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Lack of D-League affiliate could limit Nuggets' options come draft day

Harrison Wind Avatar
June 7, 2016

 

With the recent reports that the Milwaukee Bucks are in discussions with an Oshkosh-based wealth management firm to potentially bring a D-League affiliate to Milwaukee, the Nuggets along with seven other NBA franchises find themselves behind the eight ball.

Currently, 14 teams fully own and operate their D-League affiliate. The Cavaliers, Jazz, Knicks, Lakers, Pacers, Raptors, 76ers, Spurs, Suns, Thunder and Warriors all had full control over their minor league teams last year, while the Nets, Hornets, and Bulls are adding affiliates for the 2016-17 season. Eight teams, the Celtics, Grizzlies, Heat, Kings, Magic, Mavericks, Pistons and Rockets have hybrid affiliations with their D-League teams, meaning the NBA parent club manages and funds the basketball operations, but local ownership maintains control of the sales, marketing, community relations and other components of the team.

If Oshkosh closes the Milwaukee affiliate, it would leave the Clippers, Pelicans, Hawks, Wizards, Timberwolves, Trail Blazers, and Nuggets as the only NBA franchises without a D-League team of their own.

Commissioner Adam Silver and league officials haven’t been shy in expressing how adamant they are about every NBA franchise eventually having their own D-League team and that day will most likely arrive soon. Until then, the Nuggets along with those other six teams are left at a disadvantage.

The advantages of a D-League affiliate

The lack of a D-League affiliate could hamper the Nuggets this upcoming season more than it has in year’s past.

Denver, of course, owns three first and two second-round picks in this month’s draft, and with the extremely young and cheap players the Nuggets potentially have on the books for next season, Denver could look to use their draft picks in a number of different ways.

If the Nuggets do keep all five of these picks, odds are that some will be used to select possible draft-and-stash players which Denver can keep overseas and without a league contract until they’re needed at the NBA level. That’s all well and good.

However as more and more teams gain the coveted one-to-one affiliation with their D-League team, they’re utilizing another avenue to keep their players stateside and close in proximity without them counting towards their active roster and salary cap. Domestic draft-and-stash players are becoming more and more popular and could be a strategy the Nuggets could use in the upcoming draft if they had an affiliate. NBA clubs essentially assure players they will be drafted as long as they agree to play for the team’s affiliate on a significantly smaller D-League salary.

Two years ago the Thunder stashed first-round pick Josh Huestis in the D-League with their affiliate, the Oklahoma City Blue and last year did the same with Dakari Johnson. The Grizzlies also stashed Andrew Harrison in the D-League this past year, as did the Magic with Tyler Harvey, the Mavericks with Satnam Singh, the Cavaliers with Sir’Dominic Pointer, the Spurs with Cady Lalanne and the Raptors with DeAndre Daniels.

It’s a strategy that’s quickly catching on and bound to gain more steam with an increasing amount of NBA franchises gaining direct affiliates. Teams love the ability to have their team controlled players under their watch at all times.

The Nuggets don’t have a D-League team under them and therefore don’t get to take advantage of the privileges that come with having an affiliate under their complete control. Denver does however still have the opportunity to use the domestic draft-and-stash strategy if they choose.

Instead of assigning their draft pick to their affiliate, because they don’t have one, the draft pick would be assigned to another minor league team through the D-League draft according to Upside and Motor’s Chris Reichert. The player would still be under Nuggets control and paid a smaller D-League salary, but Denver wouldn’t have a say in playing time, player development or the day-to-day schedule of their draft pick. Not the best situation for someone you’re spending a first or second-round selection on.

A similar process occurs if the Nuggets were to assign a player to the D-League in the middle of the season, using what’s referred to as the flex assignment rule.

Per Reichert:

Upon receipt of an assignment from an independent NBA team, the NBA D-League will identify any NBA D-League team willing to accept the assigned player.  The assigning independent NBA team will then choose the destination for assignment between those teams.  If no NBA D-League team is willing to accept the assigned player, he will be assigned to one of the hybrid affiliate teams pursuant to a lottery.

Besides the domestic draft-and-stash option, the D-League is also used to get players who normally wouldn’t be part of an NBA rotation quality minutes. Think of how much Gary Harris could have improved playing 25-35 minutes in the D-League last season when he wasn’t getting any run with Nuggets. The D-League might have also been the perfect spot for Jusuf Nurkic to get a couple games under his belt when he returned last year from a torn patellar tendon.

Thon Maker is one potential first-round pick who could start next season in the D-League. Credit: AP
Thon Maker is one potential first-round pick who could start next season in the D-League.
Credit: AP

Prospects for a Nuggets D-League affiliate

Single affiliation has been a game changer for NBA teams and soon enough all 30 franchises will have their own D-League affiliate. Until then, the Nuggets have to use the avenues outlined above to utilize the NBA’s minor league system. They can, of course always outright sign players from the D-League that are not under team control, as they did last season when they added Sean Kilpatrick and Axel Toupane from the D-League to their active roster.

In 2012, Ralston, Neb. city officials reportedly pitched the Nuggets on a D-League affiliate that would have been located outside of Omaha, but those talks fizzled. In 2015 the Omaha rumors resurfaced when Gary Green, the owner of a Kansas City Royals’ minor league affiliate said, “we have a deal with the D-League in place, we just gotta find a franchise now.”

Those discussions didn’t amount to much as Green announced in April that the Omaha Chargers, a debut team for the National Basketball League of America, would begin play in September at the proposed D-League site.

So where do the Nuggets turn now?

Omaha seemed like an odd spot for an affiliate in the first place since NBA teams, unlike their counterparts in the MLB, aren’t as concerned with market size and an established minor league fan base, with a focus instead on proximity to the NBA parent club.

A real estate firm backed by Nuggets’ owner Stan Kroenke recently purchased Elitch Gardens, the downtown amusement park that’s been located next to the plot of land where Pepsi Center is built since 1996, and although the group says the park will stay in its current location for the time being, it’s not inconceivable that it could eventually move.

An amusement park located in the downtown district of one of the fastest growing cities in the country seems odd and the potential for infrastructure, housing, and maybe even a practice or D-League facility located next to Pepsi Center might be too lucrative to pass up.

Another more realistic option if the Nuggets were looking to add a D-League affiliate would be in Loveland, Colo., where the Budweiser Events Center, a 7,200-seat multi-purpose arena is already built, operational and just an hour north of Denver. Loveland has a stable and growing economy, a population upwards of 75,000 people, and fits in with many of the current D-League affiliated cities.

With the D-League shifting towards one-to-one affiliations with NBA franchises, it would be wise for the Nuggets to be proactive and start building a minor league system that can benefit their NBA team. Commissioner Silver went on record last year that the league was interested in adding a third round to the NBA draft and raising D-League salaries, both factors that likely won’t happen until there’s universally one-to-one D-League and NBA affiliations throughout the league.

The Nuggets can get a head start on the inevitable by acting on a D-League affiliate now.

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