Doing Development the Right Way: A Look at Four Model D-League Teams
Grantland really likes NBA basketball. We like it so much that bingeing on LeBron James off-the-wall dunks and Marcin Gortat “Dream Shake” Vines sometimes doesn’t cut it. We need more. That brings us to D-League Week, an examination of the innovators, also-rans, has-beens, and oddities of the NBA’s minor league. Hope you enjoy.
The NBA Development League began its 13th season last November. The league has come a long way from its start in 2001. After some expected initial ups and downs, the D-League is well on its way to becoming a true minor league system for its NBA parent clubs. While many NBA teams utilize the D-League in creative and innovative ways, there are a select few that have found a way to get the most out of their market, players, coaches, and management.
There are 17 teams in the D-League, 14 of which have hybrid, or “one-on-one,” relationships with their NBA parent clubs. The other three teams split relationships among the remaining 16 teams in the NBA, a model that is likely to change moving forward. D-League president Dan Reed has indicated that all signs point to major expansion as the league “develops a sustainable mind-set toward that goal” in the coming years. NBA teams have been more aggressively furthering their hybrid relationships with D-League clubs in order to have full control of basketball operations, while many other teams are evaluating opportunities to buy into the D-League, including Orlando, Indiana, and Brooklyn.
As more NBA teams begin to buy into the D-League with the mission of one day building a 30-affiliate model, there are a few franchises that the others should be paying attention to.
During the 2012-13 season, Cory Joseph was assigned to the Austin Toros, the San Antonio Spurs’ D-League affiliate, five times, playing in 26 total games. This was Joseph’s second year of assignments after playing 14 games of his rookie year with the Toros.
Joseph, who has career averages of 3.2 points and 1.4 assists with the Spurs, has posted averages of 17 points, five rebounds, and five assists through 40 games with the Toros. More importantly, the coaches have put the ball in his hands, encouraging him to be more aggressive, and Joseph has been able to develop the confidence to be the team’s best player, leader, and go-to guy. This confidence translated into production with the Spurs, where Joseph earned minutes as the backup point guard during the second half of the 2012-13 season and eventually played 41 minutes in the NBA Finals.
The increased playing time and responsibility were made possible by the synergy between the Spurs and the Toros. Spurs front-office employees often serve as the Toros’ general manager (Dell Demps in 2009-10, Sean Marks in 2012-13, and current GM Brian Pauga, also the Spurs’ director of scouting), allowing San Antonio to hand-pick a head coach and send down specific instructions for assignment players on a game-to-game basis.
“Everybody is on the same page when assignment players are sent to us. It’s because of the communication lines. The communication lines are incredible from the top to the coaching staff. That helps everyone involved, most of all the players,” says Toros head coach Ken McDonald.
McDonald served as an assistant coach with the Toros last season and was promoted to the head spot after the departure of Taylor Jenkins, who is now serving on Mike Budenholzer’s staff in Atlanta. McDonald also spends time in San Antonio during draft workouts, where he’s given the opportunity to further interact with Spurs coaches and management while absorbing the culture of the team. It helps him establish something similar in Austin.
McDonald says working with the Spurs and Toros is “a year-round operation. It might not be as intense as training camp, but it is run the right way in terms of getting the work done and being efficient. You’re seeing everything. You might, timewise, be in a shorter setting, but you are seeing everything that their culture is based on. You see the coaches come in and they are efficient, you see their drills … what they want to accomplish in each session. No wasted time. It’s always impressive. No matter what setting it is, I’ve always learned from it because there is always something to take away.”
The Toros run many of the same offensive sets and defensive schemes as the Spurs, making the transition to and from the clubs that much easier for assignment players, even when they happen at the last minute. McDonald can recall times when players were brought to Austin on assignment a few hours before tipoff, a situation that isn’t always easy on the coaching staff or players on the roster.
“It’s kind of made easy because they are good guys. They are easy to like and easy to learn from because they are coming from arguably one of the best systems in pro sports. For our guys to see that professionalism, and see their level of dedication and preparation, is a good plus that our guys can take from it.”
