Capping It Off: Your Guide to the 2011-12 NBA D-League Playoffs

The NBA D-League Playoffs feature a number of wrinkles unique to the league. Iron them out here.

If things don’t work out quite like the Austin Toros had planned, then, well, you can always place the blame on Taylor Jenkins’ hat.

In part, at least. Because if it weren’t for the Austin assistant coach’s two cents and 10 gallons, the third-seeded Toros might have ended up choosing somebody else to play in the first round of the NBA D-League Playoffs.

Somebody who wasn’t, say, an Erie BayHawks team that’s trotting out a starting five an inch away from the NBA.

“To be totally honest with you, it came down to putting both names in a hat,” said Toros coach Brad Jones of his team’s NBA D-League Playoffs selections. “I put both of them in [Jenkins’] hat – he’s from Texas, so he had a big hat. Then, I had him pull it out.”

And because that scrap of paper said ‘Erie’ and not ‘Bakersfield,’ that’s who Austin’s meeting in the first-round of the NBA D-League Playoffs when the Toros tip off on Thursday night.

“I wasn’t about to draw the names out, so if it doesn’t work, it’s on my assistant,” Jones said with a laugh.

The NBA D-League Playoffs system presents its own unique set of challenges before the games even get going. If teams are lucky enough to secure one of the top three seeds in the eight-team tournament (which starts Wednesday night, when LA plays Iowa), they get the right to draft their first-round opponent from the bottom four seeds. Top seed goes first, followed by second and third.

So the Toros, who clinched a Playoff spot two weeks before the end of the regular season, had a few weeks to run through possible draft scenarios. Every time, they kept coming down to Bakersfield and Erie. And after the top-seeded D-Fenders picked the eighth- (and bottom-) seeded Iowa Energy and the second-seeded Springfield Armor chose the Canton Charge, the No. 7 seed, it came time for the Toros to make their decision between the fifth-seeded BayHawks and sixth-seeded Jam.

This is where the hat came in.

“It sounds crazy, right?” Jones said. “But they both have strengths and weaknesses that we were good and bad against. They’re both good teams, so we decided to do it that way.”

In truth, the BayHawks and Jam come into the postseason on more or less equal footing. The BayHawks may feature more Top Prospects than the Jam – including pre-mixed NBA Prospects like Joey Graham, D.J. Kennedy and Keith McLeod – but Bakersfield brings a roster that’s now played together for most of the season. So, what the Jam might lack in clout, they make up for in chemistry – a rare thing in a league with rosters constantly in motion.

The Toros, on the other hand, just lost their top two scorers in the past two weeks.

First, shooting guard Lester Hudson got a Call-Up to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Mar. 30, after playing only five games in Austin. Albeit, five games in which he averaged 17.6 points, 6 rebounds and 4.6 assists. And after Hudson has scored over 23 points in three consecutive games, the Toros can be pretty confident that he’ll stay up there the rest of the year.

Then, seven days later, Justin Dentmon followed. The league’s fourth-leading scorer (22.8 ppg) and best combo guard got a Call-Up to the Raptors on April 6, giving him his second shot at the NBA this year while leaving a large hole in the Austin lineup.

“That’s two of our main guys in the past two weeks,” Jones said. “It’s obviously a huge challenge to lose two players to the NBA, but it’s also the purpose and mission for why we’re here, so I won’t use it as an excuse if we don’t have the Playoffs we thought we’d have.”

The Toros, who’ve sent four players to the NBA this year, aren’t alone. The seventh-seeded Canton Charge are without their top two scorers, too, with Manny Harris and Alan Anderson now up in the NBA – although they both went up more than a month ago, so Canton’s had time to compensate for their losses.

But both teams reflect one of the truisms that separates the NBA D-League postseason from the NBA’s, and virtually any other league on the planet: you’re not the same team that got you here.

You’re Not the Team You Were

In a season characterized by player movement – a record 36 players have been called up a record 51 times, along with a new high mark in player assignments (66) – NBA D-League rosters can look a whole lot different than they did a month ago, let alone at the start of the year.

“I’m excited [Dentmon and Hudson] are playing in the NBA, and I know players come and go, and whoever’s on your team, you gotta coach them,” Jones continued. “We’ve been fortunate to add pieces and have a good core of guys that play the way we want to play to keep our momentum going, even though we’ve lost two of the best players in the D-League.”

