When the NBA D-League tips off in November, it will be bigger than ever. Thanks to an expansion boomlet, 22 teams will suit up in 2016-17, and at least two more expansion teams are expected to join in time for the 2017-18 season.
After the size of the league plateaued from 2010 to 2013, new teams began to trickle in at the rate of about one per year. Three teams will join the league for the 2016-17 season: the Windy City Bulls, the Long Island Nets and Greensboro Swarm, who are affiliated with the Hornets. Two more franchises were bought by NBA teams, relocated and and deemed single affiliates. (Say hello to the Salt Lake City Stars and Northern Arizona Suns.)
For the second straight season, the entire D-League franchise base is single-affiliated. That means that the basketball operations of every D-League is managed by an affiliated NBA team. This might be a bigger deal than the 22-team count.
When NBA teams send down their young players, or assign waived training camp invites to the D-League club, they can fully manage their “minor league” experience. The NBA team hires the D-League coach and GM, sets the plan for the roster construction, installs offensive and defensive systems and can dictate playing time and roles.
Some clubs (like the Rockets and Kings) use the D-League to experiment; some (like the Spurs and 76ers) use the D-League to find promising prospects. Still others (like the Mavericks) give wash-out veterans a shot to prove they belong. But the single-affiliation is key. For this to work remotely like a real farm system, the NBA team must have control over the D-League club. That’s now the case for 22 teams.
What about the other eight NBA franchises? The Hawks, Wizards, Pelicans, Clippers, Nuggets, Timberwolves, Bucks and Blazers all lack a team-owned or hybrid D-League affiliate. They’ll be able to call up unsigned D-League players like any other team, but the assignment process for developing players will be tricky.
If one of these teams wants to assign a player to the D-League, volunteer D-League clubs will be sought. If multiple D-League clubs want to take on the player on behalf of, say, the Blazers, Portland can choose among them. If no one volunteers, the D-League holds a lottery among the seven “hybrid” D-League teams — the ones where the parent club controls basketball operations, but does not own the team. The “winner” gets the prospect.
Clearly, this is a bad setup for the NBA teams without an affiliate. Is that by design? It sure nudges those teams to get their own affiliates. And it may be working.
One unaffiliated team, the Bucks, is on track to create their own D-League squad in time for the 2017-18 season. That would bring the D-League to 23 teams. The Timberwolves are considering proposals from local groups to open up an affiliate in Minnesota. That’d make 24. A group in Omaha is trying to start a new D-League team so it can grab an affiliation, possibly from the Nuggets or Pelicans. That’s 25.
With every additional NBA team that gets on board, there’s more pressure on the stragglers to catch up. It’s reaching a head, and it seems all but certain that the D-League will have 30 teams no later than 2020.
But for the D-League to become a true farm system for the NBA, a few other things need to happen. Reports suggest the NBA will look at boosting D-League salaries in the next collective bargaining agreement from the current $25,000 (at the most — most players are actually below that number) to something more competitive with European and Asian leagues. That’s part of it. But to really turn the D-League into a farm system, the NBA will need to tweak roster size rules.
Right now, NBA teams contending for playoff spots have little roster space for developmental players. As such, fringe prospects get waived in training camp. While they might then end up on the same NBA team’s D-League roster — if they don’t bail for Italy or China -- the NBA team doesn’t hold any sort of exclusive rights. Any ol’ NBA team can pick them up. So resources spent on developing players might not benefit your NBA team as it currently stands.
If the NBA adds a few development roster spots to allow teams to hold D-League rights on players in their pipeline, this could further boost teams’ efforts to develop young players ... and perhaps take more risks on raw domestic prospects in the second round of the draft instead of foreign draft-and-stash prospects. This will be a decision the NBA needs to make.
If the NBA does pursue this path and considers tweaks to the age minimum rule, the D-League could possibly supplant the NCAA as the preferred route to pro basketball for young players. It may seem crazy. But a decade ago, when the D-League was struggling with just six teams, I bet a minor league this robust seemed pretty wild, too. The NBA seems to know what it’s doing on this front.