The D-League continues to grow in both numbers (the Raptors 905, the affiliate of the Toronto Raptors, makes the number 19 for the year) as well as relevancy and last season, one could argue was one of the most successful years for the D-League yet. Once seen as a last resort for players, and simply a re-incarnation of the old Continental Basketball Association (CBA), the D-League has become somewhat of a R&D department for players as well as organizations. A couple of years ago, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers got nationwide attention for their “3’s or Layups” approach that was chronicled in a Grantland Short, and the Reno Bighorns also gained notoriety by hiring David Arsenault Jr., the son of the coach who created the “System” at Grinnell College (Arsenault was an assistant at Grinnell since graduating). The result? D-League scoring records obliterated, and some national publicity that steered basketball enthusiasts’ attention to Reno and its players, the Kings organization and the System (beyond the Jack Taylor 138 point game, which has garnered mostly negative attention, though somewhat inaccurate).
So, the D-League, the NBA’s de-facto minor league, has come a long way since it was first established in 2001-2002 (where it was mostly established to lower the bargaining power of the CBA, which was the NBA’s main minor-league pipeline; Isiah Thomas, who was running the CBA, was a main cog in this happening and is widely credited for destroying the CBA due to him misjudging the leverage the NBA had with the CBA at the time; though to be fair, his vision of every NBA team having an affiliate and being closer in structure to minor league baseball is starting to be realized). 18 of the D-League teams are single affiliates, and the only one that isn’t serves as a “general affiliate” to all the remaining organizations. The NBA isn’t quite to the point of having the kind of Minor League system that Major League Baseball or even the NHL has, but it’s obvious that the NBA wants that and is slowly building the foundation to create a robust developmental league that will benefit players and organizations in the long run.
(If you haven’t already, read this excellent piece by Arn Tellem about his solution to fix a lot of the current issues facing the D-League and make it a true “Minor League” to the NBA. He hits a lot of great points, but my favorite is the fact that the NBA outsources their player development to organizations (NCAA and Foreign Leagues) that they have no control over. With organizations relying more on analytics than ever when it comes to contract and drafting decisions, it is ludicrous that NBA organizations are relying on college interns and people halfway across the world to supply them this data.)
NBA’s reliance on the D-League is more crucial than ever and becomes more and more crucial every year as more teams gain affiliates. Last year, there were a total of 63 call ups and 47 players called up in total, both records in the history of the D-League (the previous high was 60 call ups and 43 players called up in 2011-2012). With success stories such as Jeremy Lin, Gerald Green, Danny Green, and Hassan Whiteside, just to name a few, it makes sense why teams are utilizing the D-League more for talent. They’re classic low-risk, high-reward transactions. If they perform, teams have a talented, cheap assets for at least a season or two. If they do not, it’s easy to cut ties (thanks to the 10-day contracts), and there is no harm, no foul both on the court or on their cap. Teams are starting to realize that the D-League is like a thrift store for talent: sure there may be some less-than-stellar items (i.e. players) in the store, but every once in a while there are gems on the cheap lurking that have been overlooked or mishandled by their previous owners. Maybe Macklemore knew more about the NBA than we think.
But what teams utilize the D-League the most? You can look at the complete list here on the D-League Site, or this Spreadsheet where you can organize it by D-League team or NBA team. Let’s take a look at the D-League teams who produced the most call-ups in this graph below:
As you can see, Reno led the league with 7, with Santa Cruz and Iowa coming up tied for second with 6, and Sioux Falls in third with 5. All four teams are single affiliates, with Reno affiliated with the Kings, Santa Cruz with the Warriors, Iowa with the Grizzlies, and Sioux Falls with the Heat. (Though it must be stated that not all their call ups came from their affiliates, as other teams can call up someone even if they are not affiliated as long as they have permission to do so from the team and with some kind of compensation; for example, though Jordan Hamilton was called up from Reno, he was not called up by the Kings, but the Clippers). The average call ups per team was 3.5, and other teams that were above that average were Austin (Spurs), Canton (Cavs), Delaware (76ers), Maine (Celtics) and Rio Grande (Rockets).