The level of communication between the two clubs allows the Spurs to make the most out of every player assignment and get the most out of their player development programs. This is key for young players who may not get the chance to contribute on a Spurs championship-contending team during the regular season.
Santa Cruz Warriors
The Santa Cruz Warriors play their home games about two hours away from Oracle Arena, which is home to the Golden State Warriors. They’ve done a great job of taking advantage of the laid-back, quiet, artsy town of Santa Cruz by branding the Warriors (the only show in town) with the same colors, logo, and uniform design of their NBA parent team.
The Santa Cruz Warriors hold their business and basketball offices less than three miles from Kaiser Permanente Arena, where they sell out almost all of their home games, a rarity in the D-League. First-year head coach Casey Hill says the attendance is all about location. “I think the Warriors saw a town that’s never had a professional sports team, maybe something missing, maybe something they had never experienced before in such close proximity, and it really worked out.” The office building sits on Pacific Avenue, one of the main streets in Santa Cruz, and doubles as an apparel shop selling everything from team-branded hats to pencils and key chains.
Hill also sees Santa Cruz’s success as an extension of the new winning culture in Golden State, but he had no idea the team would be received this well: “I think everyone was somewhat surprised when things turned out as well as they have. They thought there would be enthusiasm for things, but the way we’ve been able to kind of ingrain ourselves into the community with our outreach programs, and just in the way we’ve been able to put a product on the floor from a basketball and entertainment standpoint.”
Golden State players who come down to play for Santa Cruz are expected to abide by the same values the NBA franchise holds important and represent the team in the same fashion, hence the reason for the same name, uniforms, etc.
Santa Cruz has begun taking advantage of its relationship with Golden State this season by bringing on board former Duke guard Seth Curry, the brother of point guard Stephen Curry, and Mychel Thompson, the brother of shooting guard Klay Thompson. While Santa Cruz gets the chance to develop the two players into potential NBA guys, the team also gets some buzz in the process. Hill recognizes this and views it as a way to build more excitement for the team while helping the players achieve their goals.
“As far as Klay and Steph’s brothers, I look at those two guys as just players I’m coaching. I understand there are certain levels of intrigue that come with that because of who their brothers are, but it’s my job to help those two guys along in their own path. They certainly do generate a lot of curiosity and interest from the area because of who their brothers are.”
Golden State has figured out ways to take advantage of its unique market and gets the most value out of its D-League team from an entertainment standpoint. According to Hill, this all starts and ends with the community in Santa Cruz:
“I think the most important thing that has happened here, regardless of what happens on the basketball court, is how well all the people in the front office have been in terms of reaching out to the community and making sure they understand we aren’t here to make a ton of money off of them. We want to be part of the community as much as we can.”
Oklahoma City led the D-League last year in player assignments, 40 times sending a player under contract with the Thunder to play with the Tulsa 66ers. This demonstrates their commitment to developing young players and instilling the confidence necessary for them to eventually contribute in the NBA.
In a recent conversation with second-year 66ers coach Darko Rajakovic, he had much to say about the relationship between the Thunder and 66ers, and how player development is one of their most important goals.
“One thing that is very specific for our team is our connection, our relationship, and our communication in Tulsa with our team in Oklahoma City. My coaching staff is in daily communication with Thunder coaches, and we have support from the coaches and management, and we have weekly meetings and assessments, and they are doing a really good job of trying to make a replica of our team in Oklahoma City and to implement the same system with our team here in Tulsa,” Rajakovic says.
“Player development is more important than anything else. The way we select players, the way we develop our players, is choosing guys that have potential, maybe guys who didn’t have a chance to shine in college; we want to develop those guys and just pay attention to every detail and every aspect of their development. That is huge for us. We want to put those guys in a situation that they can experience how an NBA team is organized and run, and try to put those players in situations where they can learn from that system.”
Point guard Reggie Jackson, shooting guard Jeremy Lamb, and forward Perry Jones III all spent considerable time playing with the Tulsa 66ers, and all three are now in the regular-season rotation for the Thunder.
