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Journey to the D-League, Part 1: The ‘D’

03.23.10 at 3:41 pm ET
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(Editor’s note: Paul Flannery recently spent some time with the NBA Development League’s Main Red Claws, who are affiliated with the Celtics. He documented his observations about the organization, the players and the fans, who regularly fill to capacity the team’s home arena. Here’s Part 1 of his four-part series.)

Part 2: The Red Claws

Part 3: Journey to the D-League

Part 4: The Game

PORTLAND, Maine ‘€“ The first thing to understand about the NBA’€™s Development League is that it is not a true minor league. The Maine Red Claws, while affiliated with the Celtics, do not have the same relationship as Pawtucket with the Red Sox.

Every team in the NBA has a working agreement with one of the 16 teams in the D-League. Some, including Houston, San Antonio and Oklahoma City, actually own and operate their franchises.

But the vast majority of teams have an affiliation agreement with a particular D-League franchise that allows them to send their eligible players down for a period of time. (The Celtics and Bobcats share their affiliation with Maine, which also is a common occurrence). Everyone else is a free agent, available to any and all NBA teams that may want to sign one to a coveted 10-day contract.

This becomes very important when you consider the second thing to understand about the D-League: Every player in the league feels like they can play in the NBA, if only they got the right opportunity.

‘€œIt’€™s a very honest statement,’€ said 34-year-old veteran Billy Thomas, who has had four stints in the NBA during his career. ‘€œYou have to be lucky in this game. That boils down to a lot of factors.’€

The most common refrain you will hear around the D-League is that there is little difference between the top players in the D and the end-of-the-bench players in the NBA.

‘€œThere’€™s no difference,’€ said first-year Red Claws coach Austin Ainge, the son of the Celtics president and general manager. ‘€œYou can see it by the guys that get sent down. Some of the guys that get sent down here aren’€™t very good players in this league. Other guys are really good. That doesn’€™t mean there’€™s a lot of rotation players in the D-League. The difference between the top eight and the 13th man can be pretty significant.’€

Ainge estimates that half of his 10 players have the talent to play in the NBA. Those odds, while long, are the fuel that drives them from games in half-empty no-frills gyms in places such as Bakersfield and Sioux Falls, playing for salaries that range from $13,000 on the low end to a whopping $26,000.

‘€œIt’€™s really not about the money,’€ Thomas said. ‘€œFor guys on the fringe, it’€™s almost a no-brainer. You’€™ve got to stick around.’€

Opportunity, time and place. This is what the D-League is all about. And with everyone fighting for survival, it can sometimes lead to conflicting priorities.

‘€œThe hardest thing to get them to understand is that the people who evaluate them are coaches and basketball people,’€ Ainge said. ‘€œThey are going to look at more than the box score. You have to play to win. Othyus Jeffers didn’€™t have the best stats. He got called up by the Jazz. Play to win. That’€™s the message. At every level, people think you just look at the box score, but that’€™s not how it is. Garrett Temple has been signed by two different teams. He averaged nine points a game in college and 13 points a game in the D-League. It’€™s not just points.’€

The NBA teams that know what they’€™re doing, and it’€™s not all of them, carefully scrutinize the rosters of the D-League looking for players that can help their system and their needs.

‘€œI think there’€™s a lot of players who think they need to put up numbers,’€ Danny Ainge said. ‘€œA more important factor, at least how I look at it, is winning, and how is that player contributing. It doesn’€™t mean that he has to play on a winning team, because there can be a lot of factors there. If you’€™re playing winning basketball — fighting through screens, making the right rotation, making the right pass and taking the right shot — all the little things.

‘€œTriple doubles and 30-point games aren’€™t going to get the call-ups. Make no mistake, guys that can score and do it consistently is a benefit, but there’€™s a lot of guys in the D-League that can score. But they’€™re not doing the little things, and coaches and general managers notice those things.’€

The Celtics have not signed a player from the D-League since 2007, when they summoned Kevin Pinkney, but they have used the league for its other intended purpose, which is getting their young players time to play. This season alone the Celtics have sent J.R. Giddens, Bill Walker, Marcus Landry and Lester Hudson to the Red Claws.

The NBA helps subsidize the league, and when players get sent down, the expectation is they will play. Obviously, this can have an effect on team dynamics.

