The NBA Development League will have 30 teams sometime in the near future and each team will presumably be affiliated with a parent club. It is inevitable. People are finally beginning to get excited about the future of this partnership and the increased player development that could be seen domestically, instead of shipping guys overseas.
What will this partnership entail?
That question is the elephant in the room at the moment because, honestly, nobody knows. The system in place right now will have tweaks and possibly even larger scale changes to appease NBA brass, as most of them delve into the unknown of the D-League.
Salary in the D-League is not where it needs to be. Anyone can see that. They currently range from $13,000 to $25,500 — not adequate for players if the league wants to attract and retain elite talent. My argument to fans who complain about salary is the league is there to propel players to a better opportunity. Players should not be signing in the D-League because of the salary; it’s the opportunities the league provides that is its true value.
Last season, 47 players earned NBA call-ups from the D-League. The league had approximately 350 players play throughout the season, meaning 13 percent of the players earned a call-up. While that might sound low, it was in fact an all-time high for players called up and the revenue they earned amassed $9.6 million.
What’s even more impressive to me is 23 of those 47 players signed multi-year contracts with NBA clubs. In actuality, that $9.6 million number is low.
The opportunity doesn’t stop once the season is over. Now that we have hit the offseason, international teams are swooping in and signing players to more lucrative contracts for 2015-16. While I don’t have the salary figures for those signing, we do know that 62 players have earned international deals thus far — approximately 18 percent of the league.
What does any of this have to do with 1:1 affiliations in the future?
I have listened to many people — intelligent basketball minds — pine for the D-League to follow the model that Major League Baseball has in place. This, however, would be a disaster.
The league is predicated on opportunity and following the MLB model would not expand player opportunities, it would lower them substantially. The model, in short, calls for each parent club owning the rights to every single player in its organization, from top to bottom. That would mean the Utah Jazz, for example, would own the rights to every player on the Idaho Stampede, and so on.
Why is this a problem? Each player in the D-League could then only be called-up by their parent club. I mentioned that 47 players were called up last season. Overall, there were actually 63 call-ups and only 29 of those were made by the NBA affiliate of the D-League team the player was on. The opportunity would have been substantially lessened if the single affiliate could only use their minor league team for players.
Instead of a player like Hassan Whiteside signing in the D-League and having 30 teams watch him, he would only have one. Whiteside was acquired by the Iowa Energy, who are affiliated with the Memphis Grizzlies. In the MLB model, only the Grizzlies would have the benefit of being able to use Whiteside and we would not have seen his crazy ascent with the Heat last season.
Another player we might not have seen blossom if this model was in place is Robert Covington. Covington was waived by the Rockets after the 2013-14 season and ultimately signed with the D-League, where he was drafted first overall by the Grand Rapids Drive. In this case, his NBA rights would have belonged to the Detroit Pistons, and who knows if he would have been presented the same golden opportunity that he was in Philadelphia.
The immediate argument to this point: D-League players will make more money, making the trade off worth their while. Wrong. There have been previous reports about D-League salaries possibly doubling or even tripling with the NBA’s new TV deal, so that money is coming, regardless. Let’s say the salaries do triple. Players are now looking at $39,000 to $76,500 as a new range.
If that money is already coming — and already in place by time there are 30 D-League teams — that argument would be null and void. Players are not signing in the D-League to play there long-term. This is a not a career league; it’s a stepping stone to better opportunities. Fans have to realize players know that coming in but the increase in salaries will certainly attract more talent, which will ultimately help NBA clubs find more diamonds in the rough, à la Whiteside.
Having said that, I understand that some things will have to change to get NBA teams and owners to completely buy-in to the D-League. NBA teams don’t want to invest in a player and watch him get plucked from under their feet by another team. How do we combat that while still giving players opportunities they so desperately want?
My proposal would have a mix of the two systems — keep some of it current and take some of what MLB is doing.
Right now, NBA teams are permitted to assign four players to the D-League via the Affiliate Rule. After each team’s respective training camp, they have to trim rosters to 15 players for the NBA season. This rule allows them to keep players in-house with their D-League affiliate, although they do not retain the player rights to the players assigned (unless they have their original draft rights, like the Thunder with Semaj Christon last season).
Keep the four player limit, but allow the NBA club to also retain the rights to these players. Add another salary tier to the D-League and make it $50,000 more than the tier A contract, too, and we have a simple solution for both NBA and player buy-in for staying in the U.S. rather than going overseas for more money.
Does this still limit player movement to the NBA? Yes, however, it does not limit player movement for the entire league, only a select few that NBA clubs want to hang onto. That increased salary burden would not fall on the D-League club, either, but rather the NBA club. $50,000 is a small price to pay to retain and develop talent you might need later in the season.
If the NBA team doesn’t have four players they want to shell out the additional $50,000 for, they can still send up to four players total via the affiliate rule. Of course, only the ones they pay for will have their rights retained. A team could theoretically assign four players to their D-League affiliate but, for example, only hold the rights to two of those players moving forward.
The rights for any player retained in this fashion would only be held for one season. This would create flexibility for both the NBA club and the player if the club decides that they are no longer interested in keeping the player around long-term.
Enacting this new rule would be beneficial even before having 30 D-League teams, because the added value of retaining additional player rights would kick start NBA teams without an affiliate to finally jump on board and add one of their own.
This season, the Los Angeles Lakers signed undrafted rookie Robert Upshaw. Upshaw has unlimited potential but off court issues caused him to go unselected in the 2015 NBA Draft. The Lakers won’t likely keep Upshaw on their 15-man roster after training camp, but if this new rule was in place they could retain his rights and send him to the D-League to develop. It would be an incredible benefit to their franchise, all the while allowing the player to earn some extra coin while developing nearby.
As the affiliate rule stands now, the Lakers could still assign Upshaw to the D-Fenders and in a week’s time another team with an open roster spot could come in and nab him. For that reason, I think this is a rule that NBA brass would jump on board with.
The limitations of this move would be much smaller than the aforementioned numbers. Here is a full list of the players who were sent to the D-League via the affiliate rule last year. Surprisingly, only 13 of those players were called up to the NBA, so the opportunities for the league as a whole would still exist.
Widespread changes are coming for the NBA and D-League relationship and this idea is just one of many in the bucket. Ultimately, my hope is that the leagues can comprise a model that invokes buy-in from the parent clubs while still giving players the opportunities the D-League was built on.
The good news is they have about four to six years to figure it out.