How The Best NBA Teams Use the G League to Hack the System

Minor league basketball is shaping the NBA before our eyes, and the best franchises are taking advantage.

Everything you think you know about minor league basketball is wrong.

Believe it or not, the impact of the G League goes beyond Jeremy Lin and Hassan Whiteside wearing Reno Bighorns jerseys together in 2010. Those are fun stories and timeless throwback photos for the marketing team, but the G League is so much more than that.

In fact, teams like the Rio Grande Valley Vipers and Santa Cruz Warriors have been shaping the future of the NBA for nearly a decade. There’s a clear correlation between G League and NBA team success, and that connection will only grow stronger as the affiliate model evolves and the NBA’s best franchises continue to get smarter.

It would be misleading to say that stars are born in the G League. Stars come from the draft. But the NBA has seen a recent surge of bench contributors and key role players making a difference after coming up from the G League.

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Robert Covington starred in the G League before becoming a playoff starter for the 76ers. Sharpshooter Troy Daniels toiled in the G League for years before hitting a game-winning three in the playoffs.

Hassan Whiteside… Jonathan Simmons… Tyler Johnson… The names continue, players that have been uncovered, developed, and allowed to shine by the savviest organizations in basketball.

A brief history of the minor league revolution

The NBA D-League dates back to 2001 when it was known as the National Basketball Development League. Over the next decade, the league expanded and retracted as outposts like Roanoke, Fayetteville, Fort Myers, and North Little Rock had and then lost teams.

The NBA wanted to scale the D-League and move away from multi-team partnerships between the parent club and affiliate, but they’d need 30 markets that could support D-League teams for 30 NBA clubs. The first step in this direction was a hybrid affiliation started by the Houston Rockets in 2009 as they entered into a one-to-one relationship with Rio Grande Valley. A decade later, only Denver, New Orleans, and Portland enter the 2018–19 basketball season without an exclusive affiliate. The D-League was rebranded in 2017 under the title sponsorship of Gatorade, and we’ll refer to it anachronistically as G League moving forward for simplicity.

The other major change was team ownership. In a seismic shift of the basketball landscape, 22 of the 26 current G League teams are not only affiliated but also owned by their NBA parent franchise. The remaining four have a hybrid ownership, so the business side is handled by a local ownership group while basketball and player operations fall under the oversight of the NBA club.

But the name of the game is control, and a handful of NBA franchises have managed to control ahead of their peers and thus been a step ahead when it comes to using the G League to their advantage.

The Houston Rockets change how basketball is played

Leave it to one of the most innovative franchises in sports to be the first NBA team to truly take the plunge into G League experimentation.

Way back in 2009, the Rockets began their one-to-one affiliation with Rio Grande Valley. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey didn’t waste any time instituting a plan. The Vipers began shooting threes — lots of them — and they started winning too. They shot 37% more three-pointers that year en route to winning the title, then shot more and more from there, making it to the league finals three of the next four years. By 2013–14, they attempted almost 500 bombs more than the next-closest team.

*Played in league finals

While folks around the NBA were watching from the moment the relationship was formed, 2014 was when the eyes of the NBA world were truly on the Rockets and their Vipers. The now-defunct sports and pop culture site Grantland ran a week-long series on basketball’s top minor league, appropriately dubbed “D-League Week”. It included more than one piece on Rio Grande and the Rockets’ direct involvement in their style of play.

The fantastic Kirk Goldsberry used his revolutionary shot charts and heat maps to illustrate just how unique the Vipers’ offense was compared to the average NBA team. He ultimately concluded that the data was inconclusive. We didn’t know whether or not a 3-point-heavy system would work over an 82-game regular season, and the success or failure of the system is almost entirely personnel-driven.

Of course, that’s true of any system or team, and the NBA has since proved Houston’s hypothesis true. But the Rockets’ revolution wasn’t simply about launching threes. It was also about possessions. Basketball is a numbers game, and the more chances a team gets to score, the more points they’ll put on the scoreboard. As Grantland’s Jason Schwartz noted:

“[The] Vipers might just be the most running, gunning team pro basketball has ever seen. ESPN stat guru Kevin Pelton has described their style of play as “the most extreme professional basketball in America,” and their pace is historically fast: At 109 possessions per game, the Vipers play far faster than any NBA team in the past two decades, including Mike D’Antoni’s Seven Seconds or Less Suns, who averaged around 98 possessions per game.”

It’s impossibly logical, of course. More possessions equal more shots, and three is greater than two.

The Oklahoma City Thunder change how players are developed

The business side of player contracts is also changing. Around the time the Rockets’ style-of-play changes took hold, the Oklahoma City Thunder were working on a revolution of their own: the first-ever domestic “draft-and-stash” prospect.