The Thunder philosophy revolves around getting their players meaningful minutes as one of the 66ers’ main options, as opposed to sitting on the bench in Oklahoma City and only getting to contribute during practice drills or scrimmages.
“Our offensive and defensive system is 98 percent completely the same like Oklahoma City. It is very easy to pick up our calls, our pick-and-roll coverages, and all of that. For guys that are here, our main goal is to develop them, and give everybody an opportunity to play at a higher level,” says Rajakovic.
One reason the high amount of assignments and call-ups is even possible during the season is because of the short distance between the two teams. The 66ers play their games at the SpiritBank Event Center, about an hour and a half away from Oklahoma City and short enough for a drive to and back, even on game nights. Geography plays a big role in moving players back and forth, something that many teams can’t take advantage of at this point.
When asked about the benefit of the 66ers’ location, Rajakovic said, “Everything that is happening inside our organization is part of a plan and a purpose. It is very easy to assign players and our management and our coaches in Oklahoma City to come here and watch our practices and games. And also for us in Tulsa, we use every single opportunity we have to go to Oklahoma City and stay in touch with coaches and what they do over there.”
Again and again you see that proximity to the parent club, both in terms of geography and philosophy, is the key factor in the D-League. Tulsa has done a good job of utilizing the favorable distance. As the league moves closer to a 30-30 model, look for NBA teams to place their D-League clubs within driving distance for increased player, team, and staff accessibility.
Rio Grande Valley Vipers
As the number of D-League teams grows and NBA clubs begin to realize the value of hybrid relationships, more teams will view the D-League not only as a way to develop players, but also as a way to gain useful experience on the management and coaching sides.
The Rio Grande Valley Vipers take full advantage of this opportunity with the knowledge that another way to extract value from a D-League team is staff development. “I think that what the Rockets did, and what Daryl Morey did, was basically embrace the D-League system in every aspect,” says Rio Grande Valley general manager Gianluca Pascucci. “Trying to hire good people, people with potential — and I’m talking about players, coaches, and the staff. People who can eventually develop in an NBA front office, as an NBA coach, or as NBA players. That is pretty much what should be the philosophy of embracing the D-League system.”
Pascucci has served in a number of roles with Houston and was promoted to Rio Grande general manager this season after spending last year as the team’s assistant GM.
The Rockets have the opportunity to put less-experienced coaches or front-office personnel into real positions of management, which provides the coaches with in-game opportunities to sharpen their knowledge, and management personnel with the ability to be a lead decision-maker, without the consequences of making million-dollar mistakes. Rio Grande hasn’t made many mistakes, however. It has made three title appearances since the 2009-10 season and has walked away with two D-League championships.
While Pascucci appreciates the success of the team, he says winning isn’t the singular goal. “Winning is important in the D-League, but the most important thing probably is developing. That could be developing players — we can say that about the players that are assigned to the D-League from the NBA — but also developing coaches and just making a step-by-step [process] in order to take it to the NBA.”
Recent members of the Rio Grande Valley coaching and management staff have moved on to the NBA, with former coach Chris Finch (the D-League coach of the year in 2009-10) getting hired as an assistant with the Rockets, and former coach Nick Nurse (D-League coach of the year in 2010-11) becoming an assistant with the Toronto Raptors. Former general manager Gersson Rosas was recently hired as the GM of the Dallas Mavericks, although he resigned a few months later before returning to the Rockets as an executive vice-president of basketball operations. All three guys had a chance to develop and hone their skills on a smaller stage, which likely helped benefit their careers in the long term.
In today’s NBA, you’ll find some of the success stories of the D-League with players like Danny Green and Jeremy Lin acting as testaments to plying your trade in the minors. Former D-League coaches are making their way in the NBA as well (more than 40 coaches have moved up to the NBA in the D-League’s 12 years). As the D-League begins to add more teams, increase exposure, and upgrade the level of talent, it won’t be difficult to imagine the number of success stories increasing.