When the NBA D-League came into existence 13 years ago, it was a much different looking beast than it is today. Originally called the National Basketball Development League, it began play in the fall of 2001 with eight teams and a dream of eventually coalescing into a legitimate, fully functioning minor league for North American basketball.
It’s easy to see why the NBA decided this was the right thing to do. At the time, teams didn’t have many options for dealing with players who they owned rights to – you could sign him to an NBA deal and use your limited roster space, or hope to convince him a brief stay overseas was worthwhile. The NBA needed a way of offering players developmental opportunities within their institutional structure, and alas, the NBDL was born.
Fast forward to 2014, and much of former commissioner David Stern’s vision for the D-League has nearly come to fruition. There are now 18 teams in the D-League, and approximately one-third of all NBA players during the 2013-14 season spent time on one of those rosters. The NBA’s new television deal includes a plan to start broadcasting D-League games on ESPN networks in 2016, and over half of NBA teams have an individual affiliate tied to the franchise.
This is the minor league that the NBA always wanted, and entering the 2014-15 season, the league is closer than ever to having it. Now that revenues are exploding and the global talent base for basketball is getting bigger, it’s time for the D-League to takes its final leap to full-fledged minor league in the next few years.
13 teams, one affiliate
With 17 different NBA franchises directly tied to their affiliates and 18 total teams in the league, the D-League’s primary issue seems pretty clear. The Fort Wayne Mad Ants are the only independent team remaining in the league, and that’s left 13 franchises to figure out how to utilize one 15-man roster.
This could potentially create some serious issues next season, and will likely impact the way that teams handle certain players. Sending down a rookie to your direct affiliate, where you can dictate his playing time and style of play, is one thing. It’s a lot less tempting when you have no idea what the D-League coaching staff will do with him.
There’s really only one solution to this problem: a 30-team D-League with one-to-one affiliation for every franchise. Until these minor league teams are true extensions of their NBA parents, we’ll continue to see instances of young players being kept on big club rosters even they could use the extra reps.
“The D-League on ESPN”
The fact that the NBA included the D-League in its negotiations with ESPN and Turner Sports says something about the league’s plans. You don’t push your minor league as part – even a small part – of a $24 billion TV deal unless you have some confidence that the product will be appealing to your audience.
The D-League’s slice of TV action certainly isn’t huge – we’re talking 20 combined D-League and Summer League games starting in 2016-17 – but it’s a major step forward for a product that’s been stuck on YouTube the past couple years. We’ve seen how insatiable the taste for basketball can be in the United States, and if teams start using their affiliates differently, the product may only become more entertaining.
When ESPN thinks about getting D-League games on its networks, here’s to guessing they’re not thinking fans want to see struggling journeymen and busted prospects. However, if teams start sending rookies down like we see in other sports, the idea of seeing your team’s first-round pick in a starring role on a minor league team sounds pretty good. Who wouldn’t want to see what a guy like Zach Lavine could do on the D-League stage with some professional coaching?
The NBA’s ongoing commitment to expanding the D-League hasn’t been for show, and now it feels like the final step is getting all 30 teams on board. Of course, the past few years have revealed that may be the hard part.
Teams need to see the value
If every team agreed that a relationship with or ownership of a D-League affiliate was a strong investment, you’d probably already see the 30-team farm system we’ve discussed. However, numerous NBA front offices don’t quite agree on the value of D-League affiliation, and it may be the biggest hindrance in the league’s efforts, logistics of expansion withstanding.
Two teams that had D-League affiliates last season, Brooklyn and Portland, ended those relationships over the summer. It’s hard to imagine that a team like the Nets couldn’t afford the move financially, so it’s clear that support for the league isn’t completely widespread among team executives.
With that said, the 13-team crunch with the Mad Ants has primarily been created by teams aggressively pursuing one-to-one relationships faster than the league can expand. While nearly half of the league hasn’t fully committed to the D-League yet, the other half seems thrilled to get a competitive advantage in the form of a minor league affiliate.
Given the relatively paltry costs of running a D-League franchise for NBA organizations with ballooning revenues, it’s less a matter of if than when. And considering that buying a D-League team only costs around $4 million, we’ll likely see more teams transition from single affiliation to complete ownership, like the Spurs (Austin Toros), Cavaliers (Canton Charge), Thunder (OKC Blue) and others have already done.
Expansion is inevitable
Teams that haven’t agreed to single affiliation with the D-League yet are more or less fighting a losing battle. The NBA has made it clear, through its comments and consistent financial commitment, that the D-League is a serious part of the North American basketball scene, and should be treated as such by teams. Understandably, this has been a slow process, as D-League franchises need owners, arenas, players and other employees in order to function, and that stuff can’t simply happen in a week. Nobody is expecting the D-League to jump from an 18-team league to a 30-team league by next year.
With that said, the direction of the D-League is clear, and the majority of teams are already riding the current. After the developments this summer, we’re running out of reasons for a 30-team D-League not to exist. It may take a couple years, or even longer, but the farm system is coming, and everyone should embrace it.
Satchel Price is a freelance writer based in Chicago, Ill., with a background covering sports, culture and technology. His work has appeared on SB Nation, ESPN.com and Baseball Prospectus, and you can follow him on Twitter at @satchelprice.
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