The 2015-16 season will be the first time every D-League team has a one-to-one affiliation with an NBA counterpart.
I’ve already chronicled that this new wrinkle won’t have much of an effect on the non-affiliated teams in terms of assignments. The D-League will use a Flex Assignment rule for NBA players being sent down from any of the 11 teams without an affiliate, via D-League.com:
Upon receipt of an assignment from an independent NBA team, the NBA D-League will identify any NBA D-League team willing to accept the assigned player. The assigning independent NBA team will then choose the destination for assignment between those teams. If no NBA D-League team is willing to accept the assigned player, he will be assigned to one of the hybrid affiliate teams pursuant to a lottery.
Here’s where I think a completely unintended byproduct of the Flex Rule could come into play. The rule seems simple enough but focus on this line: “The assigning independent NBA team will then choose the destination for the assignment.”
Herein lies a possible benefit.
The NBA D-League is more widely used than ever before in terms of call-ups and assignment — last season the league saw all-time highs in both numbers. Teams are using the league to develop their young talent and sometimes that talent ends up being traded during the season. So, the argument could be made that the NBA is already quasi using the D-League to improve the stock of young assets (if they play well while on assignment, of course).
Here’s where this season could be a little different for the non-affiliated teams.
Let’s say Fred Hoiberg can’t find any minutes for Doug McDermott. McDermott isn’t going to crack the rotation and maybe, at this point, Hoiberg wants to see what they can get for him. He’s a solid player who could still develop into a role player in the league, but the Bulls don’t have time to wait around for him to develop. Hoiberg and Gar Forman sit down and decide they are going to call around to gauge interest in the second year player.
They reach the Sacramento Kings — who were willing to take a flyer on McDermott in the 2014 draft — and there’s interest. However, before committing to anything, they want to see McDermott in their system with their coaches, and they want to get a good look at him in person. If so, the Bulls could choose to assign McDermott to the D-League and the Reno Bighorns (affiliate of the Kings) would agree to take him on. That way, the Kings’ brass could get a firsthand look at the player they are interested in trading for. It wouldn’t matter if another team was willing to take on McDermott because, by rule, the Bulls could choose whichever team they want in the D-League for him to be assigned.
Players with three years or less of NBA experience have no choice in being assigned to the D-League or not, so the player would be none the wiser while a potential trade partner gets a legitimate look at an asset they may want to acquire. The only catch is the team interested in the player needs their own D-League affiliate. Now that there are 19 teams with affiliates, though, this would not be hard to come by.
Far-fetched? Listen, if you think non-affiliate teams aren’t already contacting NBA clubs before they assign their players to the D-League to ensure they go somewhere optimal, you are simply naive to the strategies in play.
Last season we saw the Atlanta Hawks assign Adreian Payne to the Austin Spurs via the flex assignment rule (the Fort Wayne Mad Ants already had their maximum four NBA assignees at the time), which came as no coincidence seeing as Mike Budenholzer worked with the San Antonio Spurs for 17 years! It’s safe to say he gave the Spurs a call and made a simple request, and the Spurs were happy to oblige.
Loopholes exist and, while unintended by the league, this is an example of another one. How many teams will utilize a strategy like this? It’s difficult to say because it’s not often that players with three years or less experience are traded. However, if a team can maximize return by giving the interested team a live look at someone, maybe that changes things.
The flex assignment rule is going to be interesting to see in action, because there are always going to be subplots and underlying messages on why a certain player goes to a certain team. We know all things happen for a reason and there will be some definite intrigue in how this rule plays out this season.