A story from Jazz assistant Brad Jones’ days as an NBA Development League head coach has made the rounds, and it goes like this: An NBA general manager wants to check in on one of his players, who has been assigned to his team’s D-League affiliate. Just like the Utah Jazz, this GM’s team shares an affiliate with several other teams.
The GM drives several hours to the town where the D-League team is located. When he gets to the game, rather than see how his player has progressed, he watches him sit on the bench. That’s when, according to Jones, things go from bad to worse. The GM waits for the coaches outside of the locker room, and when they emerge, begins to berate them.
The GM says things like, “You think you’re bigger than the NBA?” And, “I drive all the way up here and you don’t play the guy? If I have anything to do with it, you’ll never get a job in the NBA.”
The anecdote, while extreme and, Jones says, not representative of day-to-day life in basketball’s minor leagues, illustrates the growing frustrations for NBA teams that have not yet made the move to single affiliation.
Earlier this month, the Sacramento Kings became the 14th NBA team to enter a single-affiliation D-League partnership, forcing the Jazz out of a shared arrangement in Reno and on to Bakersfield — where they are one of five teams affiliated with the Jam.
The remaining 16 NBA teams share three D-League affiliates. While teams with single affiliations hire their coaches, provide support and direct on-court decisions, others like the Jazz have to live with the decisions of their independently owned affiliates.
“There certainly is a breaking point where the system might not work as well for everyone involved,” said Dan Reed, the D-League president.
The NBA is moving toward a day when every NBA team has its own affiliate — one D-League executive hopes within five years — but it remains unclear how the Jazz will get there. The Larry H. Miller Group-owned organization attempted to partner with Reno before its alignment with Sacramento. Jazz president Randy Rigby has expressed an interest in putting an expansion team in St. George.
What’s clear at this point, however, is not only that the D-League model is evolving rapidly, but that teams like the Jazz are at a competitive disadvantage.
“The disadvantage,” said David Fredman, the Jazz’s director of player personnel, “is you don’t have full control of your players. The coaches cooperate, but now they have all these teams they have to cooperate with. So if you have multiple players at the same position, they have to figure it out.”
A costly investment
As an executive with the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets, Dennis Lindsey saw the benefits of mining the D-League. There, the Rockets and Spurs found players such as Chuck Hayes and Danny Green.
The D-League is not just a training ground for players, but also for coaches, executives and support staff. Since 2002, every new NBA referee has come from the D-League. Three former head coaches of the Austin Toros, the Spurs affiliate, are now assistants on NBA benches, including Jones, who led the Toros to the 2011 D-League championship.
Lindsey has implemented a number of the Spurs’ methods since being hired as the Jazz GM a year ago, including a camp for veteran free agents and, in the fall, an open gym.
“I knew when they were able to work it out and [Lindsey] took the job,” Fredman said, “I knew we would eventually have a D-League team. I felt very strongly that we would.”
To be true to his philosophy of seeing and working with as many players as possible, it would only make sense that the Jazz would have their own D-League affiliate, and utilize it as the Spurs do with Austin and Oklahoma City and their affiliate, the Tulsa 66ers, freely sending players back and forth.
“That’s safe to say,” Lindsey said, “but not at any cost.”
Cost is where things begin to get tricky.
When it comes to single affiliation, there are two paths. A “hybrid” model, in which the D-League team is locally owned, but operated by the parent organization (Reno and Sacramento is one example). The other model is outright ownership. While ideas within the organization differ, Rigby said the Jazz are less likely to buy a team outright.
“The cost is expensive to buy the ownership of the team right now,” he said. “As we’ve seen the models, it’s a break-even to maybe a losing half a million dollars.”
He estimates that a hybrid affiliation would cost up to $400,000 a year.
In the big money world of NBA basketball, where luxury is a prerequisite, that’s pocket change.
Fredman puts it this way: “If teams are going to pay $3 million for a draft pick, why wouldn’t you invest ‘X’ amount of dollars to develop that draft pick?”
