Raptors’ planned foray into D-League an overdue necessity

There was little excuse for a team with the resources of the Raptors to have been behind the curve. Now the first step has been taken.

Finally, at long last, the Toronto Raptors are working in earnest to leverage MLSE’s financial might and the developmental opportunities afforded teams through the D-League.

General manager Masai Ujiri revealed at his end-of-season media availability on Tuesday that the MLSE board has approved the purchase of a D-League team and that the franchise is hoping they can have an exclusive affiliate in place for the 2015-16 season.

“I wish I could say,” Ujiri said of a timeline. “We’re pushing. We’re hoping, I should say. Not pushing, we’re hoping.”

That timeline seems somewhat unlikely – D-League commissioner Malcolm Turner said at the D-League Showcase in January that expansion is expected, but not for next season. That could obviously change, and with other east coast franchises (the Orlando Magic are one) looking to make D-League inroads, it’s possible the feeder system would be amenable to growing from 18 to, say, 20 on short notice.

“As Masai said yesterday, the Raptors have expressed interest in acquiring an NBA Development League affiliate,” Turner said this week, as relayed by the award-winning Raptors media relations department. “We have had ongoing dialogue with the team and we will continue to explore those possibilities.”

It certainly doesn’t hurt that the Raptors have long been thought to have a potential partner in the Rochester Razorsharks of the PBL.

To be clear, the Raptors already have use of the D-League without owning their own team. Kind of. You’ll likely recall Bruno Caboclo and Lucas Nogueira being sent down for assignments to the Fort Wayne Mad Ants at times this season. But the current setup isn’t at all conducive to successful development for the Raptors. The Mad Ants have the best mascot in sports, but it’s not a great place to send young players, through no fault of Fort Wayne’s.

Stripes could use time in the D-League to develop an NBA body like Nightmare Ant.

There are three types of D-League affiliation: Straightforward ownership (exclusive “parent clubs”), hybrid setups (the team is financially independent but the exclusive NBA team runs basketball operations), and independent (which applies only to Fort Wayne). Eight NBA teams own and operate their own affiliate, nine have exclusive hybrid relationships…and then the Raptors and 12 others share the Mad Ants.

The issues with sharing an affiliate with 12 other teams are obvious. Foremost, the Raptors have no control over basketball operations. Practices, player development, in-game rotations, strategy, style of play, and what, particularly, a player may work on in games is surely suggested – and Fort Wayne is likely to comply as best they can to maintain a positive working relationship with the teams and league – but the Mad Ants are run independently and have to serve the interests of 13 teams. It’s not unreasonable to picture their basketball operations staff feeling like Peter Gibbons, answering to eight bosses without a clear idea of how to prioritize the needs and messages of each.

The assignments from this season speak to this, as Caboclo’s time in the D-League was a farce. Given his limited experience and exposure to the NBA game, simply practicing for a year and sitting on the bench with knowledgeable players and staff was likely more than enough to move him along the development curve, but it probably would have behooved the team to get a semi-regular look at him in game action to see how film study and skill work were translating. While I didn’t necessarily expect the D-League to be a huge part of his development, to call the opportunity for him to play actual basketball a missed one would be an understatement.

Here’s what I wrote about Caboclo’s potential development before the season:

What that means is that Caboclo’s development will lean heavily on the value of practices and instruction from the coaching staff. For a player as raw as Caboclo is, that’s not the worst reality – he has a great deal to learn still, from physical fundamentals to just learning more about the game of basketball. A de facto redshirt season at age 19 is still a major and expeditious step in his development. The team just needs to be careful that he doesn’t get lost in the shuffle as the schedule ramps up and full practices become somewhat less frequent.

For 17 NBA teams, this wouldn’t be all that big a deal. For more than half the league, sending a player like Caboclo to the D-League is a realistic and potentially fruitful option. With an exclusive affiliation, those 17 teams would be afforded the opportunity to send Caboclo down to their farm club, where he would receive instruction from coaches and staff that the parent team has put in place. Come game time, the parent club could manage his minutes and role from afar, trusting that an organization with staff all their own would have the interests of the team and player foremost in mind.

