Houston, Rio Grande Valley Exemplify Single Affiliate Relationship
When the Houston Rockets take the court in their first-round Playoff series against the Oklahoma City Thunder this week, their roster will feature no fewer than seven players who’ve suited up for Houston’s NBA D-League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, in the 2012-13 season.
And that's not just a Texas-sized coincidence.
"First and foremost, the Rockets are trying to evaluate players for the Rockets," said Rio Grande Valley coach Nick Nurse. "That's the first thing they’re trying to do with this club."
The relationship between Rio Grande Valley and Houston has grown into one of the league’s most successful single-affiliations, of which there are currently 11 (as opposed to five teams with multiple NBA affiliates). Both sides collaborate on a synchronized plan, with an overall approach trickling down from Rockets GM Daryl Morey, a forward-thinking basketball mind and well-known advocate of the NBA D-League.
"I'd put our track record of getting players to the NBA and to the Houston Rockets next to anybody," Vipers GM and Rockets Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas said. "It's a high level of credibility and it's a high level of commitment. Our players understand how much emphasis is placed on the organization, the team, the development. They commit to it.
You're not asking the guys to believe in something that hasn't happened."
Greg Smith, who played 26 games with Rio Grande Valley last season en route to a Call-Up and three this season on assignment, is perhaps the poster boy for this arrangement.
"We feel like we can groom success," Rosas said. "You look at Greg Smith, and he's a testimony of our efforts and our focus in the D-League. Being able to have a guy that's currently starting on our NBA team come through the D-League is a great testimony to why this structure is in place, why we invest so much in it and why so many people are involved."
With this kind of emphasis placed on the search for new, young talent, roster turnover is inevitable – "There's one constant in the D-League and it's change," Rosas said. And this year's RGV team has been a revolving door.
The foundation for the 2012-13 Vipers was set on Draft day, with RGV picking up a number of players that still remain with the team, though it’s been a series of Call-Ups, assignments and several aggressive trades that formed the roster that’s leading RGV into the Finals.
Rio Grande Valley traded for center Tim Ohlbrecht, now on assignment from Houston, and starting forward Toure Murry on draft day -- giving up two players, Ben Uzoh and Patrick Sullivan, whom they had finished evaluating. They also acquired, among others, Andrew Goudelock and D.J. Kenendy, two frontrunners for the 2012-13 NBA D-League MVP, via trades during the season. Goudelock is now up with the Los Angeles Lakers after a late-season Call-Up, leaving Kennedy as the team's premier player heading into the Finals. Additionally, James Anderson, currently on Houston’s roster, was acquired in a pre-Draft trade.
Nurse said the seemingly never-ending pool of talent that careened through Rio Grande Valley this season shows "how serious the organization takes it” and “how important is to them." It also reveals a fundamental element of the team's master plan. Since Houston's investment in this league hinges on player evaluation, the Rockets opt to bring in more players each year -- with a focus on young and unknown players with high upside, Rosas said – so that they can ultimately gauge how a wide variety of players could potentially fit with the Rockets while in RGV.
Ohlbrecht served as a prime example of that this year.
"Tim, in particular, was a classic example for us," Rosas said. "He's a big with international experience and we really wanted to know more about him. We targeted that pick and we were able to make a Draft day deal to acquire that pick. We were fortunate to sign him when we did."
Ohlbrecht, who signed a multi-year deal with the Rockets in late February, was an NBA D-League All-Star this season before joining the Rockets.
With so many players like Ohlbrecht developing in RGV and subsequently making it to the next level, that has served as the main indication that this ever-growing partnership is working.
The other? Championships.
Rosas said that come Thursday night -- even though the stated purpose of the D-League is, of course, to get players in the NBA -- that RGV's coaches and players will be intently focused on winning a second NBA D-League title in four years.
"That region in South Texas in the Valley, they deserve a winner," Rosas said. "They're great fans. The organization and the local ownership has invested heavily in our team. It's a great return on that investment because the Vipers are the show down there in the Valley and to have them have a high level of success -- win championship and being in the finals consistently -- is what basketball should be all about down there."
Well that, and getting players five hours north to Houston.