On the eve of free agency, it’s difficult for less prominent NBA news to not get swept under the rug. So it’s understandable if you missed the announcement of the Toronto Raptors purchasing a D-League team, Raptors 905, for the upcoming 2015-16 season. The timing of the announcement wasn’t ideal, to say the least.
Nevertheless, Raptors 905 becoming the NBA’s 19th D-League team matters quite a bit in the grand scheme of things. The D-League, at one point an eight-team league, has now doubled in size. And more pertinently, Raptors 905 is the ninth D-League team to establish a one-to-one relationship with an NBA franchise, meaning the team is fully owned and operated by the Raptors.
A one-to-one relationship is big time for a number of reasons, and is also beneficial to a number of the parties involved. For the Raptors, this makes all the sense in the world from a basketball perspective. Owing and operating Raptors 905 — who will play their games in nearby Mississauga — allows for hands-on training of not only players, but staff and executives as well. The D-League is a place which promotes organic growth. There’s little downside to that.
Raptors 905 enables experimentation without bounds and without the high stakes of the NBA. And perhaps most importantly, it aides in providing a sense of organizational unity. What the Raptors are doing at the NBA level — be it in the board room, the locker room or on the court — Raptors 905 will be following suit.
Not to mention, the Raptors have a slew of super young, really raw prospects who could benefit greatly from spending time on a D-League court instead of an NBA bench. Brazilian forward Bruno Caboclo will only be 20 years old by the start of next season. Fellow Brazilian, Lucas “Bebe” Nogueira, is a 22-year-old 7-footer who could use developmental time. The Raptors also have a pair of second-round picks — DeAndre Daniels and Norman Powell — who can be flexed to Mississauga if the NBA roster is at max capacity, rather than releasing them outright.
The great thing about the D-League is that, per league rules, a team is allowed four NBA players. Conveniently, the Raptors can then dangle the four aforementioned between the NBA and the D-League. Or, more plausibly, just allow those players to get the proper reps and training throughout the D-League season, seeing as none figure to be key contributors to the big club next year anyway.
Again, for a team in the position the Raptors are, the move to own a D-League team is a smart one. Their core of rotation players is strong enough to compete in the Eastern Conference. So, effectively, they’re buying time for their future. And how often is investing in your future not viewed as worthwhile?
And another way one could look at it: what’s the value of a young player sitting on an NBA bench? Sure, being exposed to the rigors of an NBA lifestyle has inherent learning value. But — as the Raptors have clearly asked themselves — at what cost? Learning how to act professionally is one thing, but learning how to become a professional basketball player is entirely another. And at the core of it, arguably the best way for a player to improve his ability as a basketball player is through real game action.
The Raptors have decided the value in playing is probably more worthwhile than watching. Which then begs the question: what is the competition like in the D-League? NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said the D-League, “is the next best basketball in the world after the NBA.” Some would argue the NCAA is basketball’s strongest minor league system. And of course, there’s also the alternative of playing professionally overseas, which stresses key NBA components like skill-building and team-oriented play. Additionally, one could argue there’s never been a stronger influx of international talent in the NBA today, which speaks highly to the level of competition across the world.
But to answer the question in the most political way possible, there’s likely no clear-cut answer. To be sure, the D-League is competitive. After all, the record number for call-ups in a season (63) just occurred in 2014-15. It would be fair to say the D-League has never been stronger in terms of league-wide health and player talent.
To dive even deeper, it’d be relevant to note that D-League players earn anywhere from $12,000-$25,000 and professionals overseas generally make $60,000 (on the low end) and upwards of six figures. But with D-League players granted optimal proximity to NBA teams, the likelihood of being on NBA radars is presumably much higher. Basically, in short, competition outside of the NBA is just going to be dispersed.
But in parlance to Raptors 905, league-wide competition might not be of utmost concern. The team hired Jesse Mermuys, who had been an assistant coach for the Raptors since 2013, as head coach of Raptors 905. This suggests that Raptors 905 will be implementing offensive and defensive schemes used at the big-league level, and also will likely borrow various facets from Dwane Casey’s playbook. The paradigm here is to build Raptors 905 to resemble the Toronto Raptors as closely as possible. Which, in other words, controls the controllable variables in the experiment.
All told, the Raptors owning their own D-League team is great for the Raptors, great for players like Caboclo and Nogueira, great for the NBA and great for the D-League. It’s even great for the growth of basketball in Canada. Hopefully, the Raptors’ earnest venture will spark a trend amongst fellow NBA teams. If the residuals are positive for the Raptors and Raptors 905, then a league that’s notorious for its copycat ways might just have another trend to latch onto.