The NBA D-League is rapidly changing. Since the league’s founding in 2001 as the National Basketball Development League, the NBA’s official minor league, has gone through several makeovers. Teams have come and gone, and the relationship between D-League teams and NBA clubs continues to be fluid.
The league has seen NBA players like Hassan Whiteside, Jeremy Lin, and Jonathon Simmons blossom into the valuable players they are today. The narrative around these players frequently revolves around “a rise from obscurity in the D-League.” This season, even more D-League success stories are being written.
In the past two seasons, NBA teams have assigned their young players to NBA D-League teams at a record rate. But still, there is much to be done to improve the D-League’s talent, finances, and style of play.
Starting in the 2017-2018 season, the NBA D-League will be called the NBA Gatorade League, or G-League, in partnership with Gatorade.1 This is the first time that an entire American based sports league will be renamed for a sponsor.
European sports teams have embraced sponsorships for years, with names like the Barclays Premier League, La Liga Santander, and the Turkish Airlines Euroleague the norm, not the exception. The economic impact of adding a league-wide corporate sponsor is yet to be seen, but it may work well for the future of the D-League.
The Teams and NBA Affiliations
This season, the NBA D-League featured 22 teams throughout the United States and Canada. Three more expansion teams will be added next season, bringing the total to 25. All of the D-League’s teams are affiliated with an NBA team. A full map of the D-League’s teams and affiliates is seen below.
With an NBA affiliate, D-League teams can implement the NBA club’s teachings, or act as a basketball test tube. Most affiliate teams have complete ownership of their D-League franchise, acting as a parent club. With this, the parent club can set up the team’s infrastructure according to their desires. The parent club determines coaching hires, player signings, and even the uniform details.
In several cases, a coaches and front office staff can serve dual roles for the NBA club and their D-League affiliate. For example, in Sean Marks’ time as Assistant GM of the San Antonio Spurs, he also was the General Manager of their D-League affiliate, the (then) Austin Toros. In Toronto, Raptors 905 head coach Jerry Stackhouse is gaining useful experience as the team’s head coach, after spending time as an assistant coach on the NBA squad.
Coaching strategies can be implemented and tinkered with in the D-League as well. The Houston Rockets’ affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, pushed “Moreyball” to the extreme in the past, shooting exclusively three pointers and interior shots. In the D-League, development isn’t just for the players. It extends to everyone involved.
NBA teams are more proactive in using the D-League to evaluate their young players compared to previous years. The 2015-2016 season saw a record number of player assignments, with 319 occasions where an NBA player was assigned to a D-League team. This season continued that trend, with several former first-round picks assigned to a D-League affiliate.
Interestingly, the Brooklyn Nets assigned forward Chris McCullough for a Long Island Nets game in the afternoon, and called him up immediately to play in the NBA club’s game (both at the Barclays Center) later that night. That occurred several times before McCullough was traded to the Washington Wizards in February.2
D-League assignments may also be used to rehab injured players back into rhythm. Mike Scott of the Atlanta Hawks played in several games for the Long Island Nets as he recovered from an injury at the beginning of the 2016-2017 season.
All of the NBA D-League teams have a single parent club. In previous seasons, parent clubs shared D-League teams, likely to save on overhead costs. In 2014-2015, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants were the lone independent D-League team, acting as a revolving door for 13 NBA teams to assign their young players.3 But with teams looking to establish autonomy, there are no more independent D-League teams.
This season, 8 NBA teams did not have a D-League affiliate. Next season, the Atlanta Hawks, Milwaukee Bucks, and Minnesota Timberwolves will add their own D-League (or rather G-League) teams in 2017-2018, bringing the total to 25.
That leaves the Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Clippers, New Orleans Pelicans, and Washington Wizards as teams without a D-League affiliate. None of these five teams have discussed concrete plans on a D-League team in the near future. The hope for the NBA is for a one-to-one relationship between D-League teams and NBA parent clubs in the future.
Players and Salaries
While NBA teams have some level of autonomy on their affiliates, the NBA D-League affiliate system is not a true minor league as in hockey, baseball, or soccer. For NBA teams, a majority of D-League players are essentially free agents. NBA clubs can sign any available player from any D-League team.
The signing of Yogi Ferrell by the Dallas Mavericks was a perfect example of this. Ferrell, an undrafted rookie, had played for the Long Island Nets for the season, but Brooklyn did not have the option to prevent him from signing a 10-day contract with Dallas.
One exception to this rule is players whose draft rights are held by a parent NBA team. Abdel Nader and Dakari Johnson are two former second round picks playing in the D-League. They can only sign with the Boston Celtics and Oklahoma City Thunder, respectively, as their first NBA teams.
Another exception is for draft eligible players. Players that (1) graduated high school the year prior, (2) International players younger than 22 that have not declared for the draft, and (3) college players that leave school midway through their season that are considered draft eligible
P.J. Hairston is the most notable example of the third rule, joining the D-League after his dismissal from the University of North Carolina. Players that fall under those exceptions rarely choose to play in the D-League.