That doesn’t entirely rule out the value of a D-League assignment for Caboclo (or Bebe Nogueira, for that matter). It would still represent more in-game playing time than he’s likely to get with the Raptors, after all. Unfortunately, the Raptors would have far less control of the situation than is ideal. Fort Wayne has to keep the interests of 13 teams in mind, and juggle development time for assignees from all of those parent clubs. That’s a difficult task, and it’s unclear exactly how much the Raptors will trust the Mad Ants with their No. 20 overall pick.

Caboclo played 62 minutes over his seven D-League games, playing more than 10 minutes in a game twice. Outside of his very first appearance – a somewhat encouraging 13-point, seven-rebound game – his role wasn’t dissimilar from the one he played with the Raptors. As it turned out, the loose D-League affiliation was a problem, and the Raptors didn’t seem to trust it as an option for Caboclo (or Nogueira, who played 80 minutes over four games there).

It’s not surprising, then, that Ujiri seemed ecstatic about the chance to further develop Caboclo through the D-League in his sophomore season, when on-court performance will take on a greater importance:

With Bruno and Bebe on the scale of maybe, by measuring them in terms of where we wanted them to be, putting on weight, nutrition and learning english, I think that stuff went very well. I think the part where we struggled was playing and exposure. The D-League didn’t work out so well for Bruno, it worked out well for Bebe, but unfortunately, he got dinged up a little bit.

Our plans, for me they are exciting now, because we’ve just been approved by our board to purchase a D-League team, which is huge for us and this franchise. I’m super-excited about that. Which means we’re going to be able to send, if this works out, we are in advanced talks with the NBA and trying to figure out where this is going to be and when this is going to be. But we’ve crossed a lot of the big barriers and hurdles. We’re really excited about this. Which means Bruno’s going to get an opportunity, Bebe’s going to get an opportunity, whoever our rookie is this year is going to get an opportunity. How you want to build a front office, a coaching model, this D-League team for us, eventually, is going to be something we want to use as our guinea pig right. Something you want to do tests and experiment and give opportunity. We are really excited about this and I think that’s going to enhance Bruno’s development next year. The summer is big for him. He went from 207 to 220. I just said that with him and he said 221. We’ll see how he develops in the summer. Same with Bebe.

I’ve been writing about the Raptors’ need to get an exclusive D-League affiliate for years now, and it’s a shame that the previous management regime either didn’t see enough value in player development or didn’t read the long-obvious tides of change for the way the league develops prospects. Here’s how I explained the advantages of being an exclusive parent club last April:

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.

Another potential advantage not mentioned there is the chance to grow the brand nationally, though it’s unclear if that will be a consideration for the franchise. The Toronto Star reports that the Raptors have had preliminary discussions about using Mississauga’s Hershey Centre and fans have suggested Vancouver, Montreal, and Ottawa as potential homes on Twitter. I think geographic proximity should be a greater priority than branding, otherwise Vancouver would be a natural choice. The GTA, Montreal, Rochester and Buffalo make sense at first blush, but there are a lot of factors that go into such a decision.

At media day before the season, I asked general manager Masai Ujiri if the organization regretted being slow to the punch with respect to the D-League. It was a poorly phrased question – Ujiri scoffed at the word “regret” before kindly answering my actual inquiry – considering the timing of the front office changeover. Still, it was retrospectively short-sighted of the previous regime, and Ujiri expressed that the franchise has an interest in exploring that potential competitive edge further moving forward.

There was little excuse for a team with the resources of the Raptors to have been behind the curve – in the words of our global ambassador, “Better late than never, but never late is better” – and now the first step has been taken. The Raptors will purchase an exclusive D-League affiliate sometime soon, and they’ll have far better means with which to develop players, coaches, strategy, technology, staff, and more as a result. The 2015-16 season may be too aggressive (I hope I’m wrong and Turner changes his tune) but it’s happening soon, and regardless of specifics, it’s a major step in the right direction fro the future of the franchise.

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