‘€œIt’€™s tough,’€ Austin Ainge said. ‘€œSometimes guys are losing minutes that they don’€™t deserve to lose. They’€™ve earned their spot, but guys come down and that’€™s how it is. In the end, this is a league that’€™s about development. The NBA teams are a big part of it. We have to keep the Celtics and the Bobcats happy.’€

Not every team takes advantage of the arrangement, but Danny Ainge feels differently.

‘€œI think it’€™s very beneficial,’€ Danny Ainge said. ‘€œIf you trust the coach that you’€™re sending them to, it’€™s a chance to develop. I don’€™t think there’€™s any way to simulate games and to have referees and play by NBA rules and play with the intensity of a crowd, I just don’€™t think there’€™s a way to simulate that in practice. I’€™m a firm believer in getting experience.’€

Danny Ainge obviously trusts the coach of the Red Claws. This has been a learning experience for the 30-year-old Austin, who is in his first season as a head coach at any level.

He began the season running a healthy chunk of the Celtics system but went away from that as his personnel took shape. ‘€œI still run a few of the Celtics plays,’€ Austin said. ‘€œBut we run a few basic sets. At this level, X’€™s and O’€™s really don’€™t vary much from team to team.’€

The biggest difference between the NBA and the D-League, besides talent, is the lack of big men and point guards. There are, however, an abundance of wing players. This leads to a lot of three- and even four-guard lineups. Anything more than two centers and two true point guards on a roster is considered an abundance.

‘€œTwos, 3s and 4s we can find,’€ Austin Ainge said. ‘€œAt our level, we’€™re picked clean. At the NBA level, Europe, college; those are the guys that are really hard to find. Our level is no different.’€

For players in the D-League, the obvious alternative is to play overseas, where the money might be better. ‘€œMight’€ being the operative word.

‘€œYou go to Europe and deal with clubs that may not have the financial backing that they promise you they have,’€ said Thomas, who has played in four foreign countries during his career. ‘€œYou go there and you can go one, two, three months without being paid, like some guys have. You’€™ve got to put up with a lot. If you don’€™t take your family there, you’€™re alone in a foreign country and it’€™s a different brand of basketball. It’€™s an adjustment tenfold.’€

One player who did is current Red Claw Maurice Ager, a 2006 first-round draft pick of the Dallas Mavericks. Ager spent a few seasons in Dallas and then was a part of the Jason Kidd trade to New Jersey. In three NBA seasons, Ager played in 78 games, but his talent still is obvious, which led to interest from a team in Seville, Spain.

It was an interesting experience for Ager, who said he enjoyed it, except for the way the game is played. ‘€œOver there, it’€™s so much structure,’€ Ager said. ‘€œI almost felt like robot. I just like to play, man — create.’€

European teams aren’€™t big on just playing. They typically practice for a month and a half before the season begins, and with fewer games on the schedule, it’€™s not uncommon for teams to continue holding two-a-day sessions once the season starts. The rules also are very different.

‘€œYou can’€™t isolate players in Europe because you can stand in the lane as long as you want, so you have the help-side there,’€ Austin Ainge said. ‘€œYou can’€™t just give the guy the ball and clear out like you can at this league. They have better shooting and they have better passing because that’€™s what their league calls for and our league calls for athleticism. It’€™s apples and oranges. If they were to come play in our league we’€™d kill them. If we went and played in their league with their rules, they’€™d probably beat us.’€

The D-League simply is a better fit for Ager, particularly as he tries to get back in the NBA, and at 25, he is still young enough to keep the dream alive. He’€™s not that far removed from his days as collegiate hero at Michigan State, nor is he that far gone from the NBA itself.

When asked what he needs to do to get back, Ager said: ‘€œEfficiency.’€ He knows he can score, but he also knows that if his time comes he’€™ll need to fill a role.

‘€œAustin pulled me aside my first few games and said certain things I could do to be more efficient,’€ Ager said. ‘€œGet to the free throw line, better selection of shots. At the end of the day, it looks better to have 20 points on 10, 12 shots vs. 18-20 shots. Efficiency is key for the simple fact that if I get called back up, I’€™m not going to get 20 shots. I’€™ll need to knock down three or four out of six.’€

Practice that day is at the Southern Maine Community College, the third spot this week where the team will gather. Outside, a shuttle bus is waiting to take the players back to their apartments, which the Red Claws pay for. The bus is actually a perk. Not every team has one.

It’€™s a good situation here in Maine, better than most. But it’€™s still the D, and all things considered they would rather be somewhere else. This is in the inherent motivation for every player in this league, and it’€™s also the final, most important thing to understand about the D-League.

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