The Springfield Armor are hot right now. They've won seven straight and nine of their last 10. They've been featured in ESPN's Baseline to Baseline podcast. Ben Couch has written about them this weekend on the Nets website.
And why not? In the two years prior to the Nets taking over basketball operations 150 miles north of East Rutherford, the Armor record was 20-80, the worst in the D-League. Monday night, they play the Bakersfield Jam at home. A win and they could go into the All-Star Break with the best record in the East. And at the D-League All-Star game, they'll have four representatives, All-Stars JamesOn Curry, Jerry Smith and Jeff Foote and Slam Dunk defending champion L.D. Williams. Another Williams, Jordan, got valuable time on court with them last month.
So, not to be outdone, we interviewed the key players and took an in-depth (really in-depth) look.
Jordan Williams remembers the first thing Bob MacKinnon told him when he arrived in Springfield to play for the Armor.
"Coach said he wanted to get me out of there as soon as possible," recalls Williams, laughing. Six games and 192 minutes later, Williams was back in New Jersey with the Nets, having played his way through mistakes and foul trouble.
Although he’s fallen out of the rotation recently, the 6’10" rookie out of Maryland sees the experience as a positive one.
"I think it was real important for me to build my confidence up," he explains. "I hadn’t played a full game with refs, officials and rules since I played Duke in college. So, it’s been a long time. It was a just a matter of me getting out there playing, sweating. That was really important to me."
Williams was the first Nets player sent down (up?) to Springfield since the team took over basketball operations at the Armor on May 1 of last year. The Nets still don’t know what they have in Williams, but his time in Springfield gave them more to file away. And everyone working the Armor affiliation emphasizes that spending time in Springfield will be an option for other second round picks in the future, not just for Williams.
Overall, the arrangement has been a positive experience for the Nets, just as it has been for Williams and Springfield.
The Armor, as of Monday, are a half game out of first place in the D-League East, having handily beaten the conference leader, the Iowa Energy, in a back-to-back at the MassMutual Center late last week. In fact, their 20 wins equal the number the franchise scraped together in its first two years without Nets help.
The Armor also have three D-League All-Stars, the most in franchise history. Only league leading Los Angeles D-Fenders, the Lakers affiliate, have as many. No team has more. And right now, MacKinnon has to be seen as the leading candidate for Coach of the Year.
Billy King is happy the way things have worked out so far, although he understands it’s early in the process. He and Bobby Marks got the Nets’ Chairman’s Council, the team’s board of directors, to approve a quarter million dollar budget for the "hybrid affiliation" that has the Nets in charge of basketball operations and Armor ownership running the business side. That investment is about half what the Nets are paying Williams.
"Mikhail (Prokhorov) wants the Nets to be a first-class franchise," said King. "If we need development, we can do it with the Armor. It’s about doing things the right way. Investing in development gives us an advantage. So we got it approved."
In fact, the Nets have been in forefront of the NBA’s move to take advantage of the D-League. Marks went up to Springfield on Easter weekend of 2010, just before Prokhorov took over, to see what the possibilities were. The Nets considered buying a team, but none were available. So the hybrid affiliation became the way to go. At the time, only one other NBA teams had such an advantage. So we got it approved."
In fact, the Nets have been in forefront of the NBA’s move to take advantage of the D-League. Marks went up to Springfield on Easter weekend of 2010, just before Prokhorov took over, to see what the possibilities were. The Nets considered buying a team, but none were available. So the hybrid affiliation became the way to go. At the time, only one other NBA team had such an arrangement, the always aggressive Rockets with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.
Three other teams owned their affiliates outright. Now, there are six NBA teams with hybrid affiliations to go with the three owned and operated clubs. The remaining seven teams each have looser affiliations with three NBA clubs each, as the Nets did before they did the deal with the Armor. That arrangement wasn’t going to cut it if the team wanted to be in the first rank of NBA teams.
The direct investment is mainly taken up with the salaries of head coach Bob MacKinnon, assistant coach Chris Carrawell and head trainer Mark Mahoney. All are Nets employees who work in Springfield. Milton Lee, the man King put in charge of Armor basketball operations, isn’t counted towards that investment. He’s been a Nets employee since 2010, as director of basketball operations. He works out of an office at the PNY Center.
Lee admits he is surprised by the overall success but notes that while the winning record and the All-Star selections are great, the top priority remains development, both of Nets players like Williams and D-League call-ups like Dennis Horner. Lee thinks that with Williams or any other player the Nets send down in future years, the close relationship between the parent club and the minor league club is critical to getting a player "out of here as soon as possible," as MacKinnon put it to Williams.
"It’s priority No. 1," says Lee. "You want to be very comfortable when you're assigning a player that he’s going to be in a productive environment that's positive for him. When I say productive, I mean you don't want him spending three days going over play sets, schemes, etc. So immediately on arrival, he is immersed in the Nets system.
"If you’re an independent D-League team, you’re not beholden to playing him a certain amount of minutes. You can request it, but it’s not always their priority."
Lee admits that winning isn’t even priority No. 2. That’s finding players who like Horner can make the big club. "The odds of getting a player like Dennis Horner are very low, but there’s a priority to search for another NBA caliber level player on our D-League roster…and the derivative of that is in the D-League in general just because myself (Nets D-League scout) Jordan Cohn and Bob are all seeing a lot of D-League players."
All that ultimately should (and so far has) put a good club on the floor for the Springfield fans.
"What we owe them is to put a high quality product on the floor," says Lee, noting how Nets’ NBA assets help fulfill that promise.
