The NBA Developmental League kicks off its season tomorrow. What are the key storylines to watch for the 22 teams suiting up this year?
As NBA headlines are dominated by Stephen Curry shooting fire and the New York Knicks shooting insults, beneath the surface another basketball season is about to tip off.
The NBA Developmental League has expanded its constituency, held its draft, and teams wrap up training camp this week. The season tips off Friday night in Michigan as the Grand Rapids Drive host the Canton Charge, and the weekend will be filled with games for the NBA’s growing minor league product.
While most of the world’s top players will probably never suit up for a D-League team, there is still exciting basketball going on. As the NBA moves towards a full 30-team league to match the top level, the amount of exposure and interest in the D-League will only grow higher.
As the season tips off, what are three key storylines to watch for in the D-League? We begin with the evolution of the league itself.
Storyline #1: Who are the League’s New Teams?
Five new teams grace the D-League map for the 2016-17 season. Two, the Northern Arizona Suns and the Salt Lake City Stars, have entered a direct affiliation with a parent team and moved to a closer location. The other three – the Greensboro Swarm, Windy City Bulls, and Long Island Nets – are brand new teams playing their first-ever basketball this weekend.
That brings the league’s total to 22 teams, split into two 11-team conferences. All three expansion franchises enter the Eastern Conference, so the ever-changing landscape sees a number of teams move West.
The direction the D-League is heading is for 30 teams, all with direct affiliation with a parent team in the NBA. That allows an NBA team to move players between clubs, giving young and developing prospects the opportunity to practice with the NBA team and then play for the D-League team later that night.
With 22 teams all connected in some way to a parent team, eight NBA franchises are left out in the cold for now. They can still option players to the D-League, but they could play for a number of different teams. Those players will not be training in the top club’s system, nor can they move quickly between teams.
That should lead to further expansion in the coming seasons. The Washington Wizards and Atlanta Hawks have recently announced coming D-League teams, with each being a part of new facilities.
Other teams will most likely look to move their D-League franchises closer to home; for example, the Orlando Magic’s D-League affiliate plays in Erie, NY. That’s a long flight for players to move between levels, especially compared to the hour-drive a player on the Charlotte Hornets or Chicago Bulls will make.
Given the transient nature of the D-League, it’s more likely for a brand-new team to start well than in other sports. The Swarm, Bulls, and Nets will all take on the new challenge and try to make a name for themselves in the D-League this season.
Storyline #2: Which Teams are the Early Favorites?
Last year the Sioux Falls Skyforce dominated the league, finishing the regular season with seven more wins than the next best team, the Reno Bighorns. Their 40 wins was an NBA D-League record; for comparison, their 40-10 record would translate to a 66-16 record over a standard 82-game NBA season.
The Skyforce prevailed in the D-League Finals 2-1 over the L.A. D-Fenders, hoisting the trophy for the third time in franchise history. The Finals MVP was Jarnell Stokes, who averaged 19 points and nine rebounds over the series.
Stokes now plays for the Denver Nuggets.
That fact illustrates a reality in the NBA D-League: rosters are fluid, and if a team develops a star they are setting themselves up to lose him. The very best in the league realize their dreams and move on to the NBA, leaving their D-League team to replace him as best they can.
It’s certainly possible the Skyforce will be a contender again this season, but the loss of Stokes and other rotation pieces – both to the NBA and overseas – leaves that a mystery. Two seasons ago the Santa Cruz Warriors hoisted the trophy, and last year fell to 19 wins, the second-worst in the D-League. Things change quickly in a league created (partly) to prepare players to move on.
There are returning D-League stars, such as L.A.’s Vander Blue or Greensboro’s Xavier Munford. Munford made an impact in the NBA playing for the Memphis Grizzlies, but for now finds himself back in the D-League. A team leader for the Swarm could be snatched away at any time. But while he suits up in Greensboro, the team will ride him to as much success as possible. So it goes for every team.
The teams to watch are those direct affiliates blessed with talent from a parent club. For example, the Maine Red Claws benefited last season from the assignments of young talent from the Boston Celtics, often plugging James Young, Terry Rozier, and R.J. Hunter into their lineup.
This season the league’s best teams could be those with the most frequent infusions of talent from parent teams. As the season unfolds the league’s true contenders will begin to emerge, but it won’t be until a champion is crowned that anything will be known for sure.
Storyline #3: Which Players Could Be Called Up?
There are two groups of players in the NBA D-League. The first are those directly affiliated with an NBA team gaining experience in game situations against other NBA talent. There will be a number of high-profile players moving between levels as they develop into future rotation players.
The real allure of the D-League are those players that could be called up anytime, by any team. These players are the meat of the league, those who will be traveling with the team and playing every game until receiving a long-awaited phone call.
D-League alumni litter the NBA, from Jonathon Simmons in San Antonio to Seth Curry in Dallas. Hassan Whiteside is a star center for the Miami Heat after playing in the D-League, and guards Tim Frazier and Isaiah Canaan are both playing major minutes after plying their craft in the D-League.
Which players are strong candidates to be called up this year? One of the top scorers in the league last season, Vander Blue, returns to the L.A. D-Fenders this season. If a team needs scoring on the wing he could see his name called. Another guard, Xavier Munford, could return to the NBA after playing last season for the Memphis Grizzlies down the stretch.
Some of the fringe players from NBA training camps – the “final cuts” – are often assigned to an affiliate team, but have the freedom to sign with any NBA team across the league.For example, Rasheed Sulaimon is a solid wing defender who just missed out on making the Charlotte Hornets. Charlotte assigned him to their D-League affiliate, the Greensboro Swarm, but if he improves his shooting any of the league’s 30 teams could call him up.
Guards such as Yogi Ferrell, Spencer Dinwiddie, Marcus Paige, and Thomas Walkup all possess NBA skillsets and could see themselves called up by NBA franchises in need. Jameel Warney, Ben Bentil, and Alex Poythress were all college standouts that many thought would make NBA teams, and could see themselves in the league later this year.
Finally, the D-League contains a number of veteran players still hoping to make an impact in the NBA. Shannon Brown and Damien Wilkins both have a background as rotation players in the NBA, and hope to make a return before the sun sets on their careers.
The Bottom Line
The NBA has 30 teams, and each is worth watching on any given night – they are all stacked with talent, even those teams that don’t win a lot of games.
The D-League is filled with talent as well, and the storylines are just as fascinating. While some players are blessed with supreme talent from birth, many of the players in the D-League have had to fight their entire lives to live their dreams. For some, just wearing the NBA logo on their jerseys and taking the court in front of loved ones is a realization of everything they’ve worked for. Others see it as a stepping stone to the highest of heights.
If you live in an area with a D-League team, go check out a game or two. Check out dleague.nba.com for official news, scores, and standings, or any of a number of great blogs covering the D-League. We’re a bit partial to our coverage here on The Lottery Mafia, and we will continue to keep you up to date on the D-League all season long. But feel free to check out work being done at DLeague Digest, Ridiculous Upside, and The Step Back.
Enjoy the D-League season, and let us know in the comments below what teams, players, and storylines you are excited about for the coming season!