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A long overdue discussion of the Washington Wizards' use of their D-League team

Jon L's parent blog Ridiculous Upside did an interesting interview with agent Bill Neff, who has several clients currently playing in the NBA Developmental League.  If you're a fan of the NBA, I recommend the whole thing because it's an interesting look at an undercovered professional basketball institution.

However, it was this comment in particular that stuck out to me.  Earlier in the interview, Duffy suggested that one way teams could improve their affiliation with the D-League would be to promise players spots on their Summer League teams.  Duffy then took a bit of a shot at teams that don't really do that.

The global economy has affected everyone and will affect the D League. There will be fewer callups. I wish it were different. The NBA should be seeking cheap talent but by the way they used the summer leagues and just promote their own players for the most part, they will not be looking to the D League, as they should. They should be encouraging cheap talent. The hybrid teams should attempt to encourage players to come by offering summer league spots but they do not. It is really a waste of a good product to some extent.

No Summer League team in Las Vegas "promoted their own players" more than the Wizards.  Flip Saunders and company used the Summer League to allow those players to practice the skills needed for Flip's system.  Beyond Javaris Crittenton, Dominic McGuire, Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee and Nick Young, the other eight guys on the roster might as well have been high school guys.  They didn't matter at all and didn't really play much.  If I was an agent for Kyle Spain, Josh Heytfelt, Tywain McKee or Alade Aminu, I'd be pissed at the way the Wizards' used them in Summer League.

So it seems like high time to revisit the question that I think about a lot.  Why don't the Wizards use their D-League affiliate very much?  Should they be using it a lot? 

A couple points to review for the purposes of this discussion:

  • The Wizards' current D-League affiliate are the Dakota Wizards, whom they share with the Memphis Grizzlies.  Dakota has been the Wizards' affiliate since 2006.  Before Dakota, the Wizards were affiliated with the now-defunct Roanoke franchise.
  • There are two types of call-up situations.  A GATORADE call up is when a team purchases any D-League player and has them stay on their big league roster.  That player earns a small salary and can be sent down if needed.  A player assignment, on the other hand, is when an NBA team can send down any player in their first or second year to their D-League affiliate for extra seasoning.  Two rules here: no more than two players can be assigned to the D-League team at once, and a player can only be sent down three times during the season.
  • Because of the rule above, only JaVale McGee is eligible to be sent to the D-League.  Memphis, on the other hand, seemingly has half their roster eligible (Darrell Arthur, DeMarre Carroll, Marc Gasol, Hamed Haddadi, O.J. Mayo, Hasheem Thabeet).
  • Dakota has a new coach: Roy White, an LA Clippers assistant for the past six seasons
  • The Washington Wizards have only one roster spot available.  They have 14 players under contract with the acquisition of Fabricio Oberto, and the maximum roster space is 15.  Only 12 of those guys can be active every game.
  • Andray Blatche is the only current member of the Wizards to play in the D-League.  He played six games for Roanoke in 2005/06. 
  • Several teams have purchased their own D-League clubs (Oklahoma City, the Lakers, San Antonio, now Dallas starting in 2010).  The Houston Rockets recently bought the basketball operations of a D-League team, meaning they hire all the basketball people, but they do not own the team. 

Those are the facts.  Here are some snap reactions.

  • Dakota as an affiliate absolutely sucks for the Wizards.  It's far away, so it's not easy for Wizards management to have too much access with the club.  It's coached by a former Clippers assistant and shared with a team that has so many eligible young players.
  • The Wizards have still missed opportunities to use their D-League affiliate.  Nick Young, Dominic McGuire and Javaris Crittenton could still use seasoning, but they're no longer eligible.  Same for Oleksiy Pecherov before he got traded.
  • It seems the Wizards don't really care too much about their affiliate.  They don't seem to have any influence in Dakota's front office and haven't really signed too many Summer League players from Dakota.  Dakota's been an outstanding team over the years, winning the D-League title in 2007 and sporting guys like Rod Benson and Blake Ahern, but Washington hasn't really been anywhere close to signing or training those guys. 

The arguments for the Wizards' lack of use of their affiliate are threefold: a) they've been so injured over the past two years that they couldn't afford to send healthy practice bodies to Dakota, b) Dakota didn't run the Wizards' system, so it was more valuable for the Wizards youngsters to be learning the Wizards' system on the parent club instead of playing for the D-League club, and c) Dakota's just so damn far away. 

Of the three, reason two seems the easiest to debunk.  The Wizards' young guys weren't learning too much about the Princeton anyway, and considering how raw many were, they just needed game experience.  Plus, if the problem was the lack of a system in Dakota, the Wizards could have easily imprinted one of their basketball people there to foster a better connection between Dakota and the parent club. 

Reasons one and three are more legitimate.  There were times the last two years when only eight guys were healthy, and there were other times when the veterans were too injured to practice.  Warm bodies in practice are needed.  And that brings us to reason three. 

The single biggest problem with the Wizards' D-League relationship is that Dakota is so far away.  In the Ridiculous Upside interview, Neef mentioned how D-League players could practice with the big club if need be, but that's impossible when your affiliate is halfway across the country.  The Celtics, who use the D-League a lot, used the proximity argument as a basis to switch their affiliate from Utah to Maine.  The Wizards once had a decent proximity in Roanoke, but it would be even better if the proximity was closer to D.C.  With so much hoops being played in this area, I see no reason why a D-League team couldn't work around here.  The Wizards and the NBA should work on making it happen.

Of course, one alternative would be to buy a team, like San Antonio does.  But knowing the Wizards, I doubt that happens.  Perhaps they could do what Houston did and buy the basketball operations office for much cheaper.  But to do that, it would require having a team close by.  That, in my opinion, has to be step one in improving the Wizards' D-League affiliate strategy.

In the meantime, don't be afraid to send JaVale McGee down to Dakota.  His confidence will be fine and it'll provide good seasoning for him if he can't earn minutes on the real club.  In addition, sign an undrafted rookie for the 15th spot on the roster and shuffle him down to Dakota too.  Someone like Josh Heytfelt or Alade Aminu would be a good use of that spot, since they played on the Wizards' Summer League team.  Who knows, you might end up with a major steal down the road for nothing.