When the Nets announced their return to the D-League a few weeks back, there were many positives.
The Long Island Nets will play their games in the two best venues any D-League club has ever played in: Barclays Center in the first year; then the revamped Nassau Coliseum after that. For the first time in years, an NBA team and its D-League affiliate will play double-headers -- a lot of them. That first year, they will practice at the HSS Training Center, the most modern facility any D-League team has ever practiced in. The development staffs of parent and affiliate will essentially be integrated. The Nets are reportedly paying the NBA a $6 million expansion fee and will no doubt lose six or seven figures a year in operating costs, another big financial commitment.
All good, but if the Long Island Nets --and their parent club-- are going to be a success, ownership and Billy King must have a better strategy than they did in the three years the Nets had their own D-League affiliate ... because it didn't work.
When, at the end of the 2013-14 season, the Nets dropped out of the D-League, it may have the most short-sighted management move in recent years ... and that's saying something. The Nets disastrous trades were made to win it all in the short term ... and that can be forgiven, even exalted. But dumping the D-League team after trading away so many picks in the Atlanta and Boston deals was head-scratching at best, disturbing at worst..
The Nets had embraced the D-League after Mikhail Prokhorov bought the team, becoming only the second NBA team to put together a "hybrid" deal, with the owner of the Springfield Armor. Michael Savit, experienced in owning and operating minor league baseball clubs, was in charge of the business side. The Nets ran basketball operations, supplying a GM, head coach, assistant coach and trainer. Admittedly, the Armor weren't a financial success but then again, the Nets didn't invest much in it, a few hundred thousand dollars a year. It's a small cost for development.
Problem is the Nets didn't get much bang for their buck. In fact, they barely used the D-League during the three years they were a hybrid team, then gave up on the idea at precisely the moment they could have used it.
The numbers tell the story: A NetsDaily survey found that no Nets player ever spent more than 10 continuous days on the Springfield roster, and that player was Jordan Williams in the first year of the hybrid deal. Only three roster players --Williams, Tyshawn Taylor and Toko Shengelia -- spent any time down on the farm and the latter two were yo-yo'ed between the Nets and Armor. Ten times, Shengelia, the better NBA prospect, was sent down, but stayed in Springfield for less than three days six times. Only once did the two stay more than a week. Then they were traded. Marquis Teague, Taylor's replacement, was never sent down. Nor was Jorge Gutierrez.
Over three years, Nets roster players averaged only 23 player/days per year in Springfield. Of the D-League clubs with single affiliates, only the Erie Bayhawks, the Knicks affiliate, had fewer assignments with 22. Compare that 23-day number to those teams who've had the most success with the D-League. On average, the Spurs sent their players down to Austin for 66.7 days a year during that three year period; the Thunder 79.7 and the Rockets led the league with 142 days!
Only two Armor players eventually graduated to the big club, Dennis Horner and Jerry Smith and both of those were while the team was in New Jersey. The Nets traded Williams, Taylor and Shengelia and didn't resign Horner or Smith. Willie Reed did develop in Springfield but two other teams called him up before the Nets signed him. And he hasn't played for any of the three clubs yet.
Going to the D-League isn't seen as demotion in places like San Antonio. It's just part of development process, part of the culture. Cory Joseph even asked to be assigned to Austin during a season when he was shuttled back and forth five times. He eventfully won a ring after filling in nicely for Tony Parker. Again this year, a record 30% of players on Opening Day NBA rosters had D-League experience. It is essential.
One of many complaints the Nets had with their D-League arrangement was that Springfield, 150 miles from the Nets' East Rutherford training facility, was too far away for monitoring roster players. But the Rio Grande Vipers, the Rockets affiliate, was more than twice as far away, at 330 miles and the distance between OKC and Tulsa is more than 100 miles. Erie was 434 miles from the Knicks' Westchester training facility ... and there were no direct flights.
That of course won't be an issue with the Long Island Nets. But the bottom line was that the Nets didn't seem to know what to do with the Armor. What was the Nets strategy? Was it about developing their own players? Was it about finding diamonds in the rough, players they thought some extra development would turn into NBA players? Was it about winning? The Nets could never seem to decide. Other teams liked what the Nets were producing at Springfield. The Armor were among the D-League leaders in call-ups
Then in the summer of 2014, after they traded away all their draft picks, the Nets dumped the arrangement with the Armor, losing all the D-League rights and draft picks --including the overall No. 1 in 2014 (which turned out to be Robert Covington, now with the Sixers). Moreover, they didn't take the NBA up on its offer to sell an expansion club to the Nets. The Knicks did and set up shop in White Plains, NY, at the Westchester Civic Center, five miles from the MSG Training Center. So they lost two years of development time.
Changes in D-League rules give NBA teams a lot more latitude in using their minor league clubs. The last four players cut by an NBA team with an owned-and-operated team or hybrid affiliate gets to send them to their D-League team. (NBA teams can still call them up.) Second-round picks can be signed to a D-League deal without the parent club losing its NBA rights ... and without the pick taking up a roster spot on the NBA team. And of course, roster players sent down remain the property of the parent club. They can't be poached.
Imagine how that would have worked the last two years. Cory Jefferson could have worked on his three point shooting, playing 30+ minutes a game in the D-League. (He and Markel Brown did spend a little time in the D-League last season, but with the Celtics affiliate). Ryan Boatright might be playing for the Nets D-League affiliate instead of Detroit's. The Nets might have convinced Justin Harper to play some D-League ball rather than go back to Europe. Chris McCullough could have worked himself into game shape under the tutelage of a trainer who reported to Tim Walsh.
There are still problems with the D-League. A player like Boatright can be called up by any team. Some NBA executives would like to see the parent club get a right of first refusal on such call-ups. Also, players are paid a pittance compared to what they can get in Europe or China. Eight NBA teams continue to resist making the investment and until they come around --or are forced to-- the league won't be a true minor league. That could take years.
The Nets will have one second round pick next season but they will likely have to swap it with the Clippers. As they have in four of the last five years, they'll probably buy a second round pick or two or three. And they could sign Juan Pablo Vaulet to a D-League contract and watch him develop. The opportunity is there.
So, the Nets have made a commitment (again) but unless they learn from their failings, it's unlikely to be much different this time.