It’s Time for the Raptors to Invest in a D-League Team

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As it stands and barring any significant changes between now and November, the Toronto Raptors are set to share a single D-League affiliate with as many as a dozen other NBA teams. In the race to gain a competitive advantage outside of the confines of the salary cap, the Raptors are falling behind, and it could eventually be quite costly.

With MLSE installed as owners of the franchise, the Raptors are afforded an advantage not every team has in that ownership has deep pockets. While the league’s rosters operate under a salary cap and a luxury tax – the latter of which ownership may or may not be willing to cross when the time is right – there is no cap on total investment in a franchise. Spending on coaches, facilities, scouting, development and more are all at the discretion of the team, and a team like the Raptors should be able to gain an edge in these areas.

It was hardly surprising, then, when the Raptors were early adopters of the SportVu technology before it was a league-wide tool, and it’s of little surprise that the team is working to secure a new practice facility, as well. These may provide small, marginal gains that are hard to measure, but when everyone has the same amount to spend on rosters (theoretically), those edges along the margin can make a big difference.

And that’s why it’s confusing, and a little frustrating, that the franchise hasn’t waded into the waters of an exclusive D-League partnership, falling behind at least 17 other teams who have done so.

The Current D-League Setup
Best I can tell, 17 NBA teams have exclusive affiliations with D-League franchises, either by way of direct ownership or what’s been called a “hybrid” affiliation, where the NBA team runs all basketball-related operations but doesn’t actually own the franchise outright.

NBA Team D-League Team Own/Hybrid
13 teams Fort Wayne None
Boston Maine Hybrid
Cleveland Canton Own
Dallas Texas Hybrid
Detroit Grand Rapids Hybrid
Golden State Santa Cruz Own
Houston Rio Grande Valley Hybrid
Los Angeles (L) Los Angeles Own
Memphis Iowa Hybrid
Miami Sioux Falls Hybrid
New York New York Own
Oklahoma City Tulsa Own
Orlando Erie Hybrid
Philadelphia Delaware Own
Phoenix Bakersfield Hybrid
Sacramento Reno Hybrid
San Antonio Austin Own
Utah Idaho Hybrid

Of course, the Raptors couldn’t simply affiliate with Fort Wayne and force the other 12 teams out of the D-League altogether (I don’t think). But New York just installed their own expansion franchise this season, and teams like Orlando and Phoenix have worked quickly this offseason to secure exclusivity. There’s opportunity for expansion in the D-League, and it’s something the Raptors need to explore sooner than later, having missed an open window with some existing teams already.

Future D-League Setup
Eventually, the NBA will have 30 D-League affiliates for 30 NBA teams, or something very close to that. The league wants to be able to keep players on the fringes of the NBA in North America rather than overseas, and the league wants teams to be able to develop players and staff. This isn’t shocking, except for the fact that it’s taken decades for the league to recognize the benefits of a true development system (or at least figure out the logistics and finances).

One thing that will need to change to facilitate this “NHL-style” affiliation development is a loosening of the rules regarding players who can be sent down and how they’re treated.

At present, players in their first three seasons can be sent to the D-League at any time, any number of times, and players with more experience than that can be assigned with player and union consent (like a conditioning assignment, for example). This is fine, but the issue is that any assigned player remains on the team’s 15-man roster on the two-person Inactive List. In short, if an NBA team wants to develop a prospect at the D-League level, they have to use scarce resources (a roster spot and the salary cap hit for the player) to do so. In addition, teams can assign a player they cut in training camp, but that player is still free to sign anywhere, they just skip the normal D-League draft process (e.g. Seth Curry).

For all teams to truly invest in player development, I would guess that those rules need to be loosened to allow for teams to control player rights without using a roster spot, similar to how international draftees are handled. (Note: Pierre Jackson’s story is well-known from this year but is a complex one – while Jackson’s rights were owned by New Orleans while he was in the D-League and he didn’t count as a roster spot for the Pelicans, it’s because he was first treated under international rules, having signed in France. That’s a work-around, I suppose, but a messier one than is necessary).

Ideally, an NBA team would have exclusive domain over a handful of players on their D-League affiliate without a cost at the NBA level, such that investing more heavily in player development can be weighed on its own merits rather than in comparison to the present-day cost to the parent club.

