Five Years In, NBA D-League President Reed Surveys a Changing Landscape
When the 2011-12 NBA Development season tipped off last November, it did so under a cloud of questions.
The NBA, mired in a lockout since July, still hadn't signed its new CBA and the season looked just days away from cancellation, after meetings between owners and players ran far into the night before crumbling time and time again. Even without the NBA season, the NBA D-League would still run, but without its main source of value -- cultivating prospects and developing players already in the NBA -- it would do so in a vacuum.
Then came the CBA. And a Christmas start, followed by a four-month, 66-game schedule that moved faster than college. And as a condensed season wore down rosters, the NBA D-League answered its call, turning out a record number of NBA Call-Ups and Assignments over the course of the year and proving itself to be, more than ever, the premier league for Prospects looking to break into the game's highest stage.
With Summer League just a few weeks away -- and with it, a chance to see Top Prospects compete against NBA players -- NBADLeague.com's Kevin Scheitrum sat down with league president Dan Reed in a three-part interview to talk about where the league's been in his five years at the helm and, more importantly, where it's headed.
Kevin Scheitrum, NBADLeague.com: After five years here, Dan, this one pretty much couldn’t have ended this one on a better note --
Dan Reed, NBA D-League President: It was our best season ever, on every front. Record Call-Ups, record assignments from NBA teams. Twenty-seven percent of NBA players now have experience playing in the NBA D-League, which is an all-time high. Those guys are having major roles in the NBA as well. You look at Danny Green, who’s playing with the San Antonio Spurs who look like they’re on a pretty long run in the Playoffs. Obviously Jeremy Lin. But the business is strong as well. We had over a million attendees for the third consecutive year. We had a record number of games on TV. It was a phenomenal year in every respect.
NBADLeague.com: Danny Green’s a guy who had to work on a certain skill set, becoming a better shooter. Is he representative of the new wave of D-League player where you go down to the league to fine-tune a skill in the hopes that you won’t be just a role player, but a guy who can make an impact on a team?
Dan Reed: I think it’s interesting that every success story in the NBA is a ltitle differnet. They’ve used the D-League in a different way. Danny Green exactly the way you described. He was able to develop a skill-set to really hone himself into a starting NBA player. But then you have the veterans who just need to showcase who they are and what they do, like Jamaal Tinsley, with the L.A. D-Fenders who didn’t last in our league long because it was clear he still had it. Same with Mike James.
Then you have really young prospects who are developing and honing their game and aren’t quite there yet but you can see are building the skill set. A guy like Malcolm Thomas comes to mind.
NBADLeague.com: Or Greg Smith, where the Rockets put the clamps on him and said ‘let’s keep him in our system and see what he can do.’
Dan Reed: Greg Smith’s a great example. Another one who’s interesting is Greg Stiemsma. Or Avery Bradley, with the Celtics. I think our league has proven that it’s the fastest way to the NBA, but your path may be a little different, and what you need to work on may be a little different, but we are clearly the best way for a player to reach the NBA.
NBADLeague.com: So, going into this season, with the NBA lockout -- you started when the lockout was still going on – did you have a sense that when the lockout cleared this could be a real special season?
Dan Reed: We did. We weren’t sure how the lockout was gonna play out for us, but we did think it provided an opportunity. We thought if the lockout ended in the middle of the season, with short training camps, NBA teams would be looking closely at our league and players in our league would have more opportunities than they’d have otherwise.
We weren’t sure how it was going to break with players signing with us, but it broke completely the right way. We had the most talent we’ve ever had in the league, and we also had the most Call-Ups we’ve ever produced. I think it was a combination of those factors, along with the fact that I think the new CBA increases the importance of the NBA Development League and really developing guys that can fit in your system to build your team.
For all those reasons, I think the lockout and follow-up after the lockout really positively affected us.
NBADLeague.com: You shattered records this year in Call-Ups and Assignments and blew past the record for total Call-Ups with a month and a half left in the season and individual Call-Ups even before that. How much of that was the unique nature of the NBA season, where it was so condensed, and how much was the aggregate of talent in the NBA D-League?
