Is it okay to call the NBA D-League a failed experiment?

Published by Axel on 21st July - 13:20 (CET)
In 2001, after 20 years of using the CBA (Continental Basketball Association) as its development league, the NBA announced the intentions to form its own minor-league feeder system named the National Basketball Development League.

By 2005 NBA commissioner David Stern wanted to develop the D-League into a true minor league farm system and had the league change its name to NBA Development League.
Some teams were purchased by private owners and relocated. A year later the league expanded even further from its original 8 teams, while also absorbing five teams from the CBA.

NBA teams quickly started to form affiliations with existing D-League teams while a few of them even chose to buy their own teams. As of September 2015, when Pacers Sports & Entertainment (Indiana Pacers) purchased the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, every single team within the D-League has a one-to-one NBA affiliation.

But what is the D-League? What function does it fill? And does it work?

To make this a bit easier for those of you who doesn't know how the D-League works I'll give you a little NBA D-League 101. For those of you who already know how it works, or for those of you who just don't give a shit, skip this next part!

The following 22 teams will compete in the upcoming 2016 - 2017 season:
There are currently nine ways for a player to get into the D-League:

Teams hold the rights to any player who has played for them within the last two seasons, as long as they have not released that player.

When NBA teams trim their rosters during training camp and the preseason, they have the first crack at acquiring their waived players on their NBA D-League affiliate. Organizations can designate up to four “affiliate players”.

NBA D-League teams hold tryouts during each offseason, inviting some players to participate for free while attracting locals who pay a small fee to participate. The teams can invite up to five players to their training camps.

The NBA D-League rosters gains even more players with talent throughout the season as players returning from stints overseas or NBA veterans working their way back into the league enter the player pool of free agents.

Every fall, more than 200 players are signed by the league office and placed in the NBA D-League Draft. About half of them are selected on Draft day, which features a field of NBA and NBA D-League vets, international pros, undrafted rookies and NBA D-League National Tryout players.

In 2014, the Oklahoma City Thunder made headlines for their decision to select Stanford forward Josh Huestis in the first round of the NBA Draft with the intent of adding him to their NBA Development League affiliate, the Oklahoma City Blue. He was called the league’s first “domestic draft-and-stash” player.

NBA teams can assign players with three years of service or less an unlimited number of times, and they’re taking advantage of that rule each season.

A player who has not yet entered the NBA Draft can instead enter the NBA Development League and maintain his NBA Draft eligibility.

Among those nine type of players only the NBA assignees, the NBA draft right players and the NBA draft-eligible players are exclusively owned by any NBA team. All the other players are available for every team in the NBA, and a majority of the players sign a contract with the D-League rather than with a team, thus separating this system from other minor league systems like the Minor League Baseball, which has grown to become a very successful feeder system.

Each year some of those D-League players gets called up to the big league.
Year-by-year list of those call-ups:

2001 - 2002: 8 players called up
2002 - 2003: 10 players called up
2003 - 2004: 14 players called up
2004 - 2005: 9 players called up
2005 - 2006: 13 players called up
2006 - 2007: 16 players called up
2007 - 2008: 18 players called up
2008 - 2009: 20 players called up
2009 - 2010: 27 players called up
2010 - 2011: 20 players called up
2011 - 2012: 43 players called up
2012 - 2013: 31 players called up
2013 - 2014: 37 players called up
2014 - 2015: 47 players called up
2015 - 2016: 32 players called up

59 D-League coaches have also been called up to the NBA. Five of those coaches have gone on to become NBA head coaches. Dave Joerger of Sacramento Kings, Quin Snyder of Utah Jazz, Earl Watson of Phoenix Suns, Luke Walton of Los Angeles Lakers and former Charlotte Bobcats head coach Sam Vincent.

That's a total of 345 players and 59 coaches that have been called up from the D-League to the NBA.
Even if those numbers and the fact that nearly a third of every active NBA player has spent time in the D-League - compared to about 20% in 2008 - seems pretty good, the league isn't really working as well as it could do.

While the one-to-one type of relation the D-League and the NBA has makes it possible to develop talent within the D-League using the same plays and system as their NBA affiliate it's still a problem to get this working as the rosters change so drastically, much thanks to the the contract system where the players are signed to the league rather than to a specific team. This combined with players wanting to show off for scouts results in a lot of D-League hero ball.