NBA teams had spent decades drafting prospects late and allowing them to play and develop overseas before coming to the NBA. The Thunder found their way around adding guaranteed salary by taking an American college prospect in the first round and immediately sending him to the G League. It was a handshake agreement of sorts that delayed Josh Huestis from becoming a millionaire for a year, instead of earning around $25,000 in the G League with the promise of joining the parent club — and earning his $1.5 million — the following year.

Back in 2014, Grantland’s Zach Lowe tied the situation to the development of the G League in this way:

“Huestis might not be setting some groundbreaking precedent here, but he will stand as the latest step toward the NBA having a true minor league system. He would not be sacrificing nearly as much money if the NBA had 30 minor league teams, one for each parent club, and an expanded NBA roster with two or three spots reserved for players who shuttle back and forth between the D-League and the NBA parent. Players inhabiting those roster spots would presumably earn money on some in-between salary scale well above current D-League levels.”

As it turned out, Heustis stayed healthy and got his first-round guaranteed rookie contract. He’s been a role player for the Thunder, playing only seven games between 2015 and 2017 before appearing in 69 contests and starting 10 last year.

While there wasn’t a cavalcade of NBA teams attempting what the Thunder did with Huestis, it was certainly a precursor to the new two-way contract system implemented prior to the 2017–18 season. Now the league can regulate these situations, instead of teams and players relying on a tenuous handshake.

The less successful franchises remain… less successful

The Rockets and Thunder “get it,” and the continuity between the parent club and minor league affiliation have reaped rewards for each franchise. As it turns out, direction and continuity are vital, especially for teams that weren’t able to hold one-to-one affiliations or control their own team.

The five NBA teams with the worst winning percentages since 2009 are Sacramento, Minnesota, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and Detroit. Except for a three-year Nets stint and recent affiliations for the others, each of these teams spent the past decade sharing affiliates with other NBA clubs. They didn’t have control over the operation and barely had any say in what players were on “their” teams. This is just one example of the lack of importance those NBA front offices put on the new frontier that was affiliated minor league basketball.

The Nets have operated their own G League team since 2016, and Philadelphia and Detroit have been at it since 2014 with mixed results. Minnesota just took over the Des Moines team in 2017, and the Kings are moving the Reno Bighorns to Stockton.

It’s too soon to tell what these changes may bring, but the damage is already done. It took nearly a decade for the NBA’s worst-run franchises to catch up to the best and the brightest. That’s not insignificant.

So has the G League contributed to actual NBA success?

You may have noticed that the two NBA franchises we’ve spent the most time on are in fact two of the most successful franchises of the past decade — the G League decade if you will.

The Thunder have a winning record in every season since 2009–10 and a winning percentage of .645. They missed the playoffs once and made the Conference Finals four times. The Rockets finished .500 or better each season and have made the playoffs six straight years with a winning percentage of .602.

Dating back to the league’s genesis in 2002, the top three G League winning percentages are held by the Rio Grande Valley Vipers (.573), Santa Cruz Warriors (.558), and Austin Spurs (.544). Six of the 14 championships have been won by those three franchises. It would be foolish to ignore the obvious connection between the best in the G League and the best in the NBA.

Over that same nine-year span, here are the top winning percentages in the NBA.

The Sioux Falls Skyforce have the fourth-best record in G League history. They’ve been affiliated with the Miami Heat for much of their existence and have led to recent Heat diamonds in the rough Hassan Whiteside, Tyler Johnson, and Derrick Jones, Jr. San Antonio draft picks Danny Green, Kyle Anderson, and Dejounte Murray spent their rookie season developing in the G League. Even the mighty Warriors developed Kevon Looney and this year’s feel-good story Quinn Cook, who spent most of the season in the G League before playing significant minutes down the stretch for the champs.

This is not to suggest that G League success equals NBA success. That would be absurd. But it is clear that the NBA franchises with the most consistent success over the past nine seasons have also had success at the G League level.

This phenomenon is a testament to system, structure, and continuity. The savviest organizations are run efficiently and effectively from the top down. NBA teams were given the opportunity to have a test tube in the form of a parent-club-controlled G League squad. The best and brightest pounced, while slow-to-the-punch owners have seen their franchises pay for their timidity. Fans 25 other teams are tired of hearing how awesome the Spurs, Thunder, Warriors, Rockets, and Heat front offices are and how buttoned up these organizations are from the top down.

The G League is still evolving, and there are somehow still three NBA franchises without their own affiliate, swimming against the ever-strengthening current.

They’re only wasting precious time as the NBA’s best and brightest pull further and further ahead.

Ben Beecken
Ben Beecken
Ben Beecken is a writer at Grandstand Central with a primary focus on the NBA, MLB, and NFL. He has spent nearly a decade working on the business side of sports including eight seasons in minor league baseball team front offices. Ben is also an editor and writer at Dunking With Wolves and a contributor across the FanSided network.



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