The NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement brought changes to how teams could use their D-League affiliates. As NBADL president Dan Reed said, “The new CBA will deepen the level of integration between NBA D-League and NBA teams, and marks the next stage of our league’s evolution as the official minor league for the NBA. By encouraging more robust use of our league to accelerate the development of NBA players and prospects, over time we believe this agreement will lead to more NBA teams operating their own NBA D-League affiliate, an increased number of NBA players that develop in our league, and an even better in-arena experience for our fans.” In other words, the NBA felt the restrictions placed on player movement from the D-League to the NBA were hindering the D-League’s ability to reach its full potential as a true developmental/minor league for the NBA.
In the previous CBA, a team could only assign a player to the D-League up to three times per season. This lack of flexibility made it difficult for teams to assign players because the assigned player still counted on their 15 man roster. Normally, a team would assign a player to the D-League and leave them there for a three to five game stints, if not longer. While this allowed for some consistency with the player, it became an issue for the team if they had to recall said player due to injuries on the NBA roster. It didn’t matter whether it was a 1 game stint or a 10 game stint, it still counted as a D-League assignment. In the new CBA, a team has no limit as to how many times it can assign a player with 3 years or less experience in the league.
This new rule becomes very advantageous to teams that have their own D-League affiliate. Currently, there are 11 teams in the league that have their own D-League team. The rest of the 19 teams have to divide their assigned players amongst the remaining 5 D-League teams. The teams that have their own D-League affiliates are able to run the same system throughout their NBA and minor league teams. This leads to a level of consistency in all facets of the organization. Even though the players may not be the same on either level, the defensive and offensive systems can be consistent throughout. On these 11 teams, players that are shuffled back and forth between the “farm” team and the NBA team don’t have to learn new terminology or new schematics between the different teams. The schema remains the same and the confidence that usually accompanies consistency starts to show through.
This has been very evident with the Thunder’s young players. Oklahoma City is in strange position of being a contending team with young players to develop. Most contending teams have veteran-laden rosters and don’t have the time to develop young talent. Though the Thunder’s roster is young throughout, the main core is veteran enough, having gone through 3 successive playoff runs that culminated with a loss in the Finals last season. With great players comes the cost of paying these superstar players. The Thunder currently have $54.2 million allotted to its top 5 players (Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, Kevin Martin, and Kendrick Perkins). That number jumps up to $54.3 million with Ibaka’s extension kicking in, but that is without Martin, as he becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season. Assuming that the Thunder re-sign Martin, the Thunder are looking at $60+ million in salary for 5 players next season. The need for cheap labor (rookies and young players) becomes very necessary as a team tries to balance being a contender with balancing the proverbial NBA checkbook.
When you are battling for playoff positioning throughout the season, there aren’t many opportunities to develop young talent. Every game counts when a team is looking to secure home court advantage. A slip up here or there can be the difference between a team playing a deciding game at home or on the road. Non-playoff teams have all the time and patience in the world to develop young talent at an NBA level. The Thunder experienced a little bit of this last season when they were forced to play then rookie guard Reggie Jackson heavy minutes as the back-up point guard after Eric Maynor went down 9 games into the season with a torn ACL. Jackson struggled throughout the season in this role and was relegated to the end of the bench by the end of February after the Thunder signed Derek Fisher. With Maynor back this season, the Thunder have been able to send Jackson back and forth between the D-League and the Thunder.
One of the advantages of this system is that it allows young players to build their muscle memory and confidence. Athletes, especially basketball players, live off of muscle memory. Muscle memory is defined as a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition. When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort. An example of muscle memory would be typing. Once you learn where the letters are on the keyboard, you can begin typing at your heart’s content without looking at the keyboard. Basketball involves a lot of fast-twitch muscularity due to the read and react nature of the sport. You see a defender leaning in one direction and you react by driving in the opposite direction in a split second. This type of muscle memory can only be duplicated in in-game settings. During the season, teams cannot scrimmage during every practice to replicate in-game situations. The only way to develop this type of muscle memory is to actually play in the games. If a team is not willing to let its young players develop on the NBA floor, the next best option is in the D-League.
That muscle memory is extremely important when a player a called upon to give you 5-6 good minutes in a game. When Jeremy Lamb was put into a game against the Detroit Pistons at the beginning of the season, he played 3 minutes, committed 1 turnover and 2 fouls. He played and looked like every bit of the rookie that he was. But after a couple of games in the D-League in which he averaged 23 ppg, 4.9 rpg, and 3.3 apg, Lamb’s number was called again against the Atlanta Hawks. This time, he performed beautifully in his 5 minutes, scoring 5 points, grabbing 1 rebound, and getting 1 steal, all while effectively guarding Josh Smith, who had 5 inches and 40 pounds on him. I can’t definitively state that there is a direct correlation between Lamb’s time in the D-League and his performance in that one game, but the confidence he played with definitely had something do with his time in Tulsa.
Reggie Jackson is another one of those players that has benefitted from his time in Tulsa. After providing a spark off the bench in a game versus the New Orleans Hornets as an energy player, Jackson was sent to the D-League for a 2 game stint in which he averaged 32 ppg, 8 rpg, and 7 apg. Jackson logged significant minutes in the game prior to his 2 game stint and then logged 13 minutes in the prime time game against the Miami Heat on Christmas day. While he didn’t come anywhere close to averaging the number he put up in Tulsa in those two games, the confidence he played with shows a maturation to his game. Even more significant in the Miami game is that he played the back-up point guard role, while Maynor received a DNP-CD.
The Thunder have also been sending rookie Perry Jones III to the D-League, along with 2nd year wingman DeAndre Liggins and 3rd year center Daniel Orton. While these players have yet to have a breakout moment in the NBA this season, the ability to play in the D-League and then practice with the NBA team will only improve the skill-set and their confidence. Jones III’s development is of utmost importance to the Thunder, as his skill set as a tweener forward will give the Thunder a serious weapon in the front court as they move forward.
Confidence and playing time are two of the most important things in the development of a young player. While NBA teams may not be able to provide the young players with copious amounts of playing time, they can provide them with an avenue (the D-League) to continue developing and improving, all while playing basketball in real game situations. The Thunder hope that the pipeline from Tulsa to OKC will provide them with cheap, young talent that will allow them to maintain their championship contending core.