The Indiana Pacers announced their purchase of the D-League's Fort Wayne Mad Ants on Wednesday, becoming the 19th NBA team to have some sort of individual affiliation with a developmental franchise. That's great news for the Pacers, who now control the Mad Ants, but it's going to create some major challenges for other teams across the league.
Prior to the Pacers buying the Mad Ants, Fort Wayne had been the D-League's last remaining franchise without a single-team affiliation. Thirteen different NBA franchises used Fort Wayne as their farm team last year -- Toronto included before creating its own team this summer -- while the other 17 teams had one-for-one relationships with their affiliates. Unsurprisingly, having 13 teams trying to assign players to a single roster created some complicated situations.
Now things get even more muddled because the Pacers own the Mad Ants. Entering the 2015-16 season, there isn't a single team in the D-League without some kind of individual partnership with an NBA team -- either through outright ownership or a "hybrid" relationship that lets the NBA franchise run basketball operations. That makes it very difficult for the remaining NBA teams -- Atlanta, Brooklyn, Charlotte, Chicago, Denver, L.A., Milwaukee, Minnesota, New Orleans, Portland and Washington -- to send eligible players on an assignment.
Teams that don't have an individual partnership with a D-League team will have to depend on the league's "flexible assignment system," which was put in place last year to deal with the many teams sharing Fort Wayne affiliation. If those teams want to assign a player to the D-League, they'll need to work with the league to find a team willing to take that player in. If all of them refuse, he'll be forced onto one of the hybrid-owned teams via a lottery system.
In other words, those 11 teams can still assign players to the D-League, but they'll have almost no control over where that player goes or what kind of opportunity he'll eventually receive. The NBA team can reject where a player's been assigned, but that doesn't ensure there will be another spot elsewhere. By contrast, the 19 single-affiliate NBA teams are able to freely assign players to their own affiliate and dictate to coaching staffs how to manage playing time.
It's also worth noting that NBA teams like Indiana, which now owns its D-League franchise outright, will never need to take another team's player. Only the hybrid-owned teams are involved in the lottery should all teams decline to accept an assigned player. Teams with hybrid ownership are the Erie Bayhawks (Magic), Maine Red Claws (Celtics), Grand Rapids Drive (Pistons), Sioux Falls Skyforce (Heat), Rio Grande Valley Vipers (Rockets), Texas Legends (Mavericks), Bakersfield Jam (Suns) and Reno Bighorns (Kings).
This situations is a problem for the 11 unaffiliated teams and their young players. On the right team, a rookie might be able to get assigned to the parent club's D-League team, which could mirror strategies and help prepare the player for the NBA team's style of play. That ability has helped countless players develop.
But those 11 teams don't have that luxury now, however, and it's going to create hurdles when it comes to player development. Where a single-affiliate team can stockpile prospects, assign them at will and dictate how they're trained and coached, other teams will be beholden to the "flexible assignment system" and hope their player lands in the right spot.
The result is likely that some teams will eschew sending young players to the D-League because there's so much uncertainty involved. Why would the Timberwolves want someone like Zach LaVine developing under the Celtics' watch in Maine, for example? Instead, they'll just keep him on the bench, which denies him the chance to practice skills in game situations.
The bottom line is that the 30-team D-League is both a necessity and an inevitability. The logistics might be more complicated than you'd guess at first glance, especially given the geographic and payroll issues that need to be overcome. Some teams might be less excited about committing resources to a minor league franchise than others. But when a third of the league is at a major competitive disadvantage, everyone will want to smarten up and try to balance the scales.
In the meantime, 11 teams enter the 2015-16 season with an interesting dilemma on their hands and the wait for a fully formed D-League continues. Until that time comes, teams will have to get creative when it comes to finding opportunities for its young players.