In any case, the D-League is evolving and will eventually represent a true, league-wide developmental system, and half the league is set to realize early-adopter advantages. The Raptors aren’t in that group.

The Benefits
The benefits of an exclusive D-League affiliation should be fairly obvious, but let’s compare the situations for, say, Dwight Buycks, who spent some time with Bakersfield this season.

Since the Raptors shared Bakersfield with four other teams and the Jam were an independent entity this year, the Raptors had little control over how Buycks was handled. The Jam surely know their bread is buttered by NBA teams and wouldn’t dare risk jerking Buycks around, but there’s still a limit to how much value the Raptors can get from Buycks practicing and playing with a team that in no way relates to the parent club – Buycks was basically just sent down for playing time, and the team had little control over the specifics of that run. That’s why Buycks spent just 14 days in the D-League over two assignments, even though he played just 2:33 in the seven weeks between those stints. Instead, he spent that time in 3-on-3 games with Julyan Stone and the other players on the end of the bench, not useless time by any means but also not exactly accumulating experience.

Now, say the Raptors were exclusively affiliated with a hypothetical D-League team – the Vancouver Nashes of the West Division or the Thornhill Wigginses of the East Division – and sent Buycks down. Once with the D-League team, Buycks would be practicing and playing with coaches and players selected by the Raptors organization, ones who would be operating a system that closely mirrors the parent club’s. That means Buycks’ practice and game time comes in a setting very similar to Toronto, and his role could even be controlled as such (for example, there’s probably little sense in “developing” Buycks as a 20-shot-a-game scoring guard, even if he’s the best player on that team). The left hand knows what the right is doing.

Beyond just a greater control over players on assignment (and don’t forget that the D-League training staff would also be put in place by the parent club, so rehab assignments are far safer), an exclusive affiliation also affords the franchise other benefits. Coaches can be developed, for example, and if the team saw Nick Nurse or Bill Bayno as a future head coach, they may opt to see how they handle the franchise’s D-League team (that’s actually where they found Nurse). Training staff and other personnel can be developed. More data can be collected from a biomechanic standpoint, as D-League players can wear GPS units in-game, which NBA players can only do in practice. Teams can experiment with new philosophies and strategies. Money can be made.

We’ve seen this play out in the NBA already. The Houston Rockets are a great example, as their Rio Grande Valley team shot a billion 3-pointers as Darly Morey et al. experiment with the limits of the 3-and-key offensive principles. They also developed Troy Daniels for part of the season, and that ended up providing huge dividends in the playoffs. San Antonio and Golden State, who have affiliates in close proximity, consistently shuttle their players to-and-from the D-League to get them playing time while allowing them to practice with the parent club, and the Spurs have drawn benefit in the form of Aron Baynes this postseason.

These are small examples on their own, sure, but the totality of the benefits are such that, with little apparent cost in operating a team (“little” in the relative sense here), it seems a no-brainer. The teams who have already moved in this direction already have an edge from putting their systems in place and scooping up the best available staff, but better late than never, even though never late would have been better.

Will We See It?
I think the Raptors will definitely move in the next few years to install a D-League affiliate, whether by choice or league mandate. One would think that MLSE’s deep pockets, general manager Masai Ujiri forward thinking and with the obvious benefits laid out, the Raptors would be champing at the bit to grab an exclusive affiliate. It’s coming, and hopefully soon.

As for the specifics, well, I can’t speak to that. The Toronto Maple Leafs certainly enjoy the close proximity of the Toronto Marlies, similar to how San Antonio, Golden State and so on have leveraged affiliates just a short trip down the road, so a Toronto suburb team seems possible. Expanding the brand nationally also appears to be a goal, which would make Vancouver a potential destination, even though the D-League doesn’t have many Northwest teams. The biggest issue may be whether the league wants the pain of a D-League franchise across the border, and that may mean the Raptors have to look to upstate New York, but the location is less of a concern (except in marketing terms) than just getting an exclusive affiliate in place.

That’s especially true if the league moves to expand an NBA team’s rights over D-League players (maybe with a third round added to the draft?), when an exclusive affiliate can provide franchises with a chance to truly develop players who aren’t ready for the NBA, giving those teams who may not be the marquee free agent destinations (or even those who are) a greater opportunity to improve their talent base.

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