Solid Read: Dan Reed Dishes on 'Highly Effective' D-League
The D-League is more important now than ever, and the future is bright for the growing league, as NBA front offices become increasingly involved with the league as a means to develop talent. After concluding a successful season with a photo finish, we wanted to check in with Reed, the leader of the NBA's minor league development system. We traded e-mails with Reed and asked him to reflect on the season that was, and the evolving nature of the league and its relationship with the NBA.
FanHouse: You had the most call-ups in NBA D-League history, an unprecedented high level of play, competitive playoffs, the Finals were decided on a last-second shot, Sundiata Gaines hitting a game winner in the NBA, a trio of former NBA D-League players took on a pivotal role in Golden State's season -- with the rookie of the year getting called up twice, and the MVP getting called up twice -- a national television deal with VERSUS, and a content-sharing deal with FanHouse. Safe to say this is the best NBA D-League season in history?
Dan Reed: I would definitely agree that's a pretty good set of accomplishments for one season -- and don't forget setting an all-time attendance record with over 1 million attendees and having the #2 overall NBA draft pick play in the NBA D-League for the first time. :) To say it's the best season in our history is probably accurate if you're looking at those sorts of metrics. But I would emphasize that if you look back, you'll see that we've experienced steady and sustainable growth over each of the past few seasons, and that this season is just a continuation of that trend. It does seem that we've reached a bit of a "tipping point" this year, and fans are increasingly realizing what we've known for some time, which is that we've officially "arrived" as a highly effective minor league for the NBA, in every respect, which I credit to some of the very public happenings this year that you described above. That said, we are not even close to satisfied with our progress, as we're still only nine-years-old. We want to continue to grow and improve in every area you mentioned above, and some you haven't, and we still have plenty of room to do so.
FanHouse: Rio Grande Valley wins the Western Conference, the significantly tougher of the two conferences, and wins the championship, all with a record number of Gatorade Call-Ups and significant development of their assignment players. So I think it's pretty safe to say that the Hybrid Model was a rousing success. First, can you tell us a little bit about how that idea came to fruition? Next, you said at the All-Star break that the Hybrid Model was going to be the future of the league. Have any other teams discussed the Hybrid affiliation (with an NBA team) at a detailed level with the league and do you anticipate an announcement of such in the near future?
Reed: The idea came from listening to NBA teams and our NBA D-League team owners, and then simply looking around. At the time three NBA teams had purchased their own NBA D-League teams in just three years, so we knew NBA teams increasingly valued controlling the basketball operations of their affiliate for both development and scouting purposes. We've also learned that strong local ownership is key to the business success of our teams. So we thought, let's see if we can find a better way to enable NBA teams to secure those basketball benefits, while preserving the element of local team ownership. Then we looked around and studied the models of other affiliated minor leagues, and essentially ended up adopting similar principles for our league.
We thought it would be a classic win-win-win: the NBA team gets the basketball benefits without having to commit the money and organizational energy involved in buying a team, the local team ownership retains management of the business while saving money on the basketball operation, and fans enjoy an NBA team-managed basketball product and all the entertaining stuff that can come from the integration of an NBA and an NBA D-League team. That's exactly what we saw in Rio Grande Valley -- not only did they win a championship and generate a ton of call-ups and assigned players, but they led the league in attendance, the Rockets played a preseason game in RGV, Rockets fans got to know the Vipers and cheer for them, and Rockets like Yao Ming, Aaron Brooks, Luis Scola, and of course, Clutch the Bear all showed up in the Valley so the fans could get to know them a little better. As for the future, many NBA teams have reached out to the Rockets and the league to better understand how the model worked in its first year, so there's definitely interest and I'm optimistic we'll see more -- with the caveat that NBA teams, like most businesses, generally aren't looking to take on additional expenses these days so I won't make any confident predictions for next season.
FanHouse: The Western Conference is fairly filled out right now, with a strong presence in California, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, and, of course, Texas. The West currently has two more teams than the East, and the Legends we assume will be in the Western Conference. Should we expect a significant change to the conferences again next season to deal with the balance, as no expansion teams have been announced?
