Understanding the development opportunities they've missed this season, the Nets are hoping for a return to the D-League, possibly next season or the season after, say multple league sources. If as expected, the team does go forward --and it's a money issue, they're likely to buy rights to an expansion team and put it in the New York area, maybe Brooklyn, according to two sources, much like the way the Knicks did this season with their Westchester affiliate.
The Nets had been a pioneer in setting up shop in the D-League. Five years ago, the same week Mikhail Prokhorov bought the team, the Nets made a deal with the owners of the Springfield Armor. The Nets would run the team's basketball operations, treat it like their farm team, using the same offensive and defensive sets as the Nets and filling its roster with decent if not good players. The coach and assistant coach, as well as the trainer, would be Nets employees. The Armor would run the business side. In the NBA, that's called a hybrid affiliation, and the Nets were only the second team to make such a arrangement. For three seasons, it worked in some ways, not in others, but unlike other pioneers, weren't using it as much to develop its own players.
By this summer, 10 other NBA clubs had done the same and several others, including the Knicks, had gone one step further, buying their own teams But the Nets decided to end its D-League affiliation. When the Armor's owners decided to sell last summer, the Nets weren't interested and the franchise moved, lock, stock and draft picks, to Grand Rapids, Michigan, purchased by a group of local businessmen who renamed it the Drive and quickly affiliated with the Pistons. The Nets also passed on an opportunity to set up an expansion team in the New York area, like the Knicks. The asking price, which would have been paid to the NBA, was $6 million.
The Nets had doubts about the efficacy of linking up with a D-League team, making the $6 million asking price of an expansion club somewhat, well, pricey. It was a cost-reward issue. Did the Nets get enough out of the affiliation to warrant paying that much? After a halting debate, they decided against it.
Why the change of heart now? League sources say the team realizes the absence of any arrangement was worse. Without a club of its own, the Nets were forced to send their young players to Fort Wayne, the only independent D-League team, or if there were no openings, to someone else's affiliate. That's what they did with Cory Jefferson and Markel Brown., their second round draft choices.
So, say league sources, the front office is pushing for an expansion club, perhaps in Brooklyn. The question is whether ONEXIM, Mikhail Prokhorov's investment vehicle, is willing to pay out that much cash as they consider selling. During last summer's discussions, the Nets met with representatives of Long Island University, hoping to use their new gym as home court. It's now known if that's still on the table. Other possible venues could be gyms at some local colleges, like Seton Hall or Fordham. There also some thought of having the D-League franchise use the Nets training facility under construction in Industry City.
The Nets are rebuilding and do so without a lot of the traditional building blocks, like draft picks. One way, say those pressing for a return to the D-League, is a smart use of the D-League. Also new rules can help teams like the Nets who have bought draft choices. An NBA team can sign a second rounder to a D-League contract while still maintaining their rights -- like the Knicks did with Thanasis Antetokounmpo, Giannis' brother, and Oklahoma City did with Semaj Christon and Josh Huestis . The NBA clubs retain the player's NBA rights without having to put him on the roster and salary cap. Adam Silver and D-League management promise more changes to make it closer to baseball's minor leagues.
Bottom line: OKC, San Antonio, Houston, Dallas, Golden State, Memphis, Phoenix, Boston, Miami and Cleveland all have adopted the minor league model and done well. Detroit, Orlando, New York, Philadelphia, Sacramento and Utah are all rebuilding with the help of the D-League model. Atlanta has been trying to get one last two years (and probably would have one if not for their ownership mess.) Toronto tried to get one this offseason converting a CBA team.
How soon might the Nets decide? There's no rush. The next opportunity will come in the summer.