See Or Be Seen?
Who hasn't imagined flying through the air like Michael or LeBron, dunking like Wilt and Shaq or burying a smooth jumper like Larry or Kobe? Is it even possible to shoot hoops in the driveway or playground and not emulate a play we've seen made by our role models? (And thanks to the NBA Daily Top 10, we have all new moves to re-create on a daily basis!)
Celebrating a title is the ultimate culmination of a season of discipline, sacrifice and a committment to the team. This is really true at any level of competition, but most successful athletes value team success over individual accomplishments (The clear No. 1 on the "Most Used Sports Cliches Of all-Time" list).
All season long, D-League players have been working towards these two goals, hoping to play well enough to help their teams win as well as earn an invitation to join an NBA team. But at this stage, if an NBA team calls up a player from a D-League playoff contender, it would all but prevent that player from helping their D-League team in the playoffs (and as far as I know, no one has ever turned down a GATORADE call-up).
But what if they have to choose between the two?
That could be a question that top D-League players are faced with in the next couple of weeks as both the D-League and NBA seasons come to an end (the D-League regular season ends this weekend). Would they rather help their current team win a D-League championship or get exposure at the NBA level for a few games, likely sitting on the end of a bench and seeing limited playing time? (Wait, before you adjudicate... allow me to present my argument.)
Win Or Go Home
As the D-League continues to grow, six of 12 teams will make the postseason this year (a new record!), which means more teams than ever have a chance to win it all (though I'm told that despite the format change, there can still only be one winner). The second and third seeds in each conference will play in the first round for the right to play the regular season conference champions in the conference finals. Each series is a one-game, winner-take-all affair, a la the NCAA Tournament (without the pep bands playing the "SportsCenter" theme song during timeouts). There will be a total of five D-League postseason games (to assuage your hoops hunger) with the champion likely to be crowned the weekend of April 27-28.
The three playoff teams in the Eastern Conference are set. The Dakota Wizards, Sioux Falls Skyforce and Fort Worth Flyers will duke it out in this final week of the regular season to determine seeding. In the Western Conference, the Idaho Stampede clinched on Saturday night and the Colorado 14ers are locked into the two-seed, awaiting one of three potential first round opponents (magic numbers are just too hard to figure out, sorry).
Three teams will already enter the postseason without some of their best players. Colorado, the 2-seed in the West, will play without Louis Amundson, who was called up by the Sixers in March and signed for the remainder of the season (his D-League Rookie of the Year Award is already in the mail). Jared Reiner spent most of the season with the Sioux Falls Skyforce, but will be with the Bucks through the end of the NBA season as well (Don't you miss his D-League blogs?). Luke Schenscher was also called up from Fort Worth and signed by the Portland Trail Blazers for the rest of their season.
Yet these three players, still under contract with NBA teams, could theoretically be back with their original D-League teams for the postseason when their current NBA season ends (Philly, Portland and Milwaukee will not be in the NBA Playoffs). At the very least, they would miss the first round of the playoffs because the NBA season ends the same weekend (Wednesday, April 18th), but they could be back for the Conference Finals (though it has never happened before). Idaho may again be guided by Luke Jackson, who was called up to the Toronto Raptors and signed to a second 10-day contract last week (Trust the Force, Luke).
Return To Sender
The D-League is about cultivating players for the NBA regardless of the time of the season (after all, the motto is "The NBA Dream Starts Here..."). But what about the lesson of sacrificing unassailable glory for the good of the team? I'm sure if you ask their teammates, they would not be too happy about losing a talented teammate for their championship run. After spending all season working as a team to get to this point, it doesn't seem very fair that a team's best player could be lost to the NBA at any moment, thus changing the very nature of the postseason picture ("The NBA D-League Title Dream Ends Here.")
Just yesterday, Fort Worth Flyers forward Pops Mensah-Bonsu was recalled for the third and final time by the Dallas Mavericks (league rules limit an NBA player to only three D-League assigments per season). The Most Valuable Player of the 2007 D-League All-Star Game has been one of the most dominant players all season (I see you, Amir Johnson), but his return to the NBA leaves the Flyers without their best player for the postseason. Pops could still get a chance to win a ring with the Mavericks (though he will likely get as much playing time in the playoffs as Mark Cuban).
There is also the slight chance that another D-League player could win an NBA title as playoff contenders like the Raptors, Wizards and Clippers have recently made the call to the D. Last Friday, guard Will Conroy got his third call-up of the season (L.A.-bound!) while his Tulsa 66ers are out of the D-League playoff chase (golf course-bound?). Colorado's Von Wafer and Dakota's Renaldo Major (both of whom were All-D-League First Team honorees this season) have both been up in the NBA this season and could be one of a number of D-League stars called up to the NBA at any time. (Is now a good time to bring up the fact that the CBA has zero call-ups this season?)
Of course, the opposite is also true...
As of Tuesday, only two NBA-assigned players are actually playing in the D-League (both with Sioux Falls). But with the end of the NBA season fast approaching, you might see a few more players join an NBA affiliate for the D-League postseason, especially if they spent time with that D-League earlier this season. NBA teams are anything but blase about their affiliates and may actually be pulling for them to win the D-League title. The Mavericks actually assigned two players to Fort Worth for the championship game last year (though it didn't help as Albuquerque won). The Pistons have even promised to hang a D-League championship banner in the rafters at The Palace if the Skyforce win. (OK, not really. It's a joke, people.)
The Ring's the Thing
Winning a championship at any level is not something to take lightly (my therapist says we can learn from our dreams).
In fact, only four current D-League players have even won NCAA championships. They are Bakersfield Jam guards Mateen Cleaves (Michigan State in 2000) and Gerry McNamara (with Syracuse in 2003), Anaheim's Jawad Williams and D-Fenders guard Jackie Manuel (both with North Carolina in 2005). Cleaves also led Flint Northern to a Michigan state high school title in 1995 (though I'm not bothering looking up other high school titles - the NBA.com research department consists of me, Google and a six-pack of Red Bull).
The law of averages (the only law I follow) says that the most of these guys will not have another chance to win a title in their careers (not counting the success they might enjoy on their couches playing NBA Live). The majority of the current D-League players will never even play in the league after this season as D- teams can only bring back up to four players from the previous season. Most of the talent in the league each year is new blood, rookies right out of college. Plus, with four new teams starting play this fall, (Fort Wayne became the fourth new team yesterday), the mercurial league will look completely different in just a few months.
With NBA Summer Leagues and training camps opening their doors to almost anyone (with skills) who wants to play for an NBA team, these players will almost certaninly have another shot at making an NBA team.
Rarely do we ever come close enough to accomplish one of our lifelong dreams, let alone have to choose between two (what are the chances a player would actually turn down an invitation to the NBA?). But if winning is really as important as we as fans are led to believe, then these players should let the NBA know that it can wait until next year.