Why the NBA’s new union deal beefs up its minor league

The NBA's D-league has always been a kind of bottom rung for professional men's basketball players. But teams and players both want to make it an organic part of the big leagues' operations.

Allison Farrand/The Grand Rapids Press via AP
The Grand Rapids Drive's Stanley Johnson (23) pulls up to shoot against the Delaware 87ers during an NBA D-League basketball game at the DeltaPlex in Walker, Mich., Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016.

The National Basketball Association and its players’ union reached a tentative deal on Wednesday to a collective bargaining agreement that will accelerate growing collaboration with the NBA’s Development League, or “D-League.”

The deal, if ratified by both sides, would open up two new roster spots for assignment players who shuttle between NBA teams and their D-league affiliates, according to Yahoo's The Vertical with Woj, and establishes new “two-way” contracts that would boost their pay – and possibly discourage them from seeking out more lucrative spots in foreign leagues.

It surfaces the changing ways in which the NBA has fished for talent over the years, and signals a step in a process that puts more power into the hands of parent teams by plugging young players more directly into their distinct styles of play, the way Major League Baseball and National Hockey League minor league systems do.

After a period of stagnancy that saw more foreign-cultivated players joining the NBA, D-league affiliates have expanded in the last several years. Twenty-two teams are squaring off this season, with another two expected to join next season, according to SB Nation. 

It comes amid growing scrutiny of universities’ student-athlete model, as well as current rules that make high school players wait at least one year before playing in the NBA. Some prominent voices have predicted a shift away from colleges as a stand-in for a farm system.

"The NCAA rules are so hypocritical, there's absolutely no reason for a kid to go [to college], because he's not going to class [and] he's actually not even able to take advantage of all the fun because the first semester he starts playing basketball,” Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told ESPN in 2014. “So if the goal is just to graduate to the NBA or be an NBA player, go to the D-League."

In a 2014 article by Grantland analyzing how four NBA teams incorporate D-league affiliates, the site noted that teams like the Austin Toros, who affiliate with the San Antonio Spurs, ran most of the same offensive and defensive schemas, meaning players who could slip into part-time roles in the big leagues would already know their playbook.

That poses a powerful alternative, from the NBA’s perspective, to leagues overseas or college basketball. And it gives late-developing talents who may not have stood out as much in college a new chance to prove themselves.

Darko Rajaković, head coach of the Oklahoma City affiliate Tulsa 66ers, told Grantland that player development was “more important than anything else” for them.

“The way we select players, the way we develop our players, is choosing guys that have potential, maybe guys who didn’t have a chance to shine in college,” he said. “We want to develop those guys and just pay attention to every detail and every aspect of their development. That is huge for us. We want to put those guys in a situation that they can experience how an NBA team is organized and run, and try to put those players in situations where they can learn from that system.”

For players who can land a position with leagues in Europe or China, the financial incentives to leave home are usually overwhelming: contracts with foreign teams tend to start around $65,000, according to Sports Agent Blog, while D-league pay can have players scraping around for side jobs during the off-season.

It’s unclear how significantly the new two-way contracts will affect that for the vast majority of D-league players. But the NBA players’ union appears to favor the leagues’ expansion, too. Carmelo Anthony, star of the New York Knicks and vice president of the players’ association, said in October that he would “rebrand the whole D-League…so it’s not seen as a punishment”.

“We've got to keep our players here. We don't want them to have to go overseas,” he told ESPN.

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