Now finishing its 12th year, the NBA Development League is still finding its way but loaded with upside. More than a quarter of the players in the NBA at the end of last season—including Timberwolves guard J.J. Barea, Spurs swingman Danny Green and, of course, point guard Jeremy Lin, who signed a three-year, $25.1 million free-agent deal last summer with the Rockets—had experience in the D-League, which also serves as a training ground for future NBA referees, coaches and front-office staff. Potential new rules are auditioned in the D-League, including a favorite of commissioner David Stern's: the FIBA rule that allows either team to dunk or bat away the ball after it touches the rim. Stern isn't left to blindly guess how the NBA's leapers would attack a missed free throw in the final seconds of a one-point game. Instead he reviews highlights from the D-League, where every matchup is streamed live and free on YouTube.
All 30 NBA clubs now have some relationship with the 16-team D-League. Five teams in the minors are affiliated with three or four franchises in the majors, which send their players to Fort Wayne, Ind., or Bakersfield, Calif., with relatively little control over their development. Such cooperation was the original concept behind the D-League, but over time more promising models have emerged.
The remaining 11 D-League teams are each attached to a single NBA parent franchise, and their arrangements fall into three groups. Thanks to the marketing lessons of Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Dallas G.M. Donnie Nelson became co-owner of the Texas Legends in Frisco, Texas., and runs the club at a profit, bringing in former NBA players such as Rashad McCants, and Mike James. Even if they aren't called up to play for the Mavs, their name recognition attracts fans.
The Lakers took a different approach in 2006, when they became the first NBA franchise to buy a D-League team, the L.A. D-Fenders. The Spurs, Thunder, Cavs and Warriors followed suit and now shuttle young players back and forth, depending on holes in the NBA schedule. The third and most popular arrangement is the "hybrid" devised by the Rockets, who in 2009 bought the basketball operations of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in Hidalgo, Texas, even as local ownership continued to control the business end of the franchise.
Coaches at every single-franchise-affiliated D-League team use the NBA playbook sent down from the parent club, smoothing the path for players moving back and forth. The stigma of demotion has been worn away by the commutes of such first-round picks as Celtics center Fab Melo (21 games for the Maine Red Claws at week's end), Thunder swingman Jeremy Lamb (16 games for the Tulsa 66ers) and Rockets forward-center Donatas Motiejunas (seven for the Vipers). They continue to receive their NBA salary and per diem on the road, as well as a single hotel room (their teammates double up) and first-class seating on flights when available.
The collective bargaining agreement allows unlimited player assignments to the D-League, and those with more than three years of NBA experience can rehab there. "It's going to happen where a big-time name goes to the D-League," said Chris Alpert, the D-League's VP of basketball operations and player personnel. "Whether it's one or two games, it makes so much sense."
D-League franchises that cost $400,000 a decade ago are now valued at close to $4 million. More than half of the teams claim to be profitable, and as revenues increase, player pay may rise too. That's a key component: If salaries—now $15,000 to $25,000 for full-time players—could reach, say, $100,000, then the D-League could become an attractive destination for high school graduates, who could bypass college ball to play a 50-game pro schedule, get NBA training and improve their draft prospects.
One NBA G.M. proposes a more seismic change, that the next CBA allow NBA teams to draft high school seniors, as long as the players spent their initial season exclusively in the minors. For the D-League, change is good; this is and always will be a league under construction. Someday every NBA franchise will operate its own team in the D-League, where fans will watch the stars of tomorrow without the under-the-table payments and meaningless class assignments that undermine much of college basketball. It's a dream on the way.