NBA: Why They Should Follow The MLB In Utilizing Their Developmental League


To help further along players, some sports have developmental leagues. The NBA has one, but they don’t really take advantage of it

The Fort Wayne Mad Ants, an NBA Development League team, was the last remaining independent team in the league before being snatched up by the Indiana Pacers for sole ownership and use. This purchase leaves 11 NBA teams stranded with no single D-League affiliate.

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While teams can designate players for assignment to any of the minor league clubs willing to pick them up, the complexity of this system raises the question as to why not every team has its own affiliate. The dollars and cents a team would bring probably isn’t too appealing to the 11 NBA owners without a single D-League affiliate, but the on-court benefits would greatly outweigh those financial concerns should the NBA bring the league up to its full potential.

A way to get a better use of the D-League would be to simply follow the blueprint of what the MLB does with its minor leagues, or farm system. Before getting to play on a Major League Baseball diamond, players go through all kinds of rookie and other developmental leagues, including Single, Double and Triple-A.

NBA Triple-A

Seeing what the NBA already has, simply turning the D-League into what the MLB’s Triple-A is would be a massive step in the right direction.

If the NBA were to use the D-League like Triple-A, that would mean draft picks would go there before ever stepping onto the NBA hardwood. That may not sound fun to you, and I understand why. Especially for the bad teams that always pick in the lottery. Your team sucks and you want some star potential to come in and try to save the day his rookie year. But think about it. How many rookies actually come in and make an immediate so big that they could carry their team into the playoffs? They could have an impact, sure, but it is very rare to see a first-year player turn a team around immediately. And if that happens, it’s usually with the help from other recent additions.

So why not play them against other prospects for a year, or two, or however much (or little) time they need to fully blossom as soon as they make their NBA debut?

And unlike baseball, there are many rookie mistakes you could get out of the way while playing in the D-League. Minor league batters are facing minor league pitchers, and vice versa. They could be great in Triple-A but it’s a whole different ballgame – literally – at the next level. In the NBA, it’s a bit different.

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There would clearly be adjustments to make coming from the D-League into the NBA, but not as much as there would be coming straight from college. You’re going to face stronger players in the NBA compared to college. If you have six months, or a season, at that level in between college and the NBA and by the time you get called up, you have faced some stronger competition than you did in college. You got used to the faster-paced, more physical, different style of NBA play.

No matter how much time spent in the D-League, there’s no way you would not be more prepared for the big leagues than you would have been just coming straight out of college.

The Elimination Of Busts?

And what about the busts? We all hate ’em, and if they showed to be busts in the D-League, you may never see them playing for your favorite team. You may not regret that high draft pick spent as much since you at least didn’t have to suffer through his woes.

Oh, speaking of draft picks…

Expanding the role, so to speak, of the D-League would also call for an expanded draft, which has been rumored for the future. If an NBA franchise has two rosters to fill out, they’re going to need a third round in the draft in order to do so. So instead of going undrafted, 30 more players will end up in an NBA franchise’s system to prove themselves from the inside.

If the NBA were to use the D-League like they should, after those early transition years, rebuilding projects wouldn’t take nearly as long

If you are an MLB fan, I’m sure you can attest to the excitement you get when those draft picks from a few years back are finally called up to your big league club. After all the seasoning, all the time preparing and building towards becoming a major league player, they show to be ready and finally come up to make an impact.

Do they all make an impact? No, but neither do a lot of NBA, NFL and draft picks from every other sport. The point is that extra time and care can’t hurt their chances to be a great NBA player, and with the right coaching and “seasoning,” their chances to at least be useful go up dramatically.

An Accelerated Rebuild

This system, in the MLB, also seems to help teams rebuild much faster than NBA teams seem to. Teams like the Kings, Hornets and Pistons have been pretty bad for a while now. The last time one of these teams was a top four seed in either conference was Detroit in 2007-08. Charlotte has had two playoff appearances since, and Sacramento none.

No matter how bad a team is in baseball, they always have a couple prospects worth calling up that can help them turn things around the following year. Most teams don’t stay bad for too long, although a team like the Miami Marlins, who don’t draft/develop well nor make many good offseason signings and trades, haven’t been at or above .500 since 2009.

This, of course, isn’t because of the system. They just aren’t utilizing it well enough.

It would take a few years to have prospects ready or almost ready to call up at every position if the NBA were to use the D-League like they should, but after those early transition years, rebuilding projects wouldn’t take nearly as long.

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  • The successful teams would be hurt the most by this and would (likely) be the only teams against it, I would assume. Non-lottery teams draft bottom-of-the-rotation players they expect to contribute off the bench right away, and if they have a hole that isn’t filled during their title window because they have to wait for a prospect to go through the system first, they might not win the title they could have if the player was there right out of the gate.

    But most teams aren’t championship contenders. And once the system is in place, a team could call up another player to fill the hole while they wait for their most recent draftee to come up.

    Most teams need this. Most teams need prospects to grow and come up together to build a winning core. Adding pieces here and there, like Charlotte and Sacramento have done specifically, hasn’t worked out. If those players had more time, and there were more players in the same position to work and grow with, they could come up later but be more ready to play professional ball.

    Potential Limitations

    A foreseeable problem with this system is chemistry. The Kings can add young pieces and have them grow together on the court, but the Thunder, for example, need that player to grow with the rest of the players if they want to win that year. If it takes five or six months for them to come up out of the D-League – an April call up, if you will – they might not gel quick enough to win that year. And even those younger teams need to have a team gel together to build something worthwhile.

    For those younger, less competitive teams, though, a lot of those prospects that will end up being the core for the NBA team will play a lot together in the D-League. That’s where they’ll build chemistry. There may be a core player or two already on the NBA roster, but it is a rebuild. They’ll eventually get the time to gel.

    Teams could also use the D-League to help an NBA player “season” more. Right now, teams only send young players down that don’t get time. They may do it to keep them ready and in game shape, but could it be to help them develop in a place where they actually have the resources to? Think about it. That’s pretty much exactly what it is. Some of these players just sit and hope to grow as they see things happen from the bench, but why shouldn’t they be able to develop by actually being on the court and making their own mistakes? Even if it is against lesser competition? Because at least they’re getting the necessary reps.

    And for the older players that don’t want their bodies to tighten up as they ride the bench, they would have the opportunity to keep loose. There’s also the older players out of the league who want one last shot. They would have the D-League to get in a team’s system and tryout, so to speak, without ever having to cost the NBA team a roster spot or someone else’s playing time before making them earn it at a lower level.

    The Payoff

    Think about a player like Hassan Whiteside. After not working out with the Kings, Whiteside played for five years in the D-League (along with some overseas teams mixed in) and burst onto the NBA scene with the Miami Heat last season. Miami is way ahead of the game with the D-League, as they picked some players from their Sioux Falls affiliate last season – like Whiteside and Tyler Johnson – who made an impact and added good depth.

    The reward is so much higher than the risk in turning the D-League into the NBA’s Triple-A. If and hopefully when they finally realize that, NBA readiness will be at an all-time high. And because of this, not only will interest in more NBA teams rise, but the league itself will be much more competitive than it is in its current state.

    Next: How the Thunder, with Kevin Durant, can become NBA title favorites again