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Stanley Robinson and the Iowa Energy will be defending their NBA D-League title.
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NBA D-League tips off Friday, fills pro basketball void

Posted Nov 24 2011 6:40PM

With the current state of the labor situation in the NBA, there is still a place in the pro game where the sounds of basketballs dribbling on hardwood floors or zipping through nylon nets can drown out the grumbling of lawyers.

The NBA Development League -- or D-League, as it's more commonly known -- tips off the 2011-12 season this weekend, but not without a subplot of its own.

In fact, when the Iowa Energy play their season opener at the Canton Charge on NBA TV, it will be not only the defending champions visiting one of the league's newest markets, but also a demonstration of where the D-League has been and where it's headed. Old versus new, past versus future -- if you will.

Since the end of last season, three more NBA teams have entered into single-team affiliations with 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.

"We feel that this trend of NBA teams managing their NBA D League affiliates is certainly catching on in a big way," said D-League president Dan Reed. "It's for us and we do expect that in the coming years more NBA teams will elect to manage their D-League affiliates."

It means that the 16-team league now consists of nine teams that have direct ties to one NBA franchise and seven teams that are independently owned.

Just as there is a divide at the NBA level among large and small market franchises, the D-League trend has some executives concerned about how the divergent interests and emphasis of the two ownership camps can be served simultaneously on the court.

Simply put, the independently-owned teams want only to win games and strive for championships, while the NBA-affiliated teams are focused on player development, as in the name -- Development League.

"I wouldn't say that they are problems -- but opportunities," Reed said. "We want to ensure that our rules and the structure of our league encourage NBA teams to use our system to help develop players...At the same time we need to preserve competitive balance in the league. Just because a D-League team isn't managed by an NBA team doesn't mean they can't compete."

But there are conflicts. For instance, last April the Houston Rockets signed a pair of players -- Marcus Cousin and Marqus Blakely -- that they viewed as potential prospects for the summer league and ensuing training camp. According to NBA rules, those players had to be signed within 10 days of the end of the NBA regular season.

However, there was discontent and speculation from some quarters that the Rockets were trying to provide backdoor help to their D-League affiliate Rio Grande Vipers by adding Cousin to their roster and by merely signing Blakely away from Iowa, where he had been a key member of the playing rotation. That discontent only grew when the Energy and Vipers met in the D-League Finals. Iowa won.

As a result, the new rule for this season says that no D-League player called up to the NBA within 10 days of the end of the D-League regular season is eligible for the D-League playoffs. The exception is if the player is called up by a "parent" club.

It is a natural friction, one that both sides can't help but resist and resent. You can't blame the independent team owners from concentrating only on the wins and losses, which puts fans in the seats and drives their business. That's why they're more inclined to take a flyer on an NBA reclamation project such as Antoine Walker or sign veteran players who are 30 and older.

However, NBA teams have invested heavily in their affiliations with cash and manpower and energy ultimately to benefit their franchises at the major league level. The San Antonio Spurs view the Austin Toros as a place where they can groom ticket salesmen and advertising executives along with point guards and centers. Just this season, the Rockets have promoted Rio Grande coach Chris Finch to Kevin McHale's staff in Houston.

Many of the NBA teams would like to see a more radical approach to the D-League that could produce some dramatic changes:

• Two-way contracts that would give NBA teams the flexibility to sign minor league players to contracts significantly higher than current D-League levels and give them right of first refusal on call-ups.

• Have the cap of three D-League assignments per season on players lifted.

• Change the rule that allows D-League assignments in only the first two years of an NBA player's career to the length of his rookie contract and options.

Those are all areas that would have to be collectively bargained as part of a new contract with NBA players, but are an indication of which way more than half of D-League teams tend to lean.

What's even been tossed out is the possibility of allowing 10 personal fouls per game in the D-League. The independents might view such a drastic rule change as warping the game. But the NBA teams want the players they assign to be playing as much as possible, not handcuffed by fouls and watching.

That's not to say the D-League isn't growing and becoming more vibrant. The league is coming off its second straight season of record attendance, drawing more than 1.1 million fans in 2010-11. In addition, 23 percent of NBA players (104 overall) had D-League experience. Last season there were a record 39 NBA assignments to the D-League, including 18 by former first round draft picks.

The natural solution, of course, is a 30-team D-League, each with a 1-on-1 relationship with an NBA franchise.

"I think in the very long term that's the right model and we're moving toward that," Reed said.

In the meantime, it's a disparate, divergent D-League with a dual purpose. But hey, at least they're playing.

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

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