Recently, Clark Matthews of TheLostOgle.com has posted a commentary on DailyThunder concerning the D-League and it's general development. A few days later, Scott Schroeder, the SBNation NBA D-League guru over at Ridiculous Upside, made a retort to his article. In a nutshell, Matthews explains the history of the D-League, why it's not working, and what the Thunder need to do to fix it. Schroeder talks about some of Matthews ideas and explains that the Thunder have been developing a very good farm team of their own in the 66ers. And while Schroeder does a great job of explaining what the Thunder are doing, I'm here to offer my own opinion on some other things that were said in the article by Matthews. And before you call me a hater, let me just say that I enjoy both DailyThunder and TheLostOgle.com, and I visit both sites.
In the past, the NBA had no real concern about developing players. When players had to prove a "financial hardship" to enter the league prior to exhausting their college eligibility, and Soviet rule kept players from defecting before they had passed their prime, the league used free methods of transitioning players from their parent’s (or government’s) oversight to a life of extravagant wealth. Then, about twenty years ago, the trend of players to quit school and start making money began. General Managers, not wanting to miss out on an elite talent, stopped emphasizing things like "preparedness" and "development," instead caring more about "potential" and "athleticism." The result was that a good number of players whose immaturity and inability to grow, that in the past would have become apparent when they clashed with their college coach, were drafted into the NBA and given multi-year guaranteed contracts. Even if some of those players could become valuable pieces, their development was stunted due to inability to get floor experience.
This paragraph jumps to far too many conclusions. The first point made about the NBA not being concerned with developing players in the past (60s and 70s) is mostly correct. Let's take the 1965 NBA Draft, for example. Every single player drafted in the first two rounds had gone to some type of college, and the vast majority had completed four years of play while there. In that era, when entering the NBA, players were expected to immediately contribute. They were given heavy minutes, and were cut by the wayside if they didn't live up to expectations. After as little as 1-2 years, players might find themselves on the street, and would often have to get a job after basketball.
Below: The real history and reason behind High School players going to the NBA, Matthews plans for helping NBA teams to utilize the D-League and why I disagree with them.
But, in 1967, an alternative option emerged for players. The American Basketball Association was formed. It emerged as a serious competitor to the NBA with new innovations, such as the three point line, flashier uniforms, a more modern style of play, and allowing players to come straight out of high school and into the league. That's right, coming out of high school didn't just suddenly emerge in the early 90s, it was present as far back as the late 60s. Moses Malone played in the ABA with great success straight out of high school, and household names like Julius Erving, Artis Gilmore and George McGinnis, came into the ABA with as little as one or two years of college basketball experience. The ABA even offered players like Connie Hawkins, who was suspected as being part of a Point Shaving scandal in Iowa, a second chance after being barred from the NCAA and NBA.
After the ABA folded, the buzz around players being selected from High School died down a bit. The NBA was still relatively small, and players were paid well, but not well enough to live off of when their careers were over. Thus, there was no real incentive for players to come out of the league extra early. Now, yes, Matthews is right, salaries did rise a good deal in the 1990s. But that was not the only reason that players started coming out of high school. The league was constantly expanding, with two teams added in 1988, 1989, and 1995. Sure, more international players were tricking into the states, but there was a need to fill the talent pool with good players, and every team had less of a chance at getting the Durant-like All-Star necessary for their team's success. As a result, they began gambling on younger players. No, they didn't all of a sudden look for potential over preparedness. Heck, the Thunder have drafted for preparedness heavily over the past three years, selecting mostly guys who had been with their schools two or three years. Rather, foolish and desperate general managers of rinky dink teams like the Wizards(Kwame Brown), Cavaliers (LeBron James), Timberwolves (Kevin Garnett), and Post-Jordan Bulls (Eddy Curry) have selected high schoolers early on in the hope of getting that extra piece needed in order to win. Other GMs of teams that needed an extra player in order to become truly great have taken chances in the middle of the draft, like the Trail Blazers (Jermaine O'Neal), Hornets (J.R. Smith) and Celtics(Gerald Green). Essentially, teams are willing and sometimes forced to take the risky players over the sure thing, because a so-so player just won't benefit the team enough in today's diluted talent pool. Not because the league is about athleticism and potential as opposed to preparedness and development.