Austin’s also going without arguably its best all-around player this year, after forward Lance Thomas went up to the New Orleans Hornets on Feb. 9 and earned a contract through the end of the season.

“When he got waived [after making the Hornets out of training camp], that’s the first time he called me,” Jones said. “He said, ‘Coach, they let me go, but I know what it takes now. I’m not gonna be there long. I promise.’ Those stories give me goose bumps. It such an awesome thing when these guys use the D-League as a way to get to their dreams and change their lives.”

So…Previous Meetings Don’t Mean Much (Most of the Time)

The Toros were 0-2 against the Jam and 1-0 against the BayHawks this year, but all three games happened before mid-February.

“One thing we didn’t look at much was our record versus either of them,” Jones said. “In the NBA D-League, things change so quickly. We played Erie in the Showcase, and they have a totally different team. Bakersfield’s the same way. They beat us twice and their roster’s a lot different, and our roster’s a lot different.”

Not that all previous meetings don’t matter. LA gave Iowa a glimpse of the level of competition the Energy could expect in the first round when the D-Fenders trounced the defending champs, 95-79, on the final day of the regular season.

Make Room for Reinforcements

The assignments have already started coming down, as NBA teams look to get their younger players some Playoff experience – and, of course, give their NBA D-League teams some more NBA-level talent. Meanwhile, expiring 10-day contracts have brought Top Prospects Malcolm Thomas and Dennis Horner back to the D-Fenders and Armor, respectively.

Keep tabs on the movement at our Transactions page.

Big Men Matter

The NBA D-League’s long been a league of guards. Of guys who had to fine-tune a jumper or tighten up their handle or just wait – and possibly hope to grow a few inches – as NBA teams made sure they could compete against professional defenders. And 2011-12, at least for most of the season, was no different.

Which meant that if you had an elite big man, you were in pretty good shape. Luckily for the Toros, they’ve had Eric Dawson – outside of a few GATORADE Call-Ups and a brief hiatus away from the team as he contemplated, then decided against, playing overseas.

After playing parts of four years in the league prior to 2011-12, the 6-foot-9 forward with the 7-foot-6 wingspan has dominated on the inside this year, scoring 17.2 points with 10.6 rebounds a game.

“To me, if you look at him, he’s the purpose of the D-League,” Jones said. “He’s grown a little bit every year. If you go back two years ago, I don’t know if anybody would have had him on an NBA radar. This year, he gets two Call-Ups and we still have teams calling. Who knows, he might not even be with us in Erie.”

But as long as he’s in town – just like Springfield’s Jeff Foote, LA’s Malcolm Thomas, Canton’s Luke Harangody and Bakersfield’s Brian Butch – the Toros have a chance to make a run.

“Arguably, he’s is one of the great stories of big men this year,” Jones said. “Like [former Dakota Wizards and now Golden State Warriors center] Mickell Gladness and Jeff Foote, Eric’s story is as good as anybody’s. The way he’s been able to grow … a lot of his success is the opportunity to play in the NBA D-League over the past four years.”

…But not as Much as Family Ties

When you’re in danger of losing your best players at any moment, consistency’s close to impossible. You can plug the holes and tinker with the lineup, but if a team wants any measure of stability, it’s good to have an NBA affiliate to lend a steadying hand.

“The biggest thing, this was laid out to me over five years in the league … is having a mission and purpose and trying to what you’re trying to accomplish in the NBA with your D-League team,” Jones said. “We run a lot of the same Spurs stuff, we pick players in a lot of the same way, as far as the fiber and the culture the Spurs do.”

Which means it’s no coincidence that six of the eight teams in the Playoffs use the single-affiliate system.

“If you have that system in place, players will come and go, but there’s a mission and a purpose,” Jones said. “The remaining players know it, the coaching staff knows it, everybody’s playing in the same direction, and when you have a Call-Up, which is what we’re here for, the guys are still able to go out and have success.”

Come Together. Right Now.

By nature, a league full of players trying to stand out for the scouts but also help their teams get a win strikes a tough balance. But if a team can find the right combination of players on the court and in the locker room – especially at this point in the season – they can do something special, Jones said.

“We got off to the best start in D-League history, lost some guys, went through a period of struggling, added some guys and now it seems like this group of guys we have, have developed an identity of winning and toughness,” he said.

“I think our chemistry and our vibe as a group is a lot of fun to be around,” Jones continued. “They just believe in each other.”