Over the course of the last few years, the NBA and the NBA Development League have grown closer and closer together as the D-League has shifted towards more of a true minor league model.
In the past, a handful of NBA teams shared affiliation with a single D-League club. For example, the Suns - along with a couple other NBA teams - have been affiliated with the Albuquerque Thunderbirds (now the Canton Charge), Iowa Energy, Bakersfield Jam over the last few years.
However, more and more teams have begun buying into the D-League - literally - as several teams have entered into one-to-one affiliations, whether it be through a total takeover of ownership or through hybrid affiliations.
According to Paul Coro of the Arizona Republic, the Suns will be following suit.
The Suns are building a farm.
Much like how Reno serves as the Diamondbacks' Triple-A minor-league affiliate, the Suns will start a hybrid affiliation with the D-League's Bakersfield franchise this year.
In an agreement that is expected to be finalized next week, the Suns will finance and run the basketball operations of the D-League franchise while Bakersfield's ownership will continue handling business operations, community relations and other non-basketball functions.
The Suns will become either the 15th or the 16th team (depending on when the Orlando Magic and Erie Bayhawks finalize their deal) to enter into a single affiliation with a D-League team. The Suns and Magic will join the Memphis Grizzlies (Iowa Energy), Boston Celtics (Maine Red Claws), Detroit Pistons (Grand Rapids NBA D-League Team), Houston Rockets (Rio Grande Valley Vipers), Miami Heat (Sioux Falls Skyforce) and Sacramento Kings (Reno Bighorns) in hybrid affiliation. Eight other teams - the Cleveland Cavaliers (Canton Charge), Golden State Warriors (Santa Cruz Warriors), Los Angeles Lakers (L.A. D-Fenders), New York Knicks (Westchester NBA D-League Team), Oklahoma City Thunder (Tulsa 66ers), Philadelphia 76ers (Delaware 87ers), San Antonio Spurs (Austin Toros) and Dallas Mavericks (Texas Legends) - will own and operate their own affiliates.
That leaves only the Los Angeles Clippers, Utah Jazz, Toronto Raptors, Atlanta Hawks, Portland Blazers, Brooklyn Nets, Charlotte Bobcats, Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves, Chicago Bulls, Denver Nuggets, Washington Wizards and New Orleans Pelicans without single affiliations. The
Maine Red Claws Fort Wayne Mad Ants (the reigning D-League champions) and Idaho Stampede are the only remaining unaffiliated D-League teams.
In the past, the Suns have used the D-League sparingly, sending down under-played rookies for a couple stints to get some game action. However, with a single affiliation, they can - and should - do so much more. Control of a D-League team gives the Suns the ability to put their people into place at the GM and coach positions and make sure the team is run how they see fit. It can serve as a testing ground for ideas and concepts Jeff Hornacek and Ryan McDonough cook up. It allows the team to better develop young players they see potential in.
The poster child for this kind of partnership is the Houston Rockets' affiliate the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. The Rockets have turned the Vipers into a super version of themselves as they've installed a system that encourages a ton of 3-pointers as well as shots around the rim, and almost entirely removes mid-range shots. Check out their shot chart from a February article on Grantland:
There are plenty of players who have come from the D-League to make an impact at the NBA level, and control over a team can only help the Suns to find and develop more of those late bloomers and hidden gems. The most recent example of this again comes from the Houston Rockets and Rio Grande Valley Vipers, as Troy Daniels spent most of the season in the D-League before joining the Rockets for the playoffs and making some big time shots in the first round.
The D-League can be a valuable tool for developing their own draft picks as well. With two raw rookies heading into their second year as well as up to four picks in the 2014 Draft, this could be a valuable partnership for the Suns.
The league is shifting towards a 30-team, single-affiliation minor league, and once that happens it will create more opportunities for both the NBA teams and the young players trying to make it in the league. Could we eventually see an expanded draft and other rule changes to go along with it? Only time will tell.
This is a smart move by Phoenix, and there really is no downside. It shows the organization is willing to take advantage of any of the assets at their disposal to create a winning team.