Thursday, February 14, 2008

Dr. BoomTho, Or: How I Learned To Stop Hating And Love The D-League

We're not going to lie to you. A lot of the players in the D-League suck.

Not compared to you or me. No, most of them would, in fact, kill you or me on the court. But compared to Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Hedo Turkoglu, even Jason Maxiell, Brandan Wright, Stromile Swift, and Chuck Hayes, they are terrible. They are fodder.

And all of them are chasing their dreams harder than 90% of the people you know.

It also doesn't mean the D-League is pointless. And it doesn't mean that it's not entertaining. After all, ask yourself this one word question. Jason Collins?!

We're stunned by the disdain many NBA fans have of the D-League. It's WNBA-proportions at times. Now, indifference, that makes sense. Apathy, assuredly. Ignorance, even, is commonplace and to be expected. But there's a legitimate "This is a dumb idea, they should scrap it" flow amongst the fans. Why? There are both theoretical and pragmatic reasons to approach the D-League with open arms.

Most baseball fans don't know anything about their team's farm system. They couldn't tell you a damn thing about who Jed Lowrie is, Jordan Zimmerman is, Clayton Kershaw is. But the rabids can. And it's a good thing. Not only do minor-league teams provide amazing gimmick-nights, but they also bring a little professional quality athletics to areas that don't normally get to enjoy those kinds of events. So there's that. It's entertainment that's affordable. And it allows fans to have yet another area for them to get excited about and "geek" out over.

So why can't this success be replicated for basketball? Why is it such a stretch to think that the NBA can drum up enough quality players to put together decent games? And why are we so insulted by the idea of inferior quality of play? Basketball's basketball. And there are some legitimate talents in the league.

The most important reason to support the D-League is what it can provide for the league.
I. The D-League Might Help Rookies Not Hate Life And Thereby Make Us Not Hate Them

It's no secret that this league chews up and spits out rookies like they were human bones to Ron Artest. There's a league-wide sentiment that rookies are only to be played in garbage time or rebuilding years. You get the occasional freak-of-nature exception, Chris Paul, for example, but for the most part, rookies are relegated to carrying bags and defending Jason Collins. Yet, whenever coaches speak of rookies and what they need, the first word is always "playing time." They want to get them on the floor, but they can't, because rookie mistakes KILL coaches' blood pressure.

Here's where the D-League steps in.

It gets them playing time, let's them work in an NBA environment versus practice team talent, with the occasional NBA-level player thrown in. It helps them adjust to the travel, the injuries, the pace, and the speed. You want them to bulk up, to add strength before they go out against the big boys? Let them build it up in the D-League. Worried about their propensity for turnovers, but don't have the time to devote energy to breaking them of the habit? Ship them to the D-League and use it as motivation. "Every time you turn the ball over more than 3 times in a game, you're going back to the D-League." Plus, wins and losses aren't as important in the D-League as development, so they can devote that kind of energy.

Take DJ Strawberry of the Phoenix Suns. He was drafted with a ton of potential, but into a veteran-heavy squad in Phoenix. Yet when Grant Hill was injured and Marcus Banks was traded, D'Antoni needed someone to spell Nash. DJ has been great off the bench for the Suns, while not setting the league on fire or filling the stat sheet, he provides a capable point and lets Barbosa excel where he's best, in a scoring 2-guard spot.

How about Morris Almond for the Utah Flash? He's been bouncing back and forth between A and D-League all season. Earlier this year, he popped 53 points. I don't care how bad you think the competition is, that's a fiddy plus. You really would rather have Kyrlo Fessenko?

You want your fans to get excited about the potential of a rookie? Let him torch the D-League for 53 one night like Morris Almond. It helps show the fans why you still have them on the roster, and gives you another body in case of injury. There's something fans find incredibly satisfying about knowing the young kids no one's heard of/everyone's completely forgotten about. Letting them showcase their skills and adjust to the game slowly will get fans excited about him when you do call them up. This goes for not only drafted rookies, but those "raw, athletic talents" we always hear about.
II. Let's Make A Meal From These Raw Ingredients.

