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Fran Blinebury

The 2011 champion Iowa Energy have affiliations with the Bulls, Wizards and Hornets.
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NBA's D-League evolving into a true minor-league system

Posted Aug 29 2011 9:55PM

While the labor negotiations between the NBA owners and players may as well be taking place on a treadmill, there is a place where professional basketball is making real strides toward next season.

The NBA Development League -- or the NBA D-League, as it's commonly known -- has a 2011-12 schedule that will open on time and a growth chart that continues to climb.

Since the end of last season, three more NBA teams have entered into single-team affiliations with NBA D-League franchises, either by purchasing the teams outright or adopting a hybrid model, where the parent club takes full control of the basketball operation and leaves the business side to local ownership.

The New York Knicks opted for the hybrid model with the Erie BayHawks, while the Golden State Warriors bought the Dakota Wizards and the Cleveland Cavaliers bought the New Mexico Thunderbirds and relocated the team to Canton, Ohio.

"For us, it's a fantastic resource," said Cavaliers general manager Chris Grant. "We have an ownership group that is 100 percent committed to doing it the right way and this made a lot of sense.

"It's not just a matter of believing in the Canton market and feeling that the team can be run and supported successfully there. What we're also looking to do is maximize our ability to develop talent at all levels of our organization with the Cavaliers."

The San Antonio Spurs were among the first NBA clubs to see the value in forging a 1-on-1 relationship and taking full control of their own NBA D-League franchise, following up the L.A. Lakers' purchase of the LA D-Fenders in 2006 by buying the Austin Toros in 2007.

"We examined the original plan the way it started out, sharing D-League teams among two and sometimes three NBA teams," said Spurs general manager R.C. Buford. "We felt we could be more closely connected and get more benefit out of the league if we had more control over every situation.

R.C. Buford says the Spurs owning a D-League affiliate boosts San Antonio's player development.
D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images

"Before you maybe had rehab assignments or development assignments and the D-League team and its staff were serving, at times, two different masters on the court, but also different needs of the local owner and maybe of the NBA. As a result, you had situations where D-League teams were not necessarily connected to NBA team and nobody was getting a real benefit."

In a league where much of the attention goes to "call-ups" to the NBA, the Spurs have taken a more complete approach, using the Toros as a proving ground for everyone from coaches to executives in the ticket department.

"Everything that goes into running a successful NBA franchise isn't just about what happens on the court," Buford said. "You've also got to develop all the different parts of an organization that make that successful team on the court possible."

Since 2005, when commissioner David Stern announced expansion and the plan to assign affiliations of multiple NBA clubs to what was then the NBDL, the NBA D-League now has changed to where nine of the 16 teams are in exclusive relationships with a parent club.

In addition to L.A., San Antonio, Golden State and Cleveland, the Oklahoma City Thunder own the Tulsa 66ers. The Knicks, New Jersey Nets (Springfield Armor) and Houston Rockets (Rio Grande Valley Vipers) have chosen to run the basketball operation only.

The Rockets were the first NBA club to use the hybrid model with the Vipers in 2009.

"Our main focus is player development and evaluation," said Gersson Rosas, Rockets vice president of player personnel and general manager of the Vipers. "What we value are partnerships and through looking at different models, we believe we get the most value out of running the basketball operation and letting the local ownership run the team, because they have a feel for their market."

The Rockets did an aggressive search to place Chris Finch, who had extensive experience in Europe, as head coach of the Vipers as soon as they took control. Under Finch, the Vipers won the D-League title in 2010 and finished as runner-up in 2011. The Rockets have not only used the Vipers greatly for development and rehab assignments, but also groomed Finch, who has now joined Kevin McHale's staff in Houston.

"Anything we do at the minor league level is with the Rockets in mind," Rosas said. "We know the odds are against us, that most players and coaches in the D-League are not going to make it to the NBA. But if there's any chance, we want to explore it. We look at the D-League as somewhat of a laboratory, not just for personnel, but for ideas. There are some things you can try in the D-League that you might never try at the NBA level."

Cavs GM Chris Grant sees value in having coaches and players rise the NBA D-League ranks.
David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Image

Phil Jackson, George Karl and Flip Saunders, to name a few, cut their coaching teeth on minor league basketball -- although none of them coached in the NBA D-League. Former Warriors coach Eric Musselman will coach the L.A. Defenders next season.

"The history and the names that have been there say pretty much all you need to know," Grant said. "What a great opportunity to plan, to organize, to learn all that it takes to be a head coach. And, hey, you don't have to call that first timeout in a 20,000-seat NBA arena."

With more and more NBA teams getting directly involved in the NBA D-League, the obvious goal would seem to be getting an exclusive arrangement for every franchise, akin to the model that Major League Baseball uses with the minor leagues.

"It's not a no-brainer, because there's a big financial commitment and risk," said Buford. "If the parent club is losing millions or struggling to make ends meet, it's a tremendous expense. Then again, it could pay off.

"I guess that baseball analogy is that people always said the Yankees never had to pay attention to their farm system, because they could always go out and pay for players through free agency or making big money trades. That was opposed to the Red Sox, who had the financial wherewithal to make deals with free agents, but also paid attention to the minors.

"If the Yankees ever paid attention to the minors and also developed talent, would the game be over? Could that happen in the NBA? Would that happen in the NBA? We're committed to the D-League because we're going to give ourselves every chance."

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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