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Pacers Grab Last D-League Franchise, Leaving 11 Teams in Limbo

Mike Fender/The Star

The Fort Wayne Mad Ants are no longer the redheaded stepchild of the NBA’s D-League.

That means that 11 NBA teams now have a problem.

Before this week, 18 of the D-League’s 19 teams had a one-to-one relationship with an NBA team, providing a spot for the parent team to send young players who were stuck on the end of their bench. In the 2012-13 season, for example, the Thunder weren’t getting Reggie Jackson as much playing time as he needed.

Their affiliation with the Tulsa 66ers, though, meant they could send him down there to get some game action and stay in shape. That helped him develop into a key bench player in Oklahoma City, and two years later, to a five-year, $80 million contract with the Pistons.

Jeremy Lin also turned D-League time into major NBA money, having been sent down by both the Warriors and Knicks before breaking out in New York.

The D-League’s 19th team, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, was the affiliate for the 12 teams that hadn’t made the investment in working with a minor league team, whether via direct ownership or financial support for a local group of owners.

Those 12 teams were at a significant disadvantage when it came to developing those young players, because while they could send someone to Fort Wayne, they’d be competing with the players from the other 11 teams for time on the floor.

Now, though, even that option is gone. On Wednesday, the Indiana Pacers bought the Mad Ants, and will be using them as an exclusive affiliate. The Pacers become the 10th NBA team to own their D-League counterpart, which means they can control things to the point of having their minor league team running the same offensive and defensive schemes as the big-league squad.

Nine other teams use a hybrid approach, where they still fund the team while leaving the business and community operations in the hands of local ownership. There’s a little more negotiation involved in this model, but the teams are still able to send players down and have some control of how much they’ll be playing and what systems they’ll be practicing.

That leaves Atlanta, Brooklyn, Charlotte, Chicago, Denver, the Clippers, Milwaukee, Minnesota, New Orleans, Portland and Washington without any designated affiliate. They’ll still be able to send players to D-League teams, but they’ll have to reach agreements with the NBA parent teams, and have no guarantees about playing time, much less schemes.

The disadvantage faced by those 11 teams is nowhere near what it’d be if an MLB team didn’t have a Triple-A affiliate. NBA teams are still limited to 15 players, and the ones they send to the D-League still count against that limit. A vast majority of the D-League’s players are free agents, and even if they play for Detroit’s affiliate, the Pistons don’t have any more rights to them than any other team.

However, if a player is on the Grand Rapids roster, they’ll be learning Detroit’s offensive and defensive schemes, and playing games alongside players from the Pistons. That’s a major scouting advantage over a team that won’t have that specialized knowledge.

Last season, 56 players went back and forth between the two leagues, and another 47 players were signed by NBA teams off D-League rosters.

The advantage of having a primary affiliate became obvious in the opening weeks of the season, when the Grizzlies picked up Hassan Whiteside from their Iowa Energy D-League team. The Grizzlies didn’t keep him, though, and he signed a few days later with Miami.

It’ll be years, if ever, before the D-League serves as a true minor league system. Until then, there will still be players stashed in European leagues to develop, but for a team that figures out things work, the D-League can be an advantage.

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