Some interesting trends occurred in D-League teams who got players called up. Surprisingly, the one with no affiliate (Fort Wayne) did not experience many call ups, as they only had 1 (Dahntay Jones, who is more or a journeyman and less a prospect). Also, the teams that had the most call ups tended to be affiliates of the most successful organizations last year, which is surprising because you would think bad teams would have utilized their affiliates more (a trend you see more in baseball, where losing teams tend to call up their prospects when a playoff berth seems out of reach). The Spurs, Cavs, Celtics, Rockets, Warriors, and Grizzlies were all playoff teams last year, but their D-League affiliates produced more call-ups than the average. The only ones that bucked that trend were the Heat, Kings and 76ers. The Heat probably called up more players due to the injury issues they faced throughout the year (especially when Bosh went out for the year shortly after the Dragic trade), while the Kings and 76ers utilized the D-League due to a combo of them being out of the playoff race early, as well as injuries.
Teams below the 3.5 average were Bakersfield (Suns) with 3, Erie (Magic) with 2, Fort Wayne (No Affiliate) with 1, Grand Rapids (Pistons) with 2, Idaho (Jazz) with 3, Los Angeles (Lakers) with 3, Oklahoma City (Thunder) with 2, Texas (Mavs) with 2 and Westchester (Knicks) with 1. Westchester had the fewest call ups of any team with an affiliate with only 1 call up (Langston Galloway on January 7th), a surprise considering the Knicks were the second-worst team in the league record-wise last season and probably could have afforded to take a risk on some of the prospects in their system, Thanasis Antetokounmpo, the brother of Milwaukee’s Giannis, being the biggest example (though they did sign him to a two-year deal this off-season to prevent him from signing overseas in Europe).
Texas also had a low call up number (2), but the Mavs were an established roster with a mix of veterans and younger role players, so there wasn’t really much opportunity for a D-League prospect in Dallas throughout the year. Erie’s affiliate, the Magic, was a young-laden bunch, led by Victor Oladipo, Elfrid Payton and Tobias Harris, and there wasn’t much opportunity or need to utilize their affiliate for prospects when there were already so many on the Magic active roster.
Los Angeles wasn’t extremely active (3), but they were successful, as Jordan Clarkson, proved to be a callup who could have a good future with the Lakers as a role wing player, as he played 59 games and averaged 11.3 ppg and a 16.9 PER his rookie season after being drafted in the second round out Missouri a year ago (and he wasn’t even drafted by LA, but Washington). And lastly, Bakersfield and Idaho also had fewer call ups than average because their rosters (Suns and Jazz, respectively) are mostly compiled of younger players, thus, the organizations were a lot more patient and didn’t need reinforcements from the D-League often.
So what is the final analysis of the call ups from a year ago? Injuries plays a big part of it, especially when teams need to fill a guy temporarily. The NBA doesn’t have the clear-cut “Disabled Lists” like Major League Baseball, so a lot of call ups tend to be short term things to help a guy recover from injury. But, another trend seems to be that the more analytical the organization, the more call ups their affiliates get. Reno, Santa Cruz, Austin and Rio Grande Valley are affiliates of heavy analytics-based organizations (Sacramento, Golden State, San Antonio and Houston) and saw more call ups than average, while Westchester, Los Angeles and Grand Rapids (New York, Lakers and Detroit) are affiliates of more “traditional” organizations and thus, didn’t see many of their players called up by their parent organization or other NBA teams.
Whatever the main reasons are that fuel D-League call ups, it is obvious that the D-League is a valued resource among NBA organizations throughout the league. It’ll be interesting to see how more organizations will utilize it next season, especially with some talent going undrafted in the 2015 draft that could improve after a year or two in the D-League, similarly to Whiteside after being released by the Kings early in his carer (Cliff Alexander and Aaron Harrison being the biggest examples, as they also participated in Summer League and most likely will be taking a roster spot on a D-League team to start off the season).
The D-League is here to stay and worth following if you’re a die hard NBA fan in 2015-2016. It won’t be surprising to see the upward trend of call ups (2014-2015 was an improvement from 49 call ups in 2013-2014 which was an improvement from 36 in 2012-2013) continue next year, and with many D-League alums making noise in Summer League (Seth Curry and Kyle Anderson for example), organizations will be hard-pressed to ignore the D-League when it comes to filling out or improving their rosters throughout the season.