Toros, D-Fenders Benefit from Watchful Eyes, Winning Traditions of NBA Clubs

Single-affiliations are a growing trend in the NBA D-League. In Austin and LA, we see why.

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- The Los Angeles Lakers – what with their 16 NBA Championships and rafter full of jerseys with names like Johnson, West and Abdul-Jabbar on the back – are synonymous with basketball success.

It’s a mentality that’s long started at the very top, with owner Jerry Buss, and it filters all the way to the Steve Hernandez, the Lakers and D-Fenders Mail Courier.

“Steve the mail guy for the Lakers, the very first time I met him, he told me he’d worked for the organization 21 years and he’s been to the playoffs 20 times,” L.A. D-Fenders Head Coach Eric Musselman remembered. “I was in the weight room, and when we walked out he was telling me that and I said ‘Ah good, there’s nothing but pressure here.'”

The same commitment to success trickles down to the Austin Toros – the D-Fenders’ opponent in the 2011-12 NBA D-League Finals presented by BBVA – who are also held to a similar standard by their own direct NBA affiliate, the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs have a proven recipe for success – one that’s produced three NBA titles since 2002-03 and 15 straight Playoff appearances including this year – and that blueprint has been exported to Austin.

“We have an unbelievable mission statement with the Spurs and when I sat down and interviewed with them they didn’t really ask me questions, they said ‘this is what we want to do, do you think you can do it?’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, okay’,” Austin Head Coach Brad Jones said with a laugh.

It’s no coincidence that Austin and L.A., the two winningest teams in the league in 2011-12, combined for 71 wins and only 29 losses over the course of the regular season before making it to the Finals. Nor is it one that six of the eight teams in this year’s NBA D-League Playoffs were single-affiliates. vWhen asked whether he thinks the connection that the Toros and D-Fenders have with their successful NBA affiliates had anything to do with their recent fortunes, Jones said that it’s “absolutely not a surprise” that these two single-affiliates lead the league in wins and individual GATORADE Call-Ups and now find themselves facing off in the Finals.

“You look at the two organizations, the Lakers and the Spurs, whether it’s with their parent club or their history, both organizations do things the right way” Jones said. “And if they’re going to have a D-League team they’re going to do it the right way, and obviously both teams have done that.”

The D-Fenders and Toros are two of the nine single-affiliate teams in the NBA D-League, while the league’s other seven teams have associations with multiple NBA organizations at the same time. But there’s a reason why the league’s trended toward single affiliations in recent years.

First, a single-affiliation helps to create a stronger relationship between the two entities. The NBA D-League team often runs the NBA team’s specific system, which in turn prepares players to slide right into the lineup after earning a Call-Up.

It also opens up the communications lines.

“It’s basically 24/7, whether it’s through texting, emails, phone calls,” Jones said of his contact with the Spurs organization. “You know, obviously it’s even more when we have a player like Cory (Joseph, who was on assignment with Toros) here, but even when he’s not here, it may be 23/7.”

Joseph, as a result of his recent production and development under Jones with the Toros, was recalled by the Spurs on Wednesday to help the West’s top-seeded team in the Playoff run. Joseph played in 27 games with the Spurs this season and also received special instructions from the team while in Austin, so he should be able to step right in in San Antonio and produce if he’s called upon.

For both organizations, their NBA D-League affiliates have become just an extension of the NBA clubs.

“I’m sure Eric (Musselman) gets a lot of support from [Assistant GM Glenn Carraro] and even [GM Mitch Kupchack] and those guys, and to me it blows me away how much we support we get, even from [GM R.C. Buford].”

“R.C. Buford knows everything that’s going on. We include him in on emails, he sends us stuff, and they’ve got big things going. [VP of Basketball Operations] Danny Ferry, [Assistant GM] Dennis Lindsey, you know, those guys. It’s just amazing how much buy-in factor they have in this and it kind of speaks to the testament of why the Lakers and Spurs have been good for all these years.”

By now, they’ve both been good for a very long time. As other teams rise and fall, the Lakers and Spurs have managed to turn out a top-flight product, year after year, linked forever by winning. It’s a universal language that becomes ingrained in everyone involved in the organization, whether you’re making jump shots or sifting through mail.

As the series turns to L.A. and the D-Fenders are only one win away from winning a title of their own, they’ll be doing so in a place – the Toyota Sports Center – that not only has Laker imagery all over the walls to remind the players what they are, in fact, a part of, but it’s actually the current practice facility of the Lakers.

“You walk into our building, and they expect winning,” Musselman said of his team that has gone 23-4 at home this year. “You win four, five in a row in the building where the Lakers are, and it’s not that big a deal, it’s kind of expected.”

Musselman even went on to joke that the team would feel embarrassed if it lost a few in a row at home. That is, however, exactly what the Toros will have to do if they are to hoist a trophy for the Spurs organization.

It might not be the Lakers versus the Spurs in the Staples Center when these teams meet Thursday night, but the systems are the same, the mentalities are the same and, well, even the jerseys are nearly identical. That is why it comes as no shock to see the Toros and D-Fenders as the last teams standing.