Editor's Note: This is the first installment of a five-part series examining the possibility and impact of a full NBA minor league system similar to the model used in Major League Baseball. Today we explore what the "architecture" of such a system would be.
Player development was just not a term you used to hear much in reference to the NBA. The league had a feeder circuit all right, but it was called the NCAA, and it produced a steady supply of three- and four-year college players with relatively polished skill sets and mature bodies. Sure, you'd run across the occasional big man "project" once in a while, or a player would bubble up from the Continental Basketball Association.
Things changed when Kevin Garnett was at the vanguard of the groups we now refer to as preps-to-pros and one-and-done players. These raw, athletic marvels wowed NBA talent evaluators with irresistible upside, but also lugged with them immense risk. For every Garnett there has been a Jonathan Bender. For every Kobe Bryant, there's a Korleone Young.
And after Isiah Thomas swung his personal wrecking ball at the CBA in 2001, it became apparent that there was something missing, a kind of finishing school for players with unbridled ability, or a proving ground for guys scouts missed. The NBA continued to badly swing and miss on young players.
Part of the problem was the difficulty in projecting the growth of 18- and 19-year-olds. But it's also how to develop the skills of a player who has the talent, but not the polish, to earn NBA game time. Only the elite talents such as LeBron James or Kevin Durant are able to sharpen their teeth in big-minute roles in the NBA. Everyone else learns by watching, or they don't learn at all -- until the NBA Developmental League was established.
Push for development
There was an undeniable economic impetus behind the growing importance of the minor league, which of course caught the attention of David Stern. To cite just one example, Bender produced 3.8 win shares, according to Basketball-Reference.com, and for that he was paid nearly $31 million over eight NBA seasons. His first two seasons in the league were in the years immediately prior to the formation of the NBDL, and he played a total of 704 minutes for the Pacers. What if he had played 3,000 minutes for the Roanoke Dazzle? Could the Pacers have recouped some of their considerable investment?