There’s a strange market area bubbling in the NBA, one that has little-to-no fanbase and drastically less coverage, yet continues to expand by the year. The NBA Developmental League (usually referred to as the D-League or NBADL, and soon to be renamed the Gatorade League) is nothing new for NBA fans, and the name has been tossed around more frequently as teams like the Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks have added or announced a future D-League affiliate. For people unfamiliar with the D-League, the concept is relatively simple: it functions like a MLB Minor League, and provides an opportunity for fringe NBA players to work their way onto an NBA team and for teams to develop their not-yet-ready prospects for the big stage. The similarities extend to the call-up system; players are called up and sent down when necessary, though the MLB system is more frequently used and allows for more freedom of movement.
Part of what’s sparked the growth of the D-League is the success of their alumni — Sean Kilpatrick (formerly of the Delaware 87ers) scored 38 points earlier in the year to beat the Clippers in double overtime, Jonathan Simmons is carving out minutes in a competitive Spurs rotation, and Robert Covington is a significant part of the Philadelphia scheme. The Heat have filled out their roster with competitive athletes like Willie Reed, Okaro White, and Rodney McGruder. The D-League seems to have risen to the level of playing overseas in terms of appeal, with some added benefits: coaches can more readily scout players and players don’t have to commit to leaving their American life behind.
So the appeal of the league is obvious, but how does something like this stay sustained? The D-League is, at least in theory, a net loss of income in every respect — renting out facilities, paying players and staff, and transportation prices certainly cannot be covered by the cost of tickets that range from $17 to $110, in the case of the freshly-minted Windy City Bulls. In addition, these developmental teams spend so much time trying to piggyback off of the success of their parent franchise that it often comes off as a cheap knock-off team rather than a fresh and different product.
In reality, the D-League is its own special brand of basketball entertainment. In the Windy City game I attended against the Raptors 905 (as I’m sure you’ve noticed, these names don’t tend to deviate much from their NBA parents), the Sears Center was far from packed to the gills, but fans were active and loud. Of course, part of that was because I showed up on Dog Night, which is exactly as it sounds: fans brought their dogs of all shapes and sizes to the game. Imagine trying to orchestrate something like that in the Oracle Arena. It’d be a nightmare. But somehow, this laconic atmosphere was the perfect fit for such an event. There was no United Center earth-shattering cheer when Paul Zipser hit a shot to tie the game with less than 30 seconds left, but the stands were pleasantly loud throughout the game. The organization did its part to keep the fans involved too; I counted at least five t-shirt tosses and a whole lot of “GET LOUD” and similar Jumbotron schemes to keep the volume and excitement up.
The Windy City Bulls, to their credit, are aware of their special niche. They know that the fans who come to these games aren’t as invested in the success of the team; in fact, there was a significant section of the crowd rooting for Wichita State alum Fred VanVleet, who was playing for the other team. The game kicked off with a series of jokes about Canada, most of which were clips from How I Met Your Mother, all broadcast on the big screen.In addition, they would occasionally play a doorbell sound during pauses in the action, which inevitably set off nearly every dog in the building. The tongue-in-cheek nature of the stadium is interesting and refreshing, and it does a lot to make up for the smaller venue and lower-stakes game.
I’d be remiss to go an entire article without mentioning the game itself, which surprised me in that it was actually really entertaining. The aforementioned low-stakes nature of the D-League means that watching sports finally felt casual and fun instead of tense or on edge, which is normally how I feel during Bulls games. That isn’t to say that the game was dull or uninteresting — back-to-back buzzer beaters to close out a close contest kept the audience and myself pretty involved in the action. There were groans and cheers in equal measure, but ultimately stunned silence as Fred VanVleet’s pull-up jumper sent the Bulls home with the L. And it wasn’t as though there was a huge dropoff in the quality of play either; sure, there were less exciting dunks and a few more fumbled passes, but the offense was exciting and the defense was mostly confined to blocks and steals. I was also surprised by something that I noticed throughout the game: Paul Zipser, the one actual NBA player suited up for the Windy City Bulls, didn’t dominate like I expected. In fact, Zipser was largely silent for the whole night, except for the aforementioned late shot that put the Bulls ahead. For the most part, the Bulls leaned on their regular roster to produce points — players like Thomas Walkup, Alec Brown, and JJ Avila. While much of this likely has to do with the latter players having better chemistry from being consistently in the rotation, it was still strange to observe. Putting that aside, there’s fun to be had for fans of basketball. Many people go to Bulls games for the cachet, as is common with large market teams, but there was a prevailing sense that the fans who were at the Sears Center came for the on-court product, and I can say that they probably didn’t leave too disappointed.
How the D-League evolves in the following months and years will be interesting, as the organization underwent significant changes for the upcoming year. The new NBA collective bargaining agreement dealt with some new rules for the interactions between the D-League and the NBA, the biggest being “two-way contracts.” Two-way contracts allow for NBA teams to sign a player to both the regular team and a D-League affiliate without using a regular roster spot. The impact of these contracts is simple: teams can afford to retain “project” players besides those overseas. Prior iterations of the CBA would have forced teams with full rosters to “draft and stash” overseas players that could remain overseas until a roster spot is available, but now players can be kept nearby and play in D-League games to stay sharp. These two-way contracts have some limitations; namely, that teams can only have two players under this provision and those involved can’t participate in more than 45 days of NBA activity (activity including training or travelling with the team, in addition to appearing active on the team’s roster pre-game). While these contracts are significantly lower in pay than a traditional signing (even a rookie-scale deal), there is a team option for conversion to a multi-year traditional deal that would adhere to regular financial rules.
For teams, this new two-way schematic allows them to draft players that skew more towards project than product without hurting their roster construction. For players, it means that the leap from D-League to the big stage is no longer as difficult. Combined with the recent impressive performances from D-League alumni and the unique environment that the lower-level games provides, there is real potential for this sub-genre of professional basketball.
The other “future” factor was something I mentioned in passing earlier. While this league is currently NBA-run, the Association and Gatorade announced via press release that the sports drink powerhouse would be partnering with the league in the 2017-18 season to provide outside assistance (in both supplies and funds form) that would benefit both the players and the business sides. Gatorade will contribute in technology and nutrition testing that will be introduced to the so-called “G-League” far before it steps onto a real NBA court. This turns the minor league into something similar to Summer League; it acts as a testing ground for multiple proposed ideas that may crop up as the season progresses, like shorter quarters, new ways of officiating games, or maybe even (heaven help us!) a four-point line. This puts more import on what happens in the G-League, as implemented practices may eventually make their way up to the big stage.
What all of this means for the future of the Developmental League is yet to be seen, but it is looking more and more interesting with each new turn.