Allow me to tell you a tale of Kelenna Azubuike.

From his Wikipedia entry:

He entered the 2005 NBA Draft after his junior year. He was not drafted, but he played some preseason games for the Cleveland Cavaliers; he was waived at the end of the preseason and acquired by the Fort Worth Flyers. He excelled in his first season in the D-League. He was an All D-League player while leading his team to the championship, which they lost to the Albuquerque Thunderbirds.

On August 4, 2006, the Houston Rockets signed Azubuike to their training camp roster, but waived him on October 24 after only two preseason games.[2] He returned to the Fort Worth Flyers, where he averaged 26 points and 5 rebounds, while leading the D-League in scoring and ranking third in three-point field goal percentage.[3]

On January 2, 2007, the Golden State Warriors signed Azubuike to shore up their injury-plagued backcourt. Details on the contract are not yet known. Warriors head coach Don Nelson joked that he did not know that he was signing Azubuike, claiming that he was called by Warriors general manager Chris Mullin, who asked if he liked sambuca and when he replied "yes", Mullin signed Azubuike.[4] On January 17, while the Warriors' roster was depleted by an eight-player trade in progress, Azubuike played 48 minutes versus the L.A. Clippers, scored 28 points, and collected 7 rebounds. As of April 9, 2007, Azubuike averages 7.5 points and 2.5 rebounds per game while logging 17.7 minutes per game.

On July 7, 2007, the Golden State Warriors re-signed Azubuike.[5] So far during the 2007-08 season, Azubuike is averaging 12.3 points, and 4.9 rebounds while logging 28.8 minutes per game.

From the admittedly psychotic Golden State Of Mind...

You can't help but root for a guy that worked his way from the NBDL to the pro's. Kaz is a solid option off the bench for the Nellie. He can shoot the three-ball and rebound at a very nice rate. His highlight blocks make you jump out of your seat, but his D just isn't there yet. You have to wonder if he has the speed, handles, court vision, and defensive ability to be much more than a steady option off the bench given his age (24). How much better will he get? The second half of this season should tell us a lot.

Raw, athletic, undrafted talent turns into valuable role player and fan favorite. They don't all turn out this way, but the D-League is still young in it's development. Having a set of assets that you can pull from can be the difference between the playoffs and not. Teams are always looking for a role player spark, and those players are usually young, athletic talents that can give you high energy short bursts.

Want another example? How about HP favorite, Jub-Jub, Jose Juan Barrea? He went from a no-namer in the D-League to a starter for the Mavs. How about Jordan Farmar? How about Ronald Stuckey?

The point is that when your team has a great talent that needs to be refined, the D-League offers a great opportunity for them to shape up a bit. So many great players go undrafted for whatever reason and then develop later. This gives teams a chance to keep a hold of them and watch them develop. Of course, young guys aren't the only ones that can benefit from the D-League.
III. Why Rush Back From Injury? Annihilate The D-League And Feel Better! Good For What Ails You!

One thing the league hasn't started yet, but we think is a huge opportunity for them, is to use the D-League to rehab from injury. How many times have you seen a guy come back to full time duty off of a serious injury and get rundown or re-injured? Instead, why not have that player slowly reinsert themselves back into the rotation for the D-League affiliate? They can determine their own minutes, there's no drive to overexert, the competition isn't as fierce, and the managing NBA club can dictate minutes.

For example, Elton Brand is coming off significant injury. He needs to get back into playing shape, back into endurance, back to full speed. Why not let him destroy people in Anaheim? He could skip the road trips, only play at home, and Dunleavy could dictate his minutes. If Mike Sr. says "Ten minutes, no more," then he plays 10 minutes, no more. But wouldn't people be more likely to come out if they could see Elton Brand for $10? And it lets Brand work back into game shape and get used to contact outside of just practice, at his own pace.