Reed: This is something we're evaluating right now, as we're currently in the middle of our scheduling process for the 2010-11 season. Ultimately we'll want to strike a balance between three factors -- competitive balance, efficient travel, and creating a fan-friendly schedule of opponents.
FanHouse: Early on in the league's existence, there was a strong presence in the Southeast, with teams in Arkansas, North Carolina, etc. Has that region proved unreliable for the league, or are there opportunities for expansion there in 2011 and 2012?
Reed: We're not actively pursuing expansion for 2011-12 at this point. We think we have a very strong league footprint and a great set of owners, and want to focus on continuing to improve the core basketball and business model and the momentum we've developed over the past couple of seasons. This of course could change in the near future, and when we decide to further expand we would certainly consider placing teams in the Southeast, although that would likely happen after we fill out in the Midwest and Northeast, for purely geographic and travel-related reasons.
FanHouse: From talking with team executives, what is the key to a Gatorade Call-Up, in your opinion? We've seen players like Rod Benson be unable to get over the hill, despite leading the league in rebounds. And we've seen other players who might not have quite the same potential get called up. Is it simply a difficult combination of talent plus timing plus opportunity?
Reed: This may sound like a cop out, but there really isn't a set formula that makes an NBA player. It's clear to me, however, that it's a function of at least two things -- a player's personal qualities and the opportunities that present themselves to that player. The first factor encompasses things like a player's talent, skill set, work ethic, experience, athleticism, confidence, upside, attitude, conditioning, intelligence -- which ultimately manifests itself in the player's on-court performance and their impact on their team's ability to win. The second factor is largely out of the player's control -- who is watching you play, did they happen to see you play well, what particular qualities is a team looking for. Of course all of these are determined by an NBA team's needs at any specific point in time, which can be influenced by injuries, personalities, relationships, and many other factors. So, it's complicated, but as a player you can't be too focused on the second factor, as you can only control what you can control.
That said, I think a big reason why players are increasingly choosing to play in the NBA D-League and we've been able to steadily grow our GATORADE Call-Ups is that we're focused on addressing both of these factors. Obviously our players are extraordinarily talented, and we focus heavily on helping players develop those personal qualities I mentioned via world-class coaching, skill development coaches, off-the-court training, and 50 games/season using NBA rules against many of the best players in the world. But we also spend a lot of time and resources maximizing the opportunities for our players to expose their games to NBA talent evaluators. The Showcase is the most obvious example, but virtually every game in our league is scouted by NBA teams, and we regularly send scouting reports to NBA teams and are literally on the phone with NBA teams to educate them on our players. Last season we created our Summer League team and our Elite Mini-Camp for this very purpose, and they were both very successful in providing many of our top players with an even greater level of exposure to NBA talent evaluators, which can ultimately lead to a training camp invite or a call-up or other great opportunities down the road.
FanHouse: There have been reports of a change to allow NBA teams to assign players who don't make the training-camp cut to their NBA D-League affiliate, but it's unclear when that change might take place. Do you anticipate any changes to the NBA D-League's assignment and scoring system soon, or is that off the table until after the 2011 CBA discussions?
Reed: Any rules related to the assignment of NBA players are indeed off the table until the next NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement, but we are considering an NBA D-League rule change that would expand the number of players an NBA D-League team can claim from their NBA parent team's training camp cuts, subject to some restrictions. Right now an NBA D-League team can only claim a player who was drafted by their NBA parent team and then waived in training camp during his first contract with the team, but we think there are a lot of positives that can come from a slightly broader rule. So stay tuned.
FanHouse: We've seen lower attendance at LA games and raucous, tremendous crowds in Tulsa and RGV. Do you think that speaks more to the small-market fans' enthusiasm, like we're seeing with Milwaukee and OKC in the NBA, or is it a product of the relationship between those teams and their NBA affiliates?