The lack of strict relationships between D-League players and their parent club results from several NBA teams not owning a D-League affiliate. Teams without a D-League affiliate can still assign their players using the Flex Assignment rule. In the 2016-2017 season, rookies Jake Layman and Tim Quarterman of the Portland Trail Blazers rookies were assigned to the Windy City Bulls under Flex Assignment.
Flex Assignment players are assigned to teams of the parent club’s choosing. For these players, the value of the D-League may not be the coaching, which may differ from their NBA clubs’ system. The playing time they would receive in the D-League would make up for minutes they would not receive in the NBA.
In the next few seasons, the NBA salary cap will balloon to over $100 million, with several teams already committing to spend over that number. Salaries will rise across the board. Star players have the potential to make over $40 million per year with the Designated Player Exception (DPE). Rookie scale contracts for first round picks will increase as well. The minimum salary for NBA teams will rise 45%, with the lowest paid NBA players making $800,000.
All 450 available players filling roster spots in the NBA will play on contracts worth more than entire D-League team payrolls. Compared to their NBA counterparts, salaries for D-League players are paltry.
D-League players can make either $26,000 or $19,500 on the season, per Chris Reichert. The D-League salary cap is $209,000 per team, around 15% of an NBA veteran’s minimum contract. That number is actually an improvement from previous seasons, where the lowest paid players made $13,000, and the salary cap was $173,000.
As a comparison, a 10-day contract is worth more than a single season D-League salary, with costs ranging from $32,000 to $92,000, depending on the player’s prior NBA experience. D-League players are provided lodging, travel, per diem, and health insurance by the league, but still, D-League players make a shockingly low amount by any metric.
These salaries also fail to take into account the differences in standard of living, in comparison to NBA teams, and even comparing D-League teams. Teams fly coach, and can often be subject to typical airline issues playing in small markets.
With such low salaries, the geographic differences in D-League teams are more evident. A player on the Sioux Falls Skyforce would have much more financial freedom and less “life expenses” compared to a player on the Los Angeles D-Fenders
Additionally, professional basketball players are still subject to agent fees, even with such low earnings. The life of a D-League player is not glamorous or high paying, by any stretch. A person earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour earns $15,080 annually, working 40 hours per week, according to the Center for Poverty Research at the University of California, Davis.4 The poverty threshold is $20,420 for a household of three, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.5
It’s a difficult decision for players that choose to play in the D-League. Making less than $30,000 in a profession with such a short career trajectory may not be important. It may be all about chasing their dreams for even the tiniest of chances, for some.
The New CBA and the D-League
The biggest victory for the NBA D-League and its players in the new NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement is the creation of two-way contracts. Beginning in the 2017-2018 season, NBA rosters will expand to 17, with two players designated as two-way players. Players on two-way contracts will earn between $50,000 and $75,000. This gives some protection for NBA teams for their most coveted developmental players. Two-way contracts will allow up to 60 D-League players to double their salaries, and may give them a better chance at earning a 10-day contract mid-season.
The newest version of the NBA CBA did not address changes in D-League salaries for non-affiliated players. While two-way contracts will come into effect next year, a large majority of D-League players will still make less than $26,000 during the season. As of this writing, there have been no reports of any change in D-League salary structure post-CBA.
Style of Play
D-League games are high scoring affairs, to say the least. This season, only the Salt Lake City Stars average less than 100 points per game. 7 out of 22 clubs score over 110 points per game. In contrast, 4 out of 30 NBA teams score that many points per game, with far more offensively gifted players.
Only one D-League team averages less than 15 turnovers per game, while 22 teams have done that this season in the NBA. In terms of pace, 19 out of 22 D-League franchises play at a pace over 100, while only 9 out of 30 NBA clubs have averaged the same clip. With such a high pace, defenses often struggle to adjust in transition.
With the impetus to get noticed by NBA clubs, the D-League’s highest scorers are mostly ball-dominant backcourt players. While this could be said of the NBA as well, the D-League has truly become guard dominant. D-League games can often devolve into one-on-one matches, even with the most rigid of systems.
Defensively, D-League teams have struggled in finding strong play from big men this year. In the official D-League Prospect Watch, only 7 out of 25 players play Power Forward and Center.
Many D-League players are relatively inexperienced as pros. Depending on the team, there can be as many as 3 or 4 first or second year pros on a D-League squad. With the maximum roster size at 12, D-League rookies and sophomores likely account for over one quarter of the entire D-League. That may influence the style of play, and the fast-paced nature of the D-League.
Future of the D-League
Adam Silver has shown that he is a progressive commissioner. He’s ushered in sweeping changes across the league both on and off the court. But Silver has not yet ushered in change in the D-League.
More teams will be added in the future. Ideally, there would be 30 G-League franchises, each with full 12-man rosters. How quickly that goal is realized is yet to be seen. With the D-League, NBA franchises have a shot at discovering and developing unheralded talent outside of the NBA Draft and free agency.
As the worldwide basketball talent pool grows, the D-League will continue to grow in importance.