In the past few years, the NBA Development League — or D-League, for short — has become more and more mainstream. With the 2011 CBA allowing players to be assigned to D-League teams as often as the team feels necessary, the league is beginning to take on the feeling of a baseball-style farm system.
There are 17 D-League franchises now, after the Philadelphia 76ers announced that they would start their own, the Delaware 87ers, or the Sevens. 14 of those are either owned directly by an NBA team or have what’s called a “hybrid” single-affiliate relationship, which is to say that the NBA team is in control of the basketball operations of the D-League team. Only three D-League franchises remain, then, to serve as the affiliate for a total of 16 NBA teams. Those teams without a single-affiliate — specifically the Chicago Bulls, for the purposes of this piece — are now at a significant disadvantage compared to the 14 teams with one.
Why? Well, remember, the “D” in D-League stands for “development.” One of the major challenges facing NBA teams has always been attempting to develop their young players while also remaining competitive. Take the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons and Darko Milicic. The Pistons were really good — they would win the title that year — and Darko was the 2nd overall pick. But it turned out he wasn’t really ready to contribute right away, so he barely got any playing time. His potential was never realized and he bounced around the league for a few years.
Imagine the same scenario playing out in a system where the Pistons have their own D-League team. Darko could be sent down to a team using the same playbook and language that the actual Pistons use, where he could learn at his own pace and perhaps eventually become the player everyone thought he’d be.
This, specifically, is why I think the Bulls need to hurry up and get on board with the D-League. Tom Thibodeau is somewhat famous at this point for his unwillingness to play younger players. Jimmy Butler barely played in his first season and neither did Marquis Teague. Malcolm Thomas played significant minutes exactly once in his month or so with the team last year. It’s generally assumed that Thibs doesn’t like playing younger guys because they haven’t learned his defensive system yet. So imagine that the Bulls have their own D-League team, running the same defensive system as the big club. You could send an Erik Murphy — or a Tony Snell, for that matter — to the D-League for chunks of the season where they can get playing time and continue learning the system.
The way the CBA is structured would even allow you to do both. The Oklahoma City Thunder shuttled their young players like Jeremy Lamb back and forth between the NBA and the D-League at an incredible pace. They might play one night for the Tulsa 66ers and be back with the Thunder the next day for their game. So you could have Snell and Murphy available if there’s a chance for them to play in garbage time, but also allow them to keep playing actual minutes elsewhere.
So. Having decided that the Bulls should field a D-League team, what would that team look like? Where would they play? Assume, for the purposes of this exercise, that the Bulls’ current affiliate, the Iowa Energy, has been repurposed by one of the other four teams that use it.
Well, as a general rule, you want your affiliate to be fairly close by. Every single team with a single-affiliate except for one has their team stationed within a state or two of the big club. St. Louis might make some sense from the Bulls’ perspective. It only takes an hour to fly from Chicago to St. Louis or vice versa. Springfield, Champaign-Urbana, Rockford and Peoria are all reasonably well-populated and relatively nearby. But why mess around with something so far away when you could place a team even closer? Say, somewhere that’s only about an hour’s drive from the United Center?
To that end, I present to you the Chicago Roses — based in Rosemont, Illinois — as created by friend of PAE Randall J. Sanders (go follow him on Twitter):
I’ve spent the last not-quite three months working for the Chicago Sky, who play at Allstate Arena in Rosemont, and I can tell you that it’s a very nice facility. It has plenty of capacity and it’s pretty easy to get to. Randall suggested the Roses as both a reference to ROSEmont, and also because of Derrick Rose, obviously. If you’re not buying it, we also have an alternative.
The Chicago Horizons, once again as designed by Randall J. Sanders:
If you’ve got a better idea, please let us know in the comments. We welcome all input. Besides, this is the sort of thing that should be fun. It’s not gonna happen any time soon, so why not go all out with it?
Anyway, think about how different last season might have looked with a D-League team attached to the Bulls. As long as Kirk Hinrich was healthy, Marquis Teague barely played. Send him down to the D-League and let him get reps, then call him back up when Hinrich inevitably got hurt. Malcolm Thomas also would have benefitted from time with the Roses/Horizons, and maybe he doesn’t have to go play in Israel for a few months because the Bulls decide to sign him after his breakout performance at Las Vegas Summer League in 2012. And maybe he doesn’t get cut to save money after another standout summer league performance if you can send him to the D-League.
On a more macro level, a fully integrated D-League, where every team has their own single affiliate, would make the trade deadline more interesting. The problem with trades in the NBA has always been that teams have to give up something tangible, like a draft pick or an actual player on their roster to get anything worth mentioning. (Unless you’re the Atlanta Hawks and you’re negotiating with the Bulls, in which case you can get Kyle Korver for absolutely nothing. Sigh.) But with a D-League system, smaller transactions — for instance, maybe a team sees their backup center get hurt and decides it needs another big as insurance — could consist of little more than a couple of D-Leaugers and some cash.
Of course, the system would need to get some kinks worked out first. In baseball, you can trade a player making 20 million for a single prospect if you really want to, since MLB is uncapped. The NBA obviously doesn’t work like that. Maybe you allow teams to acquire players even if they’re above the cap by having the other team pay all, or at least some, of the player’s remaining salary? That’s probably a question for the next CBA. But regardless, having another 10-15 players available in case of injury would be useful.
So, I will direct this to Jerry Reinsdorf: Please get in on the D-League. Please.