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Pacers’ Purchase is Turning Point for D-League’s Relationship with NBA

Last week the Indiana Pacers agreed to purchase the Fort Wayne Mad Ants of the NBA’s Developmental League (NBDL), according to D-League Digest. Assuming the deal is eventually finalized, it would eliminate the last remaining independent affiliate in the NBDL, meaning that all 19 D-League teams would now have one-to-one affiliations with an NBA team.

For the Pacers and the D-League, this is great news. While Indiana hasn’t been terribly active in the D-League before––technically they’ve never burned a roster spot to “call up” a player––they have sampled the system a bit in the past. Buying up an exclusive affiliate will change all that and make them more active.

Now, they have an opportunity for the focused and controlled development of young players, one that could serve them well immediately this season, when they have loaded up on more young developmental talent than in the past, like Myles Turner, Joe Young, Rakeem Christmas, Glenn Robinson III, and Shayne Whittington. For a small-market team who has trouble attracting the top-of-the-top in free agency, these increased opportunities for developing players could pay huge dividends.

The purchase also signals teams’ growing interest in utilizing the D-League as a true minor league system and stop leeching off the NCAA as free training. It doesn’t make sense that the NBA doesn’t have a minor league system, especially when so many players were jumping right out of high school and struggling to stay on rosters in the league 10 years ago.

Even college basketball, which became the solution, is not really a great place to develop. Some coaches might genuinely care about the well-being of their players, but most coaches experience overwhelming pressure to win––i.e, keep their job––from season to season, which gives them plenty of incentive to prioritize team success over player development. For too many players, this results in a marginalizing of their talent and individual progress for the sake of winning college basketball games, a different task than winning NBA basketball games. It’s no wonder that many one-and-dones have struggled to fit in during their college experience, or that it hasn’t necessarily aided their eventual transition to the NBA.

13 January 2015:  San Antonio Spurs guard Danny Green (14) in action against Washington Wizards forward Kris Humphries (43) at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. where the Washington Wizards defeated the San Antonio Spurs, 101-93.

Danny Green used his time in the D-League to develop into a key player for the San Antonio Spurs.

Yet, despite these two issues, the NBA has continued to lean on the NCAA and the status quo, even when the perception of an overall lack of talent or polish became a knock on the NBA, to the point that you will surely hear some hack announcer or former player invoke it next year. This might have been true during some dark times post-Jordan, but not anymore. In fact, the talent pool in the league is growing deeper than ever, and teams’ continued investment in the D-League is also evidence of that.

As Sean Highkin at ProBasketballTalk points out, the Spurs, Rockets, Mavericks, Thunder and Warriors have so far been the most fearless and involved teams with their NBDL affiliates, and they’ve all been pretty successful during the last five-plus seasons, thanks in part to contributions from former D-Leaguers like Danny Green, J.J. Barea,  and Patrick Beverley. Those teams have also been ahead of the curve on other trends like SportVU and player rest, so if your team is one of the 19 teams that has already purchased a D-League affiliate, you should be excited.

If you’re a fan of the Bulls, Hawks, Bucks, Wizards, Nets, Hornets, Nuggets, Clippers, Pelicans, Timberwolves, or Blazers, it’s OK to be disappointed, even though you probably won’t have to wait long. D-League affiliation is something your team will be discussing very soon, as the league is clearly moving toward a true, one-to-one, minor-league-style process, but also because your team no longer has a place to send its D-League players!

Without the independent Mad Ants, which were league-owned, NBA teams without an NBDL partner no longer have a dump-all for the players they want to send down. This is obviously a problem, and apparently one that’s holding up the process. D-League Digest also reported that the details are still being finalized among the league and two teams, and that the team might not truly change hands until the 2016-17 season, since they lack an immediate solution to their send-down issue. That would be a bummer for Indiana, although the Digest suggests that last year’s flex assignment system could be one option. Here’s an explanation, via NBA.com:

For the 10th consecutive season, each singly-affiliated NBA team will have one NBA D-League team to which it may assign its players. The Fort Wayne Mad Ants, the lone independent NBA D-League Team, will be affiliated with the remaining 13 NBA teams. To accommodate assignments to Fort Wayne, a flexible assignment system will be utilized when an independent NBA team assigns a player at a time when the Mad Ants already have either the maximum of four NBA players on assignment or two assigned players at the position of the NBA player who is being assigned. In either event, the NBA D-League will identify to the assigning NBA team any singly-affiliated NBA D-League team that is willing to accept the assigned player, and the independent NBA team assigning the player will choose a team from among those teams to assign the player. If no singly-affiliated NBA D-League team is willing to accept the assigned player, he will be assigned to one of the non-NBA-owned single affiliate teams pursuant to a lottery.

NOV 01 Nets at Pistons

The D-League can be an alternate to college basketball so players like Brandon Jennings don’t have to go overseas to skip the college game.

This system is ridden with uncertainty and conflicting motivations, which further underscore the need for a real minor league system in the NBA. This process will look even worse now that the Mad Ants have been bought, so it’s understandable why the league would want to wait a season to make the change.

Still, the fact that there isn’t a system in place to handle this situation seems ridiculous, especially since it will surely be a hot topic when CBA negotiations arrive in 2017. Figure out a way to pay players in a minor league system, and develop your own guys. It will be better for the league. NBA owners are never not crying broke, though, so their greed has made it difficult to implement systems that would most obviously benefit the players first.

The Pacers should be relieved that they narrowly avoided this mess and made a smart investment for their future, even though it took them this long. Any team that saw this coming deserves whatever advantages they’ve already reaped.

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