As Armor move, what's the Nets' future in the D-League?

Chris Marion Photography

No draft picks and now no D-League team of their own. What gives?

In their last game ever Saturday, the Springfield Armor beat the Delaware 87ers in Newark, Delaware. Adonis Thomas, one of at least three NBA prospects on the Armor roster, finished with 27 points, bombing from three-point land and showing off his 40.5" vertical leap. Thomas is headed back to the NBA, in fact. He will sign a 10-day contract with the 76ers Monday.  The Sixers have been running D-Leaguers and others on 10-days. It's Thomas' third 10-day, after two with Magic.

As for the Armor, they will soon pack up and head for Grand Rapids where they will be a Pistons affiliate next season. Michael Savitt, who set up the team in Springfield, is selling the club to a group of Michigan businessmen.

As for the Nets, they're left out in the cold. Next year, they won't have a hybrid relationship with any D-League team. Part of the reason is the Armor ownership's decision to sell the club after five years of financial losses (although Savitt apparently did make money on his investment.) But the Nets also dawdled about their D-League strategy ... in part because of a healthy discussion on the value of the affiliation. More about that later.

So next year, instead of operating a team, providing a GM, head coach, assistant coach and trainer, they'll be one of four or five NBA teams sharing an affiliation with a single D-League club. It's a model that offers little chance of development at the D-League level ... and one they abandoned three years ago.

Compare that strategy to the Knicks, who this year petitioned the NBA for an expansion club and got the right to drop their hybrid affiliation with Erie and set up their own, and owned and operated D-League team at the Westchester County Center in White Plains, a nine-minute drive from the parent club's MSG Training Facility in Greenburgh.

Armor's Season Coming to a Close

The consequences for the Nets, according to some,are negative ... other than saving between $500,000 and $750,000. Others think the investment in the D-League has been disappointing and there are better ways of developing players.

There's little doubt the Nets lost an alternative development model that could have made up for lost picks, particularly second rounders: Find a kid with potential who might have been overlooked in the draft or cut by another team and work him into the Nets system through the D-League.

Both publicly and privately, Nets officials have said the D-League would be a big part of that alternative strategy. Now, they're not so sure. The thought process within the organization is that the loss of a hybrid relationship will not have a dramatic effect because the D-League is not a true minor league system like baseball. The Nets hold no NBA rights to any D-League player unless they were sent down by the parent club. That's known to have frustrated the front office. Twice this year, they worked to get players on the Armor roster, only to have them called up by other teams. Thomas is one of them.

Moreover, young players develop better under your own watch, they argue, pointing to Mason Plumlee who originally was ticketed for Springfield but developed better and quicker in Brooklyn.

They also point to the way Nets coaches have used virtually every player on the bench, giving them a chance to play depending on circumstances.  Finally, they believe the money saved from abandoning the hybrid model can best be  put back into the coaching staff, as well as the medical, video, scouting departments, Some money, they note, can be used to sign undrafted college players and give them guarantee money. This,they say, can help the Nets sign players and to develop them internally.

But there are downsides, even when taking all that into consideration.

[The Nets] will lose all the Armor draft picks and there are several high ranking picks Milton Lee, the Armor GM, gathered over the last year.

--They will lose the D-League rights for any Armor players in their first year, including Thomas, Devin Ebanks, Darius Johnson-Odom, Lorenzo Brown and Khalif Wyatt, all of whom played in the NBA or an overseas league this season. They are the property of the franchise and they will go with it to Grand Rapids ... and the Pistons. The sale will NOT affect the Nets ability to sign any of the players to NBA contracts, either for summer league or training camp. In fact, expect Thomas to get an invite to at least the summer league if the Sixers don't first..

--They will lose all the Armor draft picks including the overall No. 1 pick this fall.  Milton Lee, the Armor GM, gathered them over the last year but now Grand Rapids --and the Pistons-- will have the Springfield picks. The Nets new affiliate, whoever it is, will pick on their own with their own picks. The Nets are unlikely to have much, if any, impact on the new affiliate's decision-making.

--They won't be able install the Nets system within a D-League operation. So if the Nets send a player down or bring a player up, the player will need several days to acclimate himself to whatever system their multi-team affiliate is running ... or the reverse. This is particularly problematic for a player called up on a 10-day contract.

--Without a full commitment to the D-League, they won't be evaluating other teams all that regularly. Gerald Green, Alan Anderson, Jorge Gutierrez are all DLeague guys the Nets pinpointed after watching them in the D-League. Similarly, that full commitment, with scouting and day-to-day operations, helps teams scout and eliminate players who aren't ready.

--They'll have to find new roles for their development guys: Lee and head coach Doug Overton. Assistant coach Chris Carrawell, who's gotten high marks from Armor players, is leaving the Nets payroll for a college job at Marquette. Just as the relationship with the Armor provided an opportunity for players to hone their skills, it did the same for people like Carrawell. (The Nets also "called up" Eli Pearlstein, the Armor's press guy as well.)

--Since their new shared affiliate is likely to be out west, they will lose the relatively easy access to D-League games. Nets officials and players could drive the 150 miles to Springfield in a little more than two hours. The trip to the new multi-team affiliate will take a plane ride and no doubt a connecting flight.

And they are now behind the Knicks who are also without picks but are now fully committed to the D-League. With their own D-League team in the New York metropolitan area, Knicks can, if they want, cross-train their D-League players with their NBA players at the MSG facility. Having a D-League team in the same city provides another marketing tool for a franchise by creating as close to a true minor league partnership as D-League rules permit. The Knicks have already set up a website and taken out ads promoting the arrangement.

Could the Nets have gotten that expansion spot? Word is that they could have, but unlike the Knicks, they didn't have a place to play, to practice and quite frankly, some inside didn't think it was worth it. The Knicks moved more aggressively. And the NBA doesn't want to expand the D-League too fast. It doesn't want to dilute the talent level, doesn't want to have an expansion drafts for two teams.

Beyond next season, what will the Nets role be in the D-League? It's likely the next expansion team is theirs for the asking, but will they change their mind?. One rumored possibility is a D-League team in the rehabbed Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, 25 miles from Barclays. The arena is likely to be the new home of the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, the Islanders AHL affiliate. Would the arena be willing to give up more than 50 winter dates for minor league sports? And it's been slow going out in Uniondale.

One way to improve things, do what the Knicks are doing: further integrate the team's practice routines. When the Nets finally move into Industry City, it could present an opportunity to bring the operations closer ... as the Knicks are doing in Westchester County.

Bottom line: The Nets front office just hasn't put as high a priority on the D-League as high as teams like the Spurs, Mavericks, Rockets or the Thunder do. Cory Joseph, now a solid rotation player for San Antonio, was sent down to Austin five times last year. He even asked to be sent down the last time. The D-League isn't seen as demotion in San Antonio. It's just part of development process. Danny Green played a bit in the D-League too.

Is there going to a long-term downside? We won't know for a while and Nets officials could change their mind again next year ... they've had a chance to see how their alternative model is working.

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