Yes, you run the risk of re-injury, but it's less likely in a D-League setting than full speed in the A-League, isn't it? Plus there's no pressure, and if he suffers in an A-League game, it's going to hurt a team's chances for a win. That's not so much a concern in the D-League.

It would take some time to get a major player to agree to this, but if Roger Clemens (HGH-using liar that he is) can pitch for the Round Rock Express, can't Shaun Livingston spend a few days in Anaheim?

It provides a brilliant reinsertion strategy for NBA players, and gives the valuable players in the D-League a chance to get experience against and with a star talent.

Of course, these are all technical reasons, a reason for the league to value the D-League, for fans to appreciate what it can do for their clubs. It doesn't give you any reason to pay attention to what goes on.

But don't worry, we've got those, too.
A. It's Freaking Ridiculous. And Ridiculous = Awesome.

Sometime, go browse the D-League blogs. It's fascinating. Everything from the travel stories that put anything Peter King puts up to shame, to saying teammates look like Ron Harper, to JC Mathis taking the refs to task, to my favorite post by a D-Leaguer not named Rod Benson (we'll get to him in a minute) featuring the line "It's the D-League... I'm supposed to wreck it."

These guys are killing themselves for a shot to play in the A-League (I don't know what else to call it in reference to the D-League, so we're going with that). They endure ridiculous travel times, live on a fraction of what A-Leaguers get in per diems (though it's still way more than what a lot of people make, of course), and are killing themselves, constantly second-guessing themselves to try and get to the next level.

The openness to the blogosphere is another reason to embrace the D-League. These guys are honest, because they've got no reason not to be. No reason to overly protect themselves. And we all know that's what we're looking for here on the web. Honesty in athletes is something we rarely find, but always applaud.

And then, of course, there's Nightmare Ant. I'd like to take a moment and thank Skeets for bringing Nightmare Ant into my life. We have a beautiful relationship, built on my never ending fear of him. Thank you, Skeets.

The point is, most of you out there love the ridiculous. It's the fuel for the internet, and helps to break the never ending monotony of our meaningless existences. The D-League? It's about as ridiculous as it gets.
B. Boom Got Them, Tho

This is Rod Benson. Rod is a basketball player for the Dakota Wizards. He went to UC Berkley, and had his last two years marred by injury. He bounced around from D-League team to D-League team. He currently leads the D-League in rebounds. Aside from everything else we're about to recap, we're fairly stunned the guy hasn't been picked up yet by a team. Can you really have too many 6'10'' rebound-first guys in a league with Jason Collins? But of course, as many of you know, Rod's not known best for his on the court play. He's known for the Boom Tho Movement.


Yes indeed.

How about this special Valentine's day Rod just sent out?

I'll say it. He's more entertaining than Zero. Yeah.

The best thing about Benson is that he's got a genuinely good attitude. He's ridiculous, plays hard, and is loved. See: Golden State of Mind. See: his website. See: his blog on Ball Don't Lie.

Benson's the type of guy you can't help but root for.

Note: If you want proof of how unbelievably not cool we are? We have no idea what Boom Tho means.

Look, we're not saying the D-League is in the same stratosphere as the league. But it's basketball. And it's professional basketball. These guys are killing themselves every night, trying to make a name for themselves. They've got ridiculous team names, a welcoming approach to the series of tubes, a Nightmare Ant, and some genuinely skilled players. The league has the potential to be a valuable tool for teams to do what it's name implies, develop players.

We've decided to care about the D-League. And so should you.

For more information:

D-League's Snazzy Site.
Terrific LA Times Article
How The D-League Works:: Go take a look at some of the names on this list.
The President Of The D-League's Blog: How awesome is that?
Details on the D-League All-Star Events: We'll have more on this later, but here's a good rundown.

God Bless America. Or something.

Long live the D-League.

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