Last week ESPN released a series imagining what a full-blown NBA minor league might look like. Most of the experts around the league were of the mind that a 30-team, single-affiliate development league seems like an idea that cures the vast majority of the development problems facing young players in the NBA.
The implementation of such a system would most certainly be an overwhelmingly good thing. In the first post of the series, Brandon Doolittle does an excellent job of examining the many positives that could come with NBADL expansion such as veteran rehab and a capable arena to groom referees, front office personnel and coaches – a concept vastly undervalued by both the NBA and its franchises. However, the NBA personnel interviewed for the piece suggests that the D-League’s end goal is to become a launching pad for unpolished stars.
Doolittle writes: “We’re still waiting for the unpolished guy to be sent to the D-League and really take off based on his D-League experience,” said one league source, who added that he doesn’t see Jeremy Lin as an example of that.
While it certainly sounds glamorous to envision a minor league system becoming a proving ground for future stars, this notion obscures where the system’s true value lies – developing role players.
An NBA team’s affiliate shouldn’t be to set up to produce the next Jeremy Lin, but the next Alonzo Gee. Sure, Gee-sanity won’t ever invigorate a franchise’s fanbase, but he was a D-League regular that has proven to be a rotation-quality wing in the NBA. In Cleveland, Gee will compete for starter’s minutes but if slotted into a reserve role on a contending team, he’s the perfect example of what a full minor league system can accomplish.
The problem facing the NBA isn’t the inability to develop stars — we almost always see them coming — but that the league outsources the development of many young, end-of-the-rotation-type players like Gee to teams overseas. Due to roster restrictions, NBA teams are simply unwilling or unable to invest 2-3 years in a player with the upside of a 20-minute-a-night reserve. Instead they try to fill those roles primarily with veteran riff-raff and cross their fingers these vets hold off Father Time or their play somehow drastically exceeds their well-established but underwhelming career norms.
While stars no doubt dictate the heights of a team’s potential, the bottom of a rotation provides a crucial safety net. Take the case of the 2012 Celtics or 2011 Heat. By employing the likes of Chris Wilcox, Erick Dampier, Sasha Pavlovic and Carlos Arroyo, the two teams had nothing to pick up the slack as their star players suffered through poor performance, injury and fatigue.
Boston lost in the Eastern Conference Semifinals this past spring to Miami not just because that Heat team was flat out better, but because the C’s were unable to properly rest their core players. Kevin Garnett – and to a degree Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce – simply ran out of gas. A year earlier, a big part of the Heat’s Finals demise – outside of Lebron James wilting under the pressure– was the team’s decision to surround their three superstars with a geriatric group of has-beens.
Had a full minor league system been in place over the past decade, those two clubs might have been drastically different. Those examples are also a microcosm of how teams across the league are drastically undervaluing the importance of the 7-9 slots in a rotation (Looking at you, Mitch Kupchak).
Most players starting their professional careers without tremendous upside never get the chance to fill these spots. It’s simply too difficult for NBA teams to justify spending 2-3 years grooming a role player. With the exception of someone like J.J. Barea in Dallas, this generally fails to happen because the current structure in today’s NBA essentially forces a young player on the fringes to make a calculated gamble on his potential earnings.
Most lucrative European spots are filled long before NBA training camp even begins. That means if a player like Alonzo Gee accepts a camp invite to make a roster and fails, he will be in a tight spot. With just his relatively meager camp fee in his pocket, that player will be scrambling to secure a low-end job overseas or sign a less than lucrative deal with a NBADL team. It’s not hard to understand then why so many players capable of filling out a NBA rotation choose to ply their trade in Europe or China. They become accustomed to new rules and systems in foreign leagues while enjoying bigger roles and earning substantially more than any D-Leaguer.
The main objective for a 30-team minor league system should be to stop this current exodus of potential role players. By letting these players develop in NBA systems, more organizations can churn out young, productive bench specialists on the cheap instead of bringing Jerry Stackhouse back for his 18th year hoping he’s uncovered the fountain of youth during the off-season.
For a league that rarely has problems developing stars, that’s all a minor league system needs to do.