Much discussion and debate has been about which era of basketball is the greatest. You have the 80s that included the Lakers and Celtics dynasties, and the 90s that seen the rise of the greatest player to touch the hardwood. Let’s not forget the 2000s which included some of the most exciting and diverse ballers in the history of the game, who are currently the last of the mohicans in today’s era.
So how would one describe the current era of basketball. Some would say this is the weakest and softest era of ball. Some would say this era is the best because records are being broken and the players are bigger, faster, stronger. One thing that is never used in an argument for this era is the Developmental League.
No other era had a farm system to develop players that were not ready for the big stage. A place where players can hone their skills and become a solid NBA player. No other era had that type of league or system that was connected to the NBA. All you had in previous era’s was a ten-day contract, which for most was not enough time to prove that they are NBA caliber.
With the NBA D-League, it gives “late bloomers” a place to blossom. There is a long list of NBA Players that had stints in the D-League that saved their careers. Hassan Whiteside is the most recognizable current D-League product that has made a name for himself. Matt Barnes started his career in the D-League. Jeremy Lin went from D-League unknown to NBA sensation with the Knicks. Martell Webster, Danny Green, Avery Bradley, JJ Barea, and Brandon Bass all started their careers in the D-League, now solid vets on any team in the NBA.
Over the years the D-League has grown substantially. In 2001 the league started with 8 teams - the 2016-17 season will start with the 22 teams, closer to the goal of each NBA team with a D-League team. The league has a deal with YouTube to show all their games, and you can also watch games on NBATV. The average value for each team is $6 million and the salary cap is close to $200,000. The D-League was former commissioner, David Stern, gift to this era of the NBA.
While the D-League has become great for the NBA internally, keeping talent here in the states and not overseas, it has not reached great success externally with the fans. Average NBA fans are not checking for the up-n-coming players or stars of the D-League. With anything else, fans want to watch the players they know, the players they can connect with. Majority of the players in the D-League are no-name ballers who are looking for that big opportunity.
To the average fan, the D-League is nothing special. It doesn’t peak their interest. Luckily, our Michael Asiffo was able to cover the Raptors 905, the Toronto Raptors affiliate team. With that experience, I was able to see how much of a gold mine the NBA D-League is.
In the MLB, rookies going to the minor league first is expected and sometimes mandatory. The best players in the MLB currently - Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, and Mike Trout - all had stints in the minors before blazing up the Majors. While the farms system keep the talent level at a high level, it does not appeal to the average baseball fans, while baseball purist keep track of the news on the farms.
Luckily, for the NBA, people are more attracted to the sport of basketball. Basketball is probably the most exciting sport on the planet right now. People love to watch good basketball. While the NFL is still king of the leagues, the NBA isn’t too far behind. The NBA has an opportunity to do have an edge on both the MLB and NFL - with a farm system that will drive in great ratings and push out elite talent.
So with that said, how could the NBA make the D-League more appealing to NBA fans?
First, I would keep the same gameplan. The NBA wants each NBA franchise to have a farm team. These farm teams will create new fan bases in 30 different cities. Cities like Baltimore MD - a basketball town with rich history and a long list of hoopers - would love to have an NBA team here. The Baltimore Hawks, who is a part of the ABA league, does a great job of promoting their brand and is well known in the community. The Wizards are one of 8 franchise that does not have a farm team, a Baltimore D-League team would give the Wizards Franchise a market that they once dominated and has history with.
My theory is to add. Add to the talent pool.
I purpose that the NBA would force rookies to play a certain amount of games in the D-League before playing in the NBA. So if the Lakers drafted Ben Simmons, he would play at least 20 games with the LA Defenders. If Brandon Ingram goes to the Philadelphia 76ers, he would play 20 games with the Delaware 87ers.
This would create a talent pool with elite talent, similar to the MLB. I like to look at it as an extended version of the Summer League. This would save players like Hashim Theebet, who was drafted #2 overall and sat on the bench in Memphis for three months before heading to the D-League. Most importantly, he would have been playing against players of his caliber.
Big names like Simmons and Ingram, will give the D-League star power to promote the brand. Promote those matchups, create those D-League storylines that would create a space in basketball essence.
The D-League history books are not empty but they’re not known either, similar to the minor leagues of the MLB. No one knows that Ansu Sessay is the D-League first MVP. Sessay was the SEC Player of the Year at Mississippi in 1998. Sessay had his best success with the Seattle Sonics, playing in 4 playoff games.
Jernell Stokes was this year’s regular season MVP and Finals MVP for the Sioux Falls Skyforce. Stokes is a former 5-star recruit and played three seasons at Tennessee 2011-14. For college basketball fans that know of Stokes, it makes them want to follow his journey. That’s if he was playing against the rest of the 2014 Draft Class (Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, etc.).
Of course Parker and Wiggins would be the players that play the minimum amount of games and just jet to the league, they’re top two picks for a reason. Players like Joel Embid, Dante Exum, and Shabazz Napier could have used the D-League to grow and become better pro ballers. A season in the D-League for them would give them the right amount of playing time and grow against NBA caliber players, like Jernell Stokes.
Increasing the D-League talent pool would also translate to the NBA’s. More players would be fundamentally ready for the NBA, instead of sitting on the bench, losing value. Right now the NBA is filled with guys who aren’t ready to be good NBA players, The Sixers are filled with them. When you look at the 2016 Eastern Conference playoffs, the Cavaliers have gone through the entire playoffs not seeing another team with the same talent level as them. There is a such thing as a team being stacked but the Cavs are not even being challenged at this point.
Of course the D-League is not going to churn out playoff caliber talent after one year but it will be a basketball factory for the NBA. A factory that can turn premier players into elite players, which will make fans want to watch the transition. More viewers of course means more lucrative sponsorship opportunities and newer markets. Most importantly though, better basketball will be on the rise.