Lastly, the last two sentences of Matthews paragraph make no sense and contradict each other. First of all, Matthews says that players who are immature and unable to grow would have seen their draft stock fall because they clashed with their college coach. But then, he says that their potential development was stunted by their inability to get floor experience. Really? I don't see your point. Do you think if I went up and asked Jonathan Bender, Gerald Green, and Kwame Brown as to why their NBA career didn't turn out well, they would answer with, "I didn't get to play?" Firstly, players out of high school get ample time to play over their first couple of seasons, even if they are just a washout. Secondly, do you think the hours spent in practice and training camp with NBA pros stunted their development as opposed to beating up on lesser opponents in college? I seriously doubt that. Thirdly, in the old days of college player development, these guys wouldn't be given a chance to develop in the pros at all. Honestly, washouts are just washouts. Sure, a few of them might get washed out earlier if they declare for the draft early on, but there are still plenty of guys who fail in the NBA after four years of college. These guys aren't going to magically gain the ability to play in the NBA if they stay in college. Maturity, maybe, but some guys just don't have what it takes.
What will it take for the D-League to function anywhere close to what Minor League Baseball does?
Allow teams to assign all draft picks (including picks that are not guaranteed NBA contracts) to their D-League affiliate
Then, expand the draft to three/four rounds
Any player on a rookie or minimum (with less than five years experience) can be assigned
1st Rounders assigned to the D-League are paid, say, 5X (2nd Rounders, 3X) the rate of an ordinary D-League player, but far less than their NBA contract
When a player is assigned, their roster spot can be filled with a free agent
To make it clear, Matthews does not support the above proposal, and is simply listing something that he thinks the owners might ask for. But, I figured I would discuss the proposal anyway, and state why I'm against it.
The stated goal of this proposal is to make the D-League more like a baseball minor league system. Unfortunately, basketball isn't at all like baseball, and these proposals will never go through. Baseball teams have benches, but the players on their bench are there for very specific roles on the team. They aren't meant to replace a starter on a long-term basis if the starter gets hurt. Rather, they're meant to be used in very specific situations in certain games. Thus, baseball has AAA, teams full of what would be bench players in the NBA, called up whenever the team has an injury or decides to make a change in the lineup. The NBA is much different, with teams needing to sub in players during the game. Basketball players can have a certain thing they do very well, but they must be skilled in most areas of the sport, lest the other team exploit that weakness. So the Thunder can't just have a bunch of specialists on the bench while keeping well-rounded players on the 66ers. It just wouldn't make sense, as a balance must be found between speciality and generality in the game of basketball. If nothing else, think of it this way. Great hitters can be relegated to the outfield in baseball, but great scorers are forced to play defense every time the other team is on offense in basketball.
Thus, the D-League functions as more of a rookie league for the NBA. Besides a few anamolies like Antoine Walker and Darvin Ham, older players stay away from the D-League in general, instead opting to play in Europe, Australia, the Philippines and Asia for far more money. The D-League gives rookies an opportunity to get that "floor experience" you were talking about earlier, while allowing players unwilling to go to Europe a direct route to the NBA.
The plan proposed takes away from the D-League's aim. It makes the NBA more of a "pros only" league, cutting out some rookies chances at the big time and instead giving their job to older NBA journeymen. It allows a team to keep a first rounder trapped in the D-League for four years. In other words, if a player gets drafted with a high pick, he might not even get paid a million dollars should his team keep him in the D-League long enough.
When you get down to brass tacks, all of the proposals (aside from expanding the draft, which I support) are trying to bring the NBA back to the long gone era before 1967, where players had virtually no say in where they went with their careers, and were paid next to nothing compared to what star players make. It's also a system that rewards bad management, as teams won't be forced to pay big salaries to draft washouts. Finally, it's a system that benefits teams with deep pockets, as an owner like Mark Cuban or Paul Allen could foster young talent in the D-League while signing older players to big contracts on the roster spots that are considered "vacant" by D-League players.
I probably sound like a vehement player activist here, but I'm not on one side or the other. I'm just a believer in teams paying for their own mistakes, and players having the ability to choose where they play and for how much after a certain amount of time.
What do you think about the Matthews list of what the owners could potentially want from the D-League? Too much? Not enough? Just right? Vote in the poll, post a comment!