can be filled with a free agent
Unlike undrafted players, the people affected here are due paying members of the NBPA, and therefore, much harder to sell out for concessions elsewhere.
Were those changes instituted, the D-League would actually be capable of fulfilling the purpose for which it was created. Most of those changes, save for the last, would be a very difficult pill for the Player’s Association to swallow. Unlike the undrafted players I mentioned in Part 4, the people affected here are due paying members of the NBPA, and therefore, much harder to sell out for concessions elsewhere. And as I alluded to earlier, players DO NOT want to play in the D-League, and certainly do not want to take a cut in pay while enjoying far fewer fringe benefits.
As for the changes in the draft, the players would be opposed to those, as well. Particularly in a situation like now when the owners are demanding that the players reduce their entitlement to revenues, the Union certainly is not going to also accept further reductions in freedom. The way the D-League works now, the vast majority who participate do so voluntarily and if an NBA opportunity arises, there is nothing blocking that player from advancing to the higher level. For instance, if a player is cut during training camp by Dallas and latches on to Dallas’ D-League team then plays well, that player is not limited to waiting for a roster opening on the Mavericks. If the Washington Wizards want to offer that player a contract, he can sign with them and fly to D.C. that day.
That flexibility is precisely what limits NBA franchises from sinking very many assets into the D-League. In the scenario described above, Dallas just used their cash and their staff to develop a player that would then be theoretically competing against them. That is counterproductive. Then, from the player’s perspective allowing team’s more ability to limit their opportunities (by adding restrictions and allowing more draft rounds) is the same.
In the end, the owners would like to work toward the changes I listed above, but it is not going to happen during these collective bargaining negotiations. With other issues involving money being far more important, the amount of fight they will put up for tweaks to the D-league will be minimal. Even if they were able to get something done, there is a chance the next CBA would just undo it, and in the meantime they would have just given up something more important to them (money) for a short term fix to a long term solution.
In the event the D-League were improved, it would only help the Thunder more. Team management, at least since the move to Oklahoma City, has always been ahead of the curve in utilizing it for development. Before a game had been played by the Thunder, the ownership group had purchased the Tulsa 66ers in order to have full control over the systems they taught. While other teams have been hesitant to send their players away for playing time, Sam Presti has assigned Kyle Weaver, D.J. White, Byron Mullens, and even Cole Aldrich to Tulsa for significant stretches of time. Last June he drafted a player that had played for the 66ers (Latavious Williams) and at the end of last season he called up Mustafa Shakur from Tulsa to finish the season. If he were given more authority to utilize the developmental team, one would suspect he would take advantage.
As the team moves forward, it might more advantageous to have a fully functioning D-League. The young core of starters is bound to keep anyone the team drafts for the next decade on the bench. Therefore, the days of Thunder players learning-on-the-fly is past. Being allowed to put them in Tulsa to reach their potential and choose which guys are most worthy of holding roster spots would be ideal.
Next: The End of Superstar Free Agency