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Winderman: NBA should make D-League into true minor league

Oct 19, 2011, 12:04 PM EDT

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Somehow, you get the sense the ancillary issues in the NBA’s collective-bargaining agreement aren’t exactly receiving prime focus during these marathon mediation sessions.

At this stage, you basically take the league’s substance-abuse program from the expired CBA, update with a few new pharmaceuticals, and reinsert those pages in a new agreement.

To a degree, that is unfortunate, because these opportunities don’t come around very often.

But because certain issues are tied directly to what is negotiated in the CBA, we could be at a now-or-never stage with some facets of the agreement.

Namely, does the NBA truly want to operate a minor league, or merely continue with the shell of such a structure that is the D-League?

Amid the CBA talks, I had the opportunity to speak to a respected agent about the D-League and he said he wished he could have a spot at the CBA table to forward a few thoughts.

Currently, the D-League resembles little of what Major League Baseball or the NHL feature with their minor leagues.

Instead, the just-concluded CBA includes these mandates in its “NBA Development League” section:

“(1) During an NBA player’s first two seasons in the league (regardless of his age when he entered the league), his team will be permitted to assign him to a team in the NBA Development League. (2) A player can be assigned to the NBA Development League up to three times per season. (3) The player will continue to be paid his NBA salary and will continue to be included on his NBA team’s roster (on the inactive list) while playing in the NBA Development League.”

In other words, no established NBA names, no players with more than two seasons of tenure. No ability to freely move a player back up to the parent team when potentially needed because of the three-stint rule. No flexibility with the NBA roster regarding roster space over D-League assignments.

The agent, who represents a variety of NBA players, including some practically-over-the-hill types, said such a policy robs an NBA team from issuing a de facto minor-league tryout during the season for such a veteran and also has teams shying from adding such veterans because there is no clause for a “rehab assignment” in the D-League.

But the argument goes beyond that. If an age requirement remains a CBA issue, an expansion of the D-League’s uses could allow teams to develop such “underage” players in the D-League, sort of like hockey’s “juniors” system, where players are groomed without the façade of the need for college participation.

Then there is the looming consideration of contraction, which even union chief Billy Hunter has mentioned if the lockout shutters the league for a season. Instead of losing jobs with the shutdown of a team, NBA rosters could be expanded, with more players therefore available to be placed in the D-League, perhaps something along the lines of the NFL’s practice squad, where those additional players first would have to clear league waivers. To pacify agents, those players would still receive full NBA benefits, such as NBA per diem.

So if you lose two teams (30 jobs), but add two additional players to each remaining team (56 jobs), you come out ahead of the game. And considering those players would be on minimum-salary deals, it’s not as if you’re adding significant dollars into the salary pool.

Do that, with players you’ve actually heard of being sent down from the parent team, and you could actually place NBA minor-league teams in real markets, ones closer to NBA affiliates. (Did you know Chicago has three minor-league hockey teams? Chicago Wolves of the AHL, Chicago Express of the ECHL and Chicago Steel of the USHL.)

The problem is the NBA hardly has the time right now for minor issues.

Which, to a degree, is a major shame.

Ira Winderman writes regularly for NBCSports.com and covers the Heat and the NBA for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. You can follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/IraHeatBeat.

  1. rajbais - Oct 19, 2011 at 2:32 PM

    Agreed!!!

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