Dan Reed: I think it was both. Some of it was clearly the lockout. We had 12 Call-Ups right when the NBA season started, after we lost a third of our rosters when the lockout ended to go to NBA training camp. But even if you subtract those 12 out of our numbers we still broke our previous record. So clearly the lockout and the dynamics of the season had something to do with it, but I really think Call-Ups are a function of talent in the league and if we have really talented players who are playing well and being developed, and we’re showcasing them, NBA teams will find a way to bring them up.
NBADLeague.com: Do you think next year we’ll see more of the same, where you think you’ll break the record next year when they go back to a full 82-game schedule?
It’s not even so much about the 10-day Call-Ups. The 10-day Call-Up is terrific. We want that to happen – it’s a great opportunity for our players. But we’re also focused on whether those players stick – whether they do fit a role in the NBA. We want them to have 10-year careers in the NBA, and sometimes that doesn’t happen via 10-day Call-Up, sometimes that happens via a guy having a good year in the NBA D-League, maybe not getting called-up, but that gets him on the radar. Then he goes to Summer League, then he goes to training camp and then he becomes an established NBA player.
A great example of that is Gary Forbes, who never received a Call-Up to the NBA, but he played an entire season with the NBA D-League, and that really put him on the map as far as the NBA was concerned, and now he’s an NBA veteran.
NBADLeague.com: You talk about guys sticking in the NBA as a way of evaluating how the league is doing. What other sort of values – maybe not even metrics, because metrics are easy in a season like this where you say ‘hey, we’re shattering records left and right’ – but in a basic season, what do you use to evaluate how your league is doing?
Dan Reed: The Call-Ups and really the development angle is one aspect. You look at the total number of NBA players with D-League experience, you look at your Call-Ups, your assignments. You look at your coach Call-Ups – and we’ve had 32 of those.
NBADLeague.com: Nate Tibbetts was interviewing for a job recently, the former 66ers coach -
Dan Reed: We’ve got phenomenal coaches in our league. Those that have received a call-up to the NBA have done terrifically well, and they just make it a lot easier for guys who are currently in the league to get those opportunities, like Nate.
We look at our referees – 50 percent of the referees in the NBA came from our program. So, the development piece is quite important.
We also look at the business side of the league. How are our revenues? Are our teams profitable? Are they growing their business? Is attendance growing? Are franchise values going in the right direction? Those are things that are important to our owners, important to us at the league level, so we’re very focused on them.
The final thing is, how is the experience for our fans? That’s certainly last but not least. We pay very close to attention to whether they’re having a good time at our games, are we putting on entertaining experiences? Is the digital experience we provide for them interesting an engaging? Are we getting our messaging out so that fans can consume us and learn all the great things in our league? Is our product in good shape so our fans can enjoy it?
Those are the three areas: the financial healthy – the attendance, the business side – the development piece, and whether we’re taking care of our fans.
NBADLeague.com: In terms of taking care of your fans, there are questions about the NBA D-League, about where it fits, and for many years, you had to overcome a stigma of a place where it’s where players go from the NBA when they can no longer fit on a roster. Or a place where aging talent goes to play out the end of his career. How much have you seen the perception of the league change or evolve in your half-decade here?
Dan Reed: I think the perception’s changed dramatically.
We started the program in my second year here where we’d talk to the NBA rookies at Rookie Transition Program and explainto them what the NBA Development League’s about. But at the time, it almost felt like a Scared Straight presentation. We were saying ‘there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself in the NBA Development League, and we want to tell you that’s a good thing. It’s an opportunity.’ Look at Ramon Sessions and how he used it. Look at Brandon Bass and look at all of these other, very successful NBA players who spent a time in the NBA Development League after being drafted.
There was always a murmur of dissent amongst the players that they didn’t like the idea of being signed and playing in the NBA Development League because it was new and everyone wanted to play in the NBA. Over time, that perception has changed, where I think more players than ever see it as an opportunity. If they’re not playing at the NBA level, now, increasingly, players are going to their coach or going to their GM and asking to be assigned because they know they can make a difference and they want to demonstrate it on the court. It’s hard to do that in practice when you’re not getting game minutes.
I think similarly, our success rate in producing players for the NBA has changed the perception amongst players and agents who are outside the NBA, where maybe they weren’t familiar with what we were doing. Now it’s impossible to refute that we’re the fastest way to the NBA, and I think that’s a big reason why we had the best talent ever this season.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of the interview on Thursday!