Back in the spring of 2014, when the owners of the Nets then D-League affiliate, the Springfield Armor, decided to close up shop and put the team up for sale, the Nets had a choice. They had the right of first refusal to buy the team for $4 million ... or go for an expansion team.
They did neither. Ownership and management couldn’t seem to make a decision on how to continue D-League operations —buy the Armor or set up a new team closer to Brooklyn. So, they abandoned the D-League.
Why? The Nets organization was a mess. The disappointing 2013-14 season was ending; the prospect of lost draft picks was dawning on everyone; the Nets owed $90.6 million in luxury taxes and the Billy King - Jason Kidd feud was wracking the franchise. Not to mention that the D-League hadn’t been much of a management priority. King never went to Springfield to watch a game. Operating the team cost between $500,000 and $750,000 a year. The Nets had once been a D-League pioneer. Not anymore.
So ultimately, the Nets sat by and watched the Armor owners sell out to a group of local investors from Grand Rapids, Michigan, who had connections with the Pistons and did nothing immediately to find a replacement. Insiders lamented the Nets’ lack of a development plan that included the D-League and the team would be without a minor league affiliate for another two years.
But there was more and here’s the cautionary tale: short-term thinking has long-term unintended consequences. It wasn’t just about losing a D-League club. The Armor’s draft picks and D-League player rights went to the Grand Rapids Drive along with the basketballs. That cache included the overall Nos. 1 and 5 picks in the 2014 D-League Draft. Who cares? Keep reading.
On November 1, 2014, the Drive got a nice bonus. They were able to take Robert Covington with the overall No. 1 pick they acquired in the Armor purchase. Covington had been D-League Rookie of the Year the season before but had been cut four days earlier by Houston Rockets, making him eligible for the D-League Draft. Any D-League team with the No. 1 pick would have done the same. The 6’9” Tennessee State product was the consensus top pick after averaging 23.2 points, 9.2 rebounds, 2.4 steals, 1.7 assists and 1.4 blocks with the Rio Grande Vipers.
So because the Nets couldn’t figure out what to do in the midst of a management scuffle, they lost an opportunity to bring the then 23-year-old to Brooklyn. They even had roster spots available to bring him up ... if they had kept the Armor or transferred the rights to a new team. Three players — Cory Jefferson, Jorge Gutierrez and Jerome Jordan — were all on non- or partially guaranteed deals. The Pistons foolishly decided they would keep Covington in Grand Rapids rather than call him up. After all, they already had Hasheem Thabeet and Daniel Orton!
Enter Sam Hinkie and the 76ers. Seeing his potential, Philly called up Covington on November 15, virtually the first minute they could. He never played in Grand Rapids. Over the next three seasons, Covington averaged 12.9 points and 6.3 rebounds, shooting 36.3 percent from deep for Philly. This week, the Sixers rewarded him with a four-year, $62 million contract. And why not, he is arguably the third best player on the 76ers current roster.
Covington is probably the best D-League or G-League success story. Could he have been a Net? If things had turned out differently, if the Nets hadn’t cared so little about the D-League, if they had smart management with foresight Maybe. It’s not just about a training facility or scouting or a family room or even trades. It’s about management and strategic planning.