The Jazz are willing to spend that money. They were active in talks with Reno owner Herb Santos Jr. before he decided Sacramento provided a better geographic fit and more opportunities for cross-promotion. For example, the folks of Sacramento may be more responsive to advertisements of Reno’s skiing and outdoor activities than Utahns, who have the same benefits in their backyard.
Santos is sympathetic, though, to the remaining independent D-League teams that are juggling so many NBA teams.
“Multiple affiliates makes it a little bit more of a puzzle,” he said. “There’s only so many players that can be sent down, it may be a little more difficult for the NBA teams.”
Flash in the pan
Any study of the Jazz’s D-League future must consider its past, namely, the Utah Flash. The Orem-based affiliate was part of an ambitious development plan by tech millionaire Brandt Andersen, but suspended play in 2011. The rights to the team were sold this year to Philadelphia, which revitalized the franchise as the Delaware 87ers.
Rigby blames the market for the Flash’s failure, as its proximity to an NBA market and popular college basketball teams pushed it down the list of basketball options for fans.
Beyond that, Andersen had made his money fast, and desperately wanted to be a professional sports team’s owner. Jones, who coached the team its first season, said Andersen thought “everything he touched was going to be great” but that “his business model was not valid.”
“He just got a little ahead of himself,” he said. “He just though the world was his oyster, he thought he was going to be Mark Cuban.”
Fredman, who started his career with the Jazz in New Orleans and had recently been fired in Denver, was hired as the team’s general manager. A longtime advocate of a minor league basketball system, he vowed to run the team like a smaller version of the Jazz.
“I said, ‘If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it like it’s a Triple-A minor league baseball team,’ ” Fredman said. “ ‘We’re going to do every single thing the Jazz do.’ ”
While the Flash were also affiliated with the Boston Celtics, it was the closest the Jazz have come to the preferred D-League model.
Since the team folded, the Jazz have been watching for opportunities. The Idaho Stampede would have been a logical partner, but Portland swooped in last year and “at the time,” Rigby said, “we were not ready.”
Bakersfield, the Iowa Energy (based in Des Moines) and the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Mad Ants are the only D-League teams that have multiple affiliates, and if history teaches us anything, they will be very popular candidates for single affiliation.
Chris Alpert, the D-League’s director of basketball operations, mused about the possibility of one of those teams affiliating with one team, leaving seven and eight NBA teams sharing two D-League teams.
Because Alpert said the D-League wouldn’t be likely to put a moratorium on affiliations, there’s only one alternative.
“We’re going to have to seriously consider expanding,” he said.
Said his boss, Reed, the D-League president: “We’re terrified of growing too fast and losing all our momentum. But at the same time we’re seeing a lot of demand in the marketplace right now.”
All of which feeds Rigby’s dream scenario.
He is careful with his phrasing, and at this point it’s only a nugget of an idea, tucked away for a time when an opportunity may arise: St. George. The city and its surrounding area is home to more than 100,000 people — a half-day’s drive or a short flight from Salt Lake City — and is a place untapped by professional sports.
“That would be a market that is four hours away,” Rigby said. It “has a very good fan base. We maybe would have an interest in doing something like that.”
Austin Toros* • San Antonio Spurs
Bakersfield Jam • Atlanta Hawks, Los Angeles Clippers, Phoenix Suns, Toronto Raptors, Utah Jazz
Canton Charge* • Cleveland Cavaliers
Delaware 87ers* • Philadelphia 76ers
Erie BayHawks • New York Knicks
Fort Wayne (Ind.) Mad Ants • Charlotte Bobcats, Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, Memphis Grizzlies, Milwaukee Bucks, Orlando Magic
Idaho Stampede • Portland Trail Blazers
Iowa Energy • Chicago Bulls, Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Orleans Pelicans, Washington Wizards
Los Angeles D-Fenders* • Los Angeles Lakers
Reno Bighorns • Sacramento Kings
Rio Grande Valley Vipers • Houston Rockets
Santa Cruz Warriors* • Golden State Warriors
Sioux Falls SkyForce • Miami Heat
Springfield Armor • Brooklyn Nets
Texas Legends • Dallas Mavericks
Tulsa 66ers* • Oklahoma City Thunder
*Owned outright by parent organization