The Nets' access to NBA-level statistics, to the Hoops1 video archives, their scouting reports, quantitative analysis, all come into play when assembling a team for Springfield, something that the Armor didn’t have before the Nets came along.
"We (the Nets) have four full-time college scouts who’ve seen Jerry Smith, JamesOn Curry. We have more video on players. Scott Sereday is our quantitative analyst. He runs numbers on all the players entering the D-League. He does advanced predictive statistics for both the Nets and the Armor."
And they have Lee. For the last five years, he’s helped run the NBA Pre-Draft Combine, trained NBA players for agents and teams. He ran basketball operations at the New York Athletic Club.
There’s other sets of eyes as well. Lee points to the Armor’s decision to draft Horner as one example of how the Armor –and the Nets-- were able to get a more complete picture of the former North Carolina State player. He hadn’t been a great player at Raleigh or in Belgium or Cyprus where he played last year. Horner, Lee says, was "a picture that’s been painted by a lot of different artists."
"He had a solid career at N.C. State, not outstanding", Lee explains. "Then in June, Jordan Cohn and I went to Louisville for the National Tryouts and we saw him there. Bob was a (tryout) coach at the time. He saw him as well and then Chris Carrawell has been on staff at Duke, so he saw Horner up close and personal at Duke and he had his best games against Duke. Then, Bob lives in the Raleigh-Durham (N.C.) area and works with a lot of N.C. State players."
MacKinnon in fact may be the biggest "asset" the Nets have brought to Springfield. A veteran coach who in 2009 won the D-League championship with the Colorado 14ers, then the Nets affiliate, he has college and international experience and has worked with other NBA clubs.
King says that MacKinnon is, as a result of all that experience, the perfect guy to coach a developmental team.
"He’s a teacher. He enjoys teaching," King notes. "He focuses on the little things and he’s very competitive. He also understands that in the D-League you have to be flexible."
Lee says simply, "There are no question marks who’s in charge. He’s the leader."
Williams also talks about MacKinnon’s commitment. "He's a real positive coach. He makes you really want to play for him. The two coaches did an actually wonderful job. How much everyone respects them is huge."
Adds Lee,"Every night at 9 o’clock, after the Springfield ‘Y’ closes, we have extra shooting practice. And it’s Bob and Chris and our trainer rebounding balls for these D-League guys."
MacKinnon credits the Nets and particularly Avery Johnson for his approach, harking back to training camp when he and Carrawell spent time with Johnson and the rest of the staff at the PNY Center.
"The way in which he conducts practices and the way in which he conducts meetings and the professionalism with which he approaches his job day in and day out…all I’m trying to do is to facilitate all that in Springfield and make sure the Armor are run the Nets way," says MacKinnon.
"The players, I think, have really bought into that," he adds. "When Jordan Williams came to us, he had a great opportunity and he really took advantage of being here and playing not only in games, but in practices and going hard every play."
MacKinnon adds that he has been tasked with finding a "diamond in the rough… I think you can find guys," he says, mentioning two of his former players, Anthony Tolliver and Sundiata Gaines. Among his current charges, he mentions Jeff Foote, the seven-footer out of Cornell –and a D-League all-star, who Lee picked up as a free agent.
MacKinnon, who coached the now defunct 14ers and the Idaho Stampede, argues that the Nets are "becoming the model for how to operate a D-League team," pointing to the "seamless" relationship he has with the front office and coaching staff. He says he speaks daily with Lee and assistant Tom Barrise, who manages the Nets coaching staff.
It’s not all been perfect. The Nets last two D-League call-ups came from other teams, Larry Owens from the Tulsa 66ers and Andre Emmett from the Reno Bighorns. There may have been some grumbling in Springfield, although as King points out, the Armor don’t have an starting small forward. They use three guards, between 6’2" and 6’4" along with Horner and Foote. MacKinnon says simply any D-League call-up should be a positive for any D-League player.
D-League life can be hard, especially for those stars who could make more money in Europe, even get a car and an apartment from their team.
"They’re hardly getting paid, the travel is really rough.. There aren’t that many people in the stands," says Lee. "There’s a lot pulling at a players’ willingness to focus."
So what’s next? The lockout helped the Nets and Armor figure out the first year of their partnership. With NBA players nowhere to be found, the management teams spent a lot of time working out kinks before the season.
Both King and Lee think the presence of the Armor could affect the Nets draft in coming years.
King explains when picking in the second round he looks for players who have "one skill set and focus on that, not the whole package" citing his choice of Kyle Korver who had shooting skills and Todd MacCulloch who was a solid rebounder. (He might have added Jordan Williams and rebounding to that list.) These were players who he thought could develop other skills. Having a D-League team could enhance and accelerate that development process.
"It’s all part of Billy’s master equation," adds Lee.
King says when he was with the 76ers, he toyed with the idea of sending players to the D-League but was hesitant. He wasn’t comfortable, he says, having coaches from outside the organization develop his players. "Now we have our own guys."
He also says that when filling out the summer league and training camp rosters this summer, he’s "going to be looking at the Armor first."
Moreover, he notes that he’d like to investigate how the Nets could use the Armor in different ways that others haven’t. "I’m a firm believer in going right up to the edge" of the rules.
Development isn’t limited to the D-League players, either, he suggests. It’s about the development of front office types, like Lee, and the coaches, MacKinnon and Carrawell, helping them get better at their craft and moving up in the organization.
But like everyone else, King sees the Armor primarily about player development. He also thinks that ultimately he can find a rotational player down on the farm. Maybe he’ll get lucky.
As Branch Rickey, the greatest general manager in Brooklyn history once said of his purported "luck" in building the Dodgers, "Luck is the residue of design."