NBA’s use of the D-League is evolving

Feb 13, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, Canada; NBA commissioner Adam Silver speaks to the media during the NBA All Star Saturday Night at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 13, 2016; Toronto, Ontario, Canada; NBA commissioner Adam Silver speaks to the media during the NBA All Star Saturday Night at Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports /

There are numerous opinions on how the NBA — and it’s teams — should be utilizing the D-League. The league, formed in 2001, has now grown from a mere eight teams to 25 starting in the 2017-18 season. Soon enough each NBA franchise will own and operate an affiliate and how they use it will be their prerogative.

Starting next season there will be just five teams without an affiliate — the Portland Trail Blazers, Washington Wizards, Denver Nuggets, New Orleans Pelicans and the Los Angeles Clippers. In all likelihood the D-League will have 30 teams by the year 2020 at the latest. The benefits of obtaining a one-to-one affiliate are simply too great to pass up and at a reported cost of a mere $7 million, this advantage can be had inexpensively.

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In recent years the main draw of the NBADL has been a team’s unending desire to find a diamond in the rough, ultimately helping their team win, via a call up. The number of call ups has steadily risen along with the prominence of the league as a whole. Players like JaMychal Green, Hassan Whiteside, Tyler Johnson and Jonathon Simmons have earned their way into the NBA, rewarding the teams who take a chance on them with solid play.

Created by @Chris_Reichert with data from
Created by @Chris_Reichert with data from /

The overall trend of call ups is clearly rising (No. 16 on the chart is this unfinished season, hence the lower number) which continues to prove the relevance of the NBADL and it’s talent pool. Even with the NBA salary cap rising to astronomical levels, franchises are steadily seeking attractive contracts for players who can still help their team win. Call up salaries are very inexpensive in relation to current NBA salary figures, so scouting the NBADL has become vital to long, and short, term success for clubs.

Think of the Mavericks this season. They lost Devin Harris, J.J. Barea and Deron Williams to injury and were in desperate need of point guard help. Instead of adding some veteran waiting on his couch for a call, they sought out Yogi Ferrell from the Long Island Nets and his rise has been well documented since.

While call ups are the shiny object in the window drawing the eyes of many, the new wrinkle for the league is the increased use for NBA assignees as a vessel for development.

Clint Capela is the poster boy for this usage right now. Capela was drafted by the Houston Rockets as a raw, project-player who they hoped would transform into a stud. His rookie season was spent with their D-League affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, so he could morph into a player who could be a viable contributor in the NBA. Now, in year three (at just 22-years old) Capela is an everyday starter for the Rockets averaging 12.0 points, 7.6 rebounds and 1.4 blocks for a 40-17 team who sits third in the Western Conference. Not too shabby.

Other teams are catching on and assignments numbers are reaching all-time highs season after season.

Created by @Chris_Reichert using data from
Created by @Chris_Reichert using data from /

Even with just a quick glance at the visual above, it’s apparent the use of sending NBA assignees to the D-League has risen exponentially over the past six seasons. This year the league has hit an all-time high of 80 players assigned and it’s only February. Assignee data is not available prior to the 2005-06 season. Over the first seven years (2005-2012) of this data set, the NBA assigned an average of 35 total players per season. In the last five years (2012-2017), that average has jumped to 60 players assigned league wide.

Not only have assignees risen, but the number of NBA draftees (specifically rookies) has shown a stark difference as well. For example, only nine players from the 2012 draft were assigned to the D-League in their rookie seasons. In contrast, 36 rookies drafted in 2016 spent time in the NBADL with a record 14 first round picks and 22 second round picks involved.

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Teams have a lot of trust in their minor league affiliate in terms of developing their young players and molding them into contributors at the NBA level. Many clubs, especially successful ones, have minimal minutes to hand out to rookies, so utilizing an affiliate to help them grow is essential for continued long term viability. D-League teams are using the same schemes, offensive and defensive sets and lingo as their NBA parent clubs, so assimilation is becoming easier as young players transition from overseas or the NCAA ranks.

The D-League is the newest frontier being explored by NBA franchises and the teams who can pull out the greatest benefits will reap the rewards. In year 16, the league is reinventing itself as a true minor league for the NBA. Change is constant in the NBADL and more change will certainly arise as it moves towards 30 teams. The teams who can adapt to this change fastest will lead the revolution of the NBA’s minor league.