Reed: Well, we saw a 6.5% increase in average attendance this past season, so I think it speaks more to a general increase in fan interest in the NBA D-League. Our teams have done a great job creating family-friendly, affordable and highly entertaining experiences in our arenas, and fans are realizing they can get a great seat to watch world-class basketball for very reasonable prices. At the same time, I think the fact that 20% of all NBA players are now alumni of the NBA D-League is helping basketball fans everywhere understand how good the basketball is in the NBA D-League, which helps to expose more people to the league and generates word-of-mouth, social media, and more traditional media exposure. One thing has proven consistently true across the league -- when we get someone to a game or they watch on TV or NBA Futurecast, they generally enjoy it and will look to either come to another game or watch another one. LA is a little bit of a different animal, they are unique in that they don't sell separate tickets to their games, which are played in STAPLES Center before Lakers games. That said, they are looking at the business growth around the rest of the league and I suspect you'll see a different business model from them at some point in the near future.
FanHouse: Are there any plans in place for an expansion of the specialty coaches (shooting, big man, etc.) for next season?
Reed: We've had a great set of skill development coaches in this league, many of whom have been promoted to the NBA themselves -- including Terry Stotts, John Townsend, and Lee Rose. We've been very pleased with the work that decorated NBA coach Bob Hill (our coaches consultant) and Bruce Kreutzer (our shooting consultant) have done this past year, although there are no plans at this point to expand the program at this time, in part because our teams are hiring great coaches themselves, and of course we're seeing more and more NBA teams directly manage team basketball operations in the D-League.
FanHouse: The television deal with VERSUS has undoubtedly exposed the game to thousands of fans who wouldn't otherwise have watched an NBA D-League game. Can you talk about your impressions of how the deal is going and whether you anticipate more games being televised next season? And, given Versus' NHL commitments, might we see a more creative solution (e.g, streaming online or NBA TV) for broadcasting the Finals than replaying on tape delay?
Reed: VERSUS has been an outstanding partner this season. We're firm believers that showing games and highlights is the best possible promotion we can provide for our league, and VERSUS has given us the opportunity to expose our league to their 70 million households and produce our games in HD at a very high level. It would be premature for me to talk about next year's plans as we're still having those discussions with VERSUS, but its safe to say we'd obviously love to expand this relationship. At the same time we also will explore a number of other opportunities for local, national, and digital outlets to carry NBA D-League games and content, while continuing to improve NBA Futurecast, which will be shot in HD next season.
FanHouse: Mike Harris just finished with the all-time high for points-per-game, and did it as MVP with 10 rebounds and two assists, while winning the championship and getting two call-ups. Was this the best season by an NBA D-League player in history?
Reed: Mike had an absolutely incredible year, and earned every single one of his accolades from this past season. But I'm not sure I would go as far as proclaiming it the best season ever, primarily because I'm not sure how you define "best season." Does "best" mean setting yourself up for NBA success? Then you could easily talk about Kelenna Azubuike's time in the NBA D-League, or even Reggie Williams this past season. Does "best" in a league with "development" in its title mean the sheer amount of improvement a player exhibited? You could look at a lot of players who dramatically improved their skill levels in any given season. But that's not meant to take anything away from Mike's extraordinarily impressive year, he's clearly proven his ability as an NBA player, now it's just a matter of a team giving him an opportunity to earn his place in the NBA.
FanHouse: The current rules don't allow an NBA team to assign a player after its season has ended -- for instance, Cartier Martin finished the season with the Wizards and was therefore ineligible to rejoin Iowa for the NBA D-League playoffs. It seems a bit arbitrary and doesn't necessarily serve the development of a player. Is it possible this restriction might be lifted or some type of exceptions implemented in the future?
Dan Reed: A good question, and one of the fun things about this league -- we're constantly evolving and it's a major part of our job to push the envelope and develop creative solutions to things like this. An easy answer to your question is that an NBA team can make sure a player is eligible for the NBA D-League playoffs by simply assigning the player to the D-League before their season is over -- that's what the Rockets did with Mike Harris this year. However, the tough issue is if the NBA team isn't affiliated with the player's original NBA D-League team, as in your Cartier Martin example (if the Wizards assigned him to the D-League he would have gone to the Dakota Wizards, not the Iowa Energy). We haven't yet faced this issue but if we did, the player would go to their NBA team's affiliate (Dakota), as we wouldn't want to override our assignment and affiliation rules, which are collectively bargained with the NBA Players Association. One could argue it would be even more arbitrary to send Martin to a different D-League team than we would send any other Washington Wizard.