Sure, there have still been a few good call-ups that the NBA gladly boast about.
Like Chris Andersen who was the league’s first-ever call-up to the NBA (Fayetteville Patriots to Denver Nuggets in 2001 - 2002), Danny Green (Reno Bighorns to San Antonio Spurs in 2010 - 2011), Gerald Green (Los Angeles D-Fenders to New Jersey Nets in 2010 - 2011), Jeremy Lin (Erie BayHawks to New York Knicks in 2011 - 2012) and most recently Hassan Whiteside (Iowa Energy to Miami Heat in 2014 - 2015).

But with the exception of the 'Birdman' every one of those players had NBA experience even before they got to the D-League, and honestly, if those guys are the best call-ups in 15 years... I don't really know if this league is doing it's thing.

There are plenty of reasons for players not to chose to play in the NBA D-League.
First of is the salaries. For the past few seasons the salaries in the D-League had three tiers of $13,000, $19,000 and $25,000 respectively, and while they will remove the lowest tier and increase the salaries a tiny bit for the upcoming season, the tiers are still only $19,500 and $26,000.
This is insanely low if you compare it to the NBA, where the minimum contract for a player with one year of service in 2016 - 2017 would give $874,636, and that's the minimum salary.

What these players really live on are the 10-day contracts and other type of NBA venues they get invited to. A 10-day contract with an NBA-team was worth about $30,000 in 2014-15, and you can get two of those in a row. So that could be worth more than two years of salary for a D-League player.

But depending on those kind of deals is a gamble, and if a player doesn't get any NBA action he's basically working for a minimum wage salary and got nothing to live on when you're done playing.

So the pay grade is the first problem. The second one is the locations of some of the teams, which most players likely end up on sooner or later as you're probably signed with the league and not with a specific team.

Like, would you rather play for minimum wage in Erie, Grand Rapids or Sioux Falls when you can earn millions of dollars overseas in Rome, Barcelona or Istanbul? It's probably not that hard of a choice, players with D-League talent can earn a lot in Europe.

At least move the franchises to like, Buffalo, San Francisco or Seattle?

So instead of going to to the NBA Development League to develop talent for the NBA most players chose to take other paths. But imagine how good of a league and system it could be (perhaps even entertaining) if the real semi talent actually went to the D-League instead of overseas.
Going straight to the D-League from the NCAA - or maybe even from high school since most of those guys are one-and-done players who never finish college anyways - to get more NBA ready would then be a viable choice, and perhaps current NBA players would be more willing to use the D-League as a way to recover from injuries in a greater extent, kinda like Rajon Rondo did after his injury in 2014.

Even while the D-League is labeled as a farm system to the NBA, a vast majority of the players who are drafted to the NBA are still NCAA players and not D-League players.

So why won't the NBA affiliations of those teams just pay up some more money to make the league more attractive to high level players? I mean, the salary cap for a NBA D-League team in 2016 - 2017 is $209,000.
That could easily be tripled and still not even be worth anything close an NBA vet minimum contract.
Someone like Steve Ballmer or Mark Cuban probably wipes his ass with that kinda money..

If the NBA affiliations of those D-League teams payed this money, wouldn't it actually benefit them both?
Well, put on your tin foil hats guys, because the only real explanation for this has to be that the NBA and the NCAA has a secret agreement not to pay players too much, since it would ruin the NCAA and reduce it's revenue a lot if the best players instead of going to college went to the D-League.
Mind you that both the NCAA and the NBA operates with Turner Sports, and are in such buddy-buddy mode that the NBA even takes a break when the NCAA March Madness is on display.

The NCAA itself has become a big business which generates millions of dollars, still the players haven't been able to get compensated the way they should, which has led to a antitrust class action lawsuit filed against the NCAA which case in March was appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.
We'll follow with interest.

Well, there are a lot of steps that could be made to make the D-League a bit more appealing for both players and viewers, and they've actually already started to stream D-League select games on youtube (which you can watch here on, but I warn you. They're not that interesting if you aren't following a certain prospect.

I don't know if I would call the NBA D-League a failed experiment just yet, but I do know that anything branded with the NBA could do a lot better...

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