Should I stay or should I go is an 80s classic by The Clash. In today’s world, it’s better known as the pivotal line that keeps Mike Wheeler hopeful of a better reality than the one he faces in Netflix’s hit show ‘Stranger Things’. For undrafted North American players looking to fulfill their dream of playing in the NBA, that line is a question many of them ask themselves every offseason when faced with the decision to play in the D-League or elsewhere.
When the NBA and NBPA ratified the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement that will take effect from the beginning of the 2017 off-season, all the talk centered around the players that live the dream D-Leaguers chase everyday. From the impending super-max for guys like Steph Curry and Blake Griffin, to the “Over-36” rule becoming the “Over-38” rule to benefit guys like Chris Paul and LeBron James (who just happen to be the current union president and vice-president), and even higher scale contracts for rookies that will see even current No.1 draft pick Ben Simmons earn approximately 11.7 million in the final year of his rookie deal.
Once the smoke cleared, you could spot the changes to improve the current plight of D-Leaguers as well. Though still awaiting full details, Adrian Wojnarowski made clear (who else?) that teams will be able to develop two players in the D-League on two-way contracts, thus changing the maximum roster size from 15 to 17.
As per ESPN’s Marc Stein, NBDL salaries currently range from $19,000 to $26,000, with a daily per diem of $50 to go along with housing and medical care. Under the new agreement, those that garner the new two-way contract will earn somewhere between $50,000 – $75,000. Because the roster spots are “hybrid” (two-way), those players stand to earn more if called up to the NBA roster, too. Doubling salaries while also giving them the best chance of making an NBA roster mid-season should go a long way towards quelling the temptation of big money from China or Europe.
“I think it shows they’re really interested in you, if they make that financial investment in you,” says Raptors 905 wing E.J. Singler, who received a training camp guarantee from the Raptors to help supplement his D-League salary this offseason. “It shows how close you are to the NBA, and if they think you’re pretty close, then you’ll give it a shot.”
That’s what the D-League is all about, having a shot. What the NBA and NBAPA are hoping to achieve through these increased incentives is to push players that chose Europe or China previously, to reconsider and return, increasing the competition in the NBDL. The current D-Leaguers can also further their belief in making the NBA by seeing more of their teammates and opponents in NBA uniforms.
In theory, having 60 more job openings increases their opportunities, and it’ll be terrific for those that do get to shoot that shot. There is no guarantee that all 60 slots will be filled, but those that do will no longer have to bear the mental burden of being a free agent, while also maintaining the perks of improving their game with quality minutes in the D-League.
But then there’s the other side of the coin; the guys that don’t get the 16th or 17th spot. What if a team not making that financial investment in you with added roster spots makes you feel even further away than you once thought? Is the message that they didn’t receive a contract offer (especially if there are teams that don’t use up the two spots) that they’re not close at all? Yes, they could still be earning a higher salary, but failing to crack a roster of 17 that includes designated spots for them instead of 15 could be a bigger pill to swallow.
They’re closer because the rosters are expanded, but they’re also further away since those spots are now consumed by guaranteed spots, or aren’t consumed at all. In many ways, it’s a question of which half of the glass you value.
“It’s kinda hard man,” says C.J. Leslie. “I’m torn between whether you wanna stay or leave, give it a chance. You just have to see what feels best for you.”
One of the things that makes it hard is players understanding that, as athletes, they have a limited shelf life. Playing in the NBA is an opportunity of a lifetime, but there are plenty of other places where playing basketball can be rewarding both on and off the court.
Having played for BC Kalev/Cramo in Estonia, Singler is well aware of this.
“There are some great situations overseas,” he said. “If you get a great job, it’s a really good lifestyle there. You get to experience something really different and see places you’d probably never see.”
These are opportunities that are hard to pass up on in life, let alone in a career with such a finite timeline. There is, with some players, a hyper-awareness of exactly what opportunities could become available, where they might come, and how they might come to be.
“I watch the NBA a ton,’ says 905 point guard John Jordan. “I look at the depth charts, I’m constantly studying who’s doing what and where they’re doing it. Just little stuff like that. It’s something that’s always in the back of my mind and I’m ready for at the end of the day.”
Brady Heslip, who has experienced the NBDL, Italy, and Bosnia, listed playing situation first, followed by quality of life, and then money as the three most important things he considers when deciding where to ply his trade. What will be interesting to see is how much the two-way contracts impact those factors. Logically, it would only impact the latter two, but even at double the salary, it’s hard to say that it will be enough of a deterrent to those offers from abroad.
A player like Heslip can bounce back and forth, cashing in one year and looking to make the leap to the NBA by staying close in the D-League the next. Axel Toupane stands as an example of how quickly what looks like a tiny D-League salary can change with a couple of 10-day deals. At the end of the day, it’s hard to make a bad decision about where to play basketball for a living. The decision-making process still appears to be highly subjective, but what the new contracts and salaries for the NBDL imply is that players will not be sacrificing quite as much as they were in order to pursue that ultimate dream.