It's become a common trend for NBA teams to control their own D-League affiliate, whether by actually owning it or just taking over the basketball operations. Actual uses of this operation range from sending certain young players down for seasoning to turning the D-League club into a laboratory for wacky ideas on how to play the game differently.
But because of this trend, a weird thing has happened. There will be 18 D-League clubs next year and 17 are affiliated with one specific team. The other is the Fort Wayne Mad Ants. The following teams are "affiliated" with Fort Wayne:
- Atlanta Hawks
- Brooklyn Nets
- Charlotte Hornets
- Chicago Bulls
- Denver Nuggets
- Indiana Pacers
- Los Angeles Clippers
- Milwaukee Bucks
- Minnesota Timberwolves
- New Orleans Pelicans
- Portland Trail Blazers
- Toronto Raptors
- Washington Wizards
That's 13 teams for one D-League club. So much for getting any personal attention.
Even odder: per D-League rules, only four NBA players can be assigned to a single D-League club at once. Of those four, no more than two are allowed per position. That makes sense for a single affiliate that is only choosing young players from one NBA team, but it's weirder when those 13 teams have to fight over which four NBA players get to go to Fort Wayne.
Consider this very real scenario: the Timberwolves want to send Zach LaVine to the D-League, but can't because, say, Gary Harris (Denver) and C.J. McCollum (Portland) are already there. What then?
Step 1 will be trying to find a single-affiliate team actually willing to accommodate that player. If the league and team can agree on a specific club, he'll go there. But what if that doesn't happen? Per the NBA's release:
If no singly-affiliated NBA D-League team is willing to accept the assigned player, he will be assigned to one of the non-NBA-owned single affiliate teams pursuant to a lottery.
Nine teams qualify: Bakersfield (Suns), Erie (Magic), Idaho (Jazz), Iowa (Grizzlies), Grand Rapids (Pistons), Maine (Celtics), Reno (Kings), Rio Grande Valley (Rockets) and Sioux Falls (Heat). Those nine teams may end up being stuck with someone else's prospect because there's not enough room on Fort Wayne.
Put yourselves in Minnesota's shoes. Let's say that there's no playing time available for LaVine next season, for whatever reason. He's languishing on the bench and there aren't many practices because Minnesota's on a long road trip. Normally, sending him down to the D-League is a useful way to get him those reps, but because 12 other teams share Minnesota's affiliate and beat the Timberwolves to the punch, there's no way LaVine can play for Fort Wayne. He must instead play for, say, Rio Grande Valley ... which would mean Minnesota's top rookie is developing in Houston's system, not Minnesota's.
Given those circumstances, the Timberwolves are going to be reluctant to send LaVine down when perhaps they should. That's a shame. We don't know for sure that playing in the D-League is better than sitting and still hanging around the main club, but it'd sure be nice to really see players have the option. Instead, they'll likely sit at the end of the bench and never get a chance to play in meaningful game action.
This is a dilemma that won't be solved until every team has a one-to-one affiliation, and that's still years away. The D-League has to expand from 18 to 30 teams, which is not going to happen overnight. All NBA teams actually have to believe even having a single D-League club is valuable, and that's still far off. (For all the talk of progress on this front, note that the the Trail Blazers and Nets ended their single-team affiliation a few months ago). The D-League has made major strides, but it's still miles away from being the kind of minor league system the league needs.
Until then, players like LaVine won't have a completely fair chance of benefiting from the stated purpose of the entire setup.