From day one, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers appeared destined to go far in the NBADL playoffs as they contended for a championship this season.
From a steady support staff in the form of the parent NBA affiliate Houston Rockets (who assembled a roster full of promising prospects and past NBA players) to a smart and experienced coaching staff, there was no reason why RGV wouldn't be posed to accomplish great things.
Fast-forward to the month of April, and the Vipers are right where they want to be: competing in the D-League Finals, which begin on Thursday, April 25th.
The Rockets' affiliate played steady basketball all season, securing the second seed in all of the D-League. It's arguable that they would have finished as the overall top dog as well, if it hadn't been for a couple of injuries. They were also forced to cope with a bevy of NBA call-ups and assignments. These same promotions can be considered both a blessing and a curse for minor league teams. On one hand, it's great to see one of your own get rewarded for their hard work. On the other hand, it's difficult to lose a player on a moment's time. There's no denying how quickly changes must be made following such departures.
Such challenges didn't seem to phase RGV Coach Nick Nurse all too much, as he tried his best to face those challenges head-on as he helped his team overcome adversities. Their 35-15 record in the regular season speaks for itself, and so does the team's success thus far in the postseason.
"It's obviously difficult," Coach Nurse told RidiculousUpside.com of having to coach around the potential call-ups. "You really don't know what's going to happen until you go through some games. Andrew [Goudelock] got called up [by the Los Angeles Lakers] about thirty minutes before game two of one of our playoff series'. You don't have any time to prepare. You address things as you go and then when you get a chance to practice, you make some adjustments. Our guys have been pretty resilient. We've had a lot of guys called up, many of them permanently, too. It's about plugging other guys in. They don't panic. There are good players on the bench, and it means they get to play more. Our guys have done a great job of handling it, really."
Whereas it's up to Coach Nurse to continue guiding his young prospects and putting them in the best possible positions to succeed, the Rockets have put a staff in place (headed by Houston Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Gersson Rosas) to reel in attractive talent to balance and keep the RGV engine chugging along. Goudelock, a surefire D-League M.V.P. candidate, was a midseason acquisition himself. Fellow M.V.P. candidate D.J, Kennedy also joined the team a relatively short time ago. With Goudelock out of town, however, it's been Kennedy who's emerged as a true starring attraction for RGV as they've charged ahead in the playoffs.
"Our affiliation with the Rockets has been great," Coach Nurse added. "I really enjoy working with them. Obviously their first objective is to evaluate players and try to get guys into Rockets' uniforms. We've had a lot of assignments back and forth. Hopefully that's helped them. It helps us because we learn to adjust to different rosters and things like that. It's all about trying to get guys to buy into the system. It's important to not overreact when things are bad, but not get too happy when things are good, either. Our players are professionals each day, because it's about simply putting your best foot forward when given the opportunity."
That same mentality has resulted in the Vipers achieving great success, and now they find themselves poised to take on the Santa Cruz Warriors in The Finals. Like RGV, Santa Cruz is also entered in a single NBA team affiliation with the Golden State Warriors. They too have benefited from a bevy of player assignments throughout the season, and have solid depth across the roster because of the way the Warriors use the D-League as an authentic scouting platform for potential future NBA contributors. Either way, Coach Nurse likes the matchup at hand.
"I think it should be a great series. Both teams played well during the season and have played well as of late in the playoffs. There's a lot of talent because both teams are pretty deep," he added.
Of course, such a competition is about coming out on top with a championship victory as a way of rewarding either respective city and the fans. Nevertheless, there's quite the friendly rivalry in play when it comes to Nurse and Santa Cruz head coach Nate Bjorkgren.
"We're obviously great friends," the RGV coach said. "I was actually in his wedding. He coached with me as an assistant for four seasons with the Iowa Energy. He's done a great job and he's certainly his own man. They've played well all season long. It makes things interesting, but I'm just going to get our guys ready to play the best they can."
The familiarity each coach has with one another will certainly make things interesting, but perhaps nothing is more intriguing than how evenly matched the Vipers and Warriors may truly be. Each team's path to the NBADL Finals has been a similar one. The matchup between the two is sure to be a competitive one filled with some of tomorrow's more promising players turning heads from the start.