The truth is that a successful D-League season molds all these factors in a juggling act that's nearly impossible to pull off given the relative infancy of the league as a minor league system.
Considering that complicated formula, Rio Grande Valley is making a strong case for the best individual year by a D-League franchise in league history.
The Vipers sit at 31-13, with the best record in the Western Conference. They swept the best team in the league, Iowa (35-11), and are essentially the Lakers of the NBA D-League, and as such, are widely considered the best team in the league. The Vipers lead the league in offensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions) at 110.6. For comparison, the Magic and Blazers are at that level in the NBA.
The Vipers' success is even more impressive given the fact the team has had a record-breaking nine call-ups in this season. Mike Harris, the prohibitive NBA D-League MVP, has had two call-ups, and Garrett Temple has had four. But the Vipers haven't just sent players up, they've also lost players that were put on assignment. Joey Dorsey, who was put on assignment by Houston, was called up and then used in the trade package to Sacramento. Jermaine Taylor has split time between RGV and Houston.
Call-up players are an advantage for D-League teams in terms of talent, but they're not supposed to stay. Rio Grande Valley has a history of developing its assigned talent, especially for Houston. The team has assigned six players throughout their history with the Vipers, including starter Aaron Brooks. Other players who have spent time there include Shannon Brown and C.J. Watson.
Typically when a player returns to the team from which he was assigned, there's a substantial drop-off, just like seeing a team suffer post-trade or injury. So the fact that the Vipers continue to roll after Dorsey and Temple have both gone up (and down) says something of the overall talent acquired, and how first-year head coach Chris Finch has managed it.
Now, here's where it gets really batty. Sure, they're bringing and calling up players. A lot of that has to do with their relationship with the Rockets (we'll get to that in a sec). And that's going to carry over to the wins column. But the team is located in Hidalgo, Texas. Nowheresville, in a state everyone knows is made for football first, God second, and fried twinkies third. So you would think their attendance must be brutally low for a D-League affiliate, right? But they're currently tops in the league. The business side is working alongside the basketball model.
Rio Grande Valley has been a good D-League team for all the above factors in the past. So what has taken a team from good to great? The answer lies in the system they've implemented which makes them unique.
Before this season began, the D-League unveiled a new option for NBA teams who don't own a team (Oklahoma City, the Lakers, and San Antonio own their affiliates) to use when dealing with the D-League. In the usual affiliate concept, an NBA team shares an independent D-League team with another franchise. The new hybrid system allows a team to manage, staff and control the basketball operations of the team, while the local office maintains control of the business operations. The Rockets were the only team to try this new system out, and to say it has been a success would be a drastic understatement.
The Rockets installed Chris Finch as their head coach and have migrated basketball operations roles for the Vipers to their current front office personnel as dual roles. Instead of setting up a lower-level office in McAllen (where the Vipers offices are), they've integrated management of the D-League team into the NBA operations.
Gersson Rosas is Vice President of Player Personnel for the Rockets as well as General Manager of the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. In an e-mail to FanHouse, he outlined the structure of the RGV hybrid system:
"Unlike other team models, we decided to take a different approach to the management of our D-League team. I am not the only one serving in dual roles. We have positioned the RGV Vipers as another platform for our entire personnel department to work on.Rosas also pointed out that a key to the year's successful program has been the close relationship with the Vipers coaching staff.
So as a result, you will notice that Gerald Madkins (Rockets Director of Scouting/Vipers Director of Player Personnel), BJ Johnson (Rockets Head Scout/Vipers Director of Player Development) and Phillip Jabour (Rockets Personnel Scout/Vipers Director of Scouting) are among many from the Rockets that are heavily involved in the basketball operations of the Vipers and also have dual responsibilities."
You will notice a lot of short assignments for players to affiliates without ownership or a hybrid relationship with the NBA team. When talking to NBA team officials, there's a concern over the lack of control they have over the systems, principles and conditions. Instead, players that need real gametime experience and concentrated development rot on benches and hope for some practice or (gasp) a few precious minutes of garbage time. These are often the same teams that spend zero time communicating with their affiliates, or don't attempt to find whether the coaching staff is a good fit for how they want to develop their players.
With the Rockets, it's all part of the same system. The hybrid system is the future of the D-League. It's a low-cost investment that creates as close to a true minor league system as you can get, and without the added expenses of marketing, game operations, sales, and other staffing. Rosas says he's received contact from "at least half the teams in the NBA" regarding their experience with the model. Rosas says it is "definitely the future for NBA teams wanting to be involved at the minor level."
It should be noted that the Rockets are just the first to officially take the plunge with the D-League system. The Utah Flash have been using something similar for years, with former Jazz personnel (who often return to the Jazz following the season) running the operations, with the check coming from Brandt Anderson.
His team is headed to the playoffs for the first time in its history, and is the best in its conference. Its players have developed to the NBA level and their call-ups come in with a prior knowledge of Rick Adelman's system. All in all, it seems like a safe bet that the future lies with the hybrid model.
If success in the NBA D-League is measured not by a single denominator, but by the total evaluation of on-court success, player development, ticket sales, and product expansion, Rio Grande Valley is having the most successful season in D-League history.
Special thanks to Scott Schroeder and Jon Lewallen for help with this story.