NBA Basketball: The Developing D-League

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Dec 20, 2012; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder center Hasheem Thabeet (34) holds back Oklahoma City Thunder small forward Kevin Durant (35) after a technical foul in the second half against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center. The Timberwolves won 99-93. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

What do you know about the NBA Developmental League?

I mean beyond knowing it is where players like Hasheem Thabeet are cast away to teams with awful names, like the Dakota Wizards, less than a year after being drafted second overall by the Memphis Grizzlies. When you hear “D-League” you probably think of second-rate arenas in un-sexy cities like Sioux Falls and Bakersfield which feature a boring and unattractive brand of basketball.

Ten years ago you would have been right, but by 2014 NBA general managers have realized the  value in using the D-League as a farm system, and it’s starting what could be a basketball revolution in a remote city near you.

The D-League has seen a shift in recent years from several NBA teams affiliating with each D-League squad to a more direct and streamlined approach resulting in D-League teams identifying with solely one organization. With this, the D-League is becoming a platform for experiments and the seasoning of young NBA hopefuls.

Feb 5, 2014; Houston, TX, USA; Houston Rockets power forward Terrence Jones (6) tries to steal the ball from Phoenix Suns power forward Marcus Morris (15) during the second half at the Toyota Center. The Rockets defeated the Suns 122-108. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to the exemplary D-League to NBA relationship look no further than the Rio Grande Valley Vipers and the Houston Rockets.

Players like Patrick Patterson, Marcus Morris, and Terrence Jones all spent a large part of their rookie seasons gaining experience in the Rio Grande Valley before carving their niche in the NBA. Now all three are important cogs on playoff teams.

Coaches have also climbed the tree from the Vipers bench all the way to a seat next to McHale and co. in Houston. Current Rockets assistant Chris Finch served as the Vipers’ head coach during their first championship in 2009 before moving to the Rockets.

Jan 4, 2013; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Houston Rockets assistant coach Chris Finch (right) talks with player Jeremy Lin as their team plays the Milwaukee Bucks at the Bradley Center. Houston defeated Milwaukee 115-101. Mandatory Credit: Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

More importantly, Daryl Morey uses the Vipers as a medium to let his notorious, statistical strategies loose in their purest form.

The Vipers employ an offensive system that almost exclusively utilizes three-point shots and layups. With only 8% of their shots coming from midrange, the Vipers reflect the exact sabermetric principles that Morey has tried to incorporate in Houston. With a historically fast pace and an offense that encourages (to say the least) three-point attempts, the Vipers have enjoyed a sustained run of deep playoff success. The winning in the Rio Grande Valley has made it easier to bring these principles to the NBA and has helped forge the efficient offense that has helped define the Rockets league-best record in 2014.

While achieving the same extreme level of play is virtually impossible in the NBA, the Rockets still lead the league in three-point attempts per game with 26 (compared to the Vipers’ 45) suggesting the D-League has caused a ripple that has made its way to the NBA.

Nov 28, 2012; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder center Hasheem Thabeet (34) gets a technical foul for fouling Houston Rockets shooting guard James Harden (13) during the first half at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

As the Rockets continue to show what benefits a seamless relationship with a D-League affiliate can do for a franchise, more and more teams have solidified this relationship, called a single-affiliation. Fourteen NBA organizations now enjoy exclusive D-League affiliates, and these are predominantly the so called “smart teams” or the teams with advanced analytics departments. As that number continues to grow, what was once a boring and uninteresting league could develop into an extreme testing ground that shows a glimpse of what trends will catch fire in the future NBA.

So the next time your team reassigns a player who you thought was the future of the franchise to the D-League, know that his career isn’t declining. It’s only the beginning.

All stats from Grantland.com

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