This news broke last night, but the Houston Rockets have taken over control of the basketball operations for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. They're not going to own the team outright, but instead will operate under the league's new "hybrid affiliation." (There's a press conference today at 1:30 p.m. to make an official announcement.)
To a certain extent, this was to be expected in the abstract. As with the D-League's new playoff structure, in which the top four seeds get to pick their opponent, I don't think they would've set up the new hybrid affiliation model if they didn't expect at least one team to take advantage of it, even if it was as nominal as the #1 seed picking the #7 team and #2 playing #8. It's also possible that some pressure was exerted to make sure that at least one team went this route. But I do believe that there was probably some call for this. Under the "hybrid affiliation" model, an NBA team controls their D-League affiliates basketball operations without owning the team outright - in essence, there's less of a financial commitment while reaping the same on-court benefits as a team like the Spurs or Lakers.
I'll break down what this means for the Rockets, for the Vipers, and for the D-League after the jump.
There's an element of "keeping up with the Joneses" with this, as the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder each own their own D-League teams (Austin Toros and Tulsa 66ers, respectively), and the Dallas Mavericks president of basketball operations just bought the Colorado 14ers franchise and will be moving the team to Frisco, Texas. In other words, at least in the division in which the Rockets play, the trend is towards greater use of the D-League.
This is also, however, a logical next step for the Rockets. They have several players on their current roster who spent time in the D-League, and have made somewhat of a name for themselves in the last few seasons as a team that finds players who were undervalued by the rest of the league. GM Daryl Morey's a smart guy, and I'm sure he sees the value in having a low-cost, dedicated source of basketball talent. I also privately wondered whether something like this would happen soon - the Vipers' website last year was basically designed with the Rockets color scheme, their "affiliate night" featured their players in Rockets jerseys, and this article is basically the first time I knew who RGV's other NBA affiliate was (the Hornets, apparently).
To a certain extent, I think this also represents a long-term (or at least medium-term) commitment to Rockets head coach Rick Adelman. As Morey is quoted as saying at the end of the article, "We will want to run Rick (Adelman’s) offensive sets. And it is a spot Rick can try out new things without having to try it out first at the NBA level." I don't think the team would make that kind of leap and entrench their D-League affiliate in the pro team's offense without thinking, at least for now, that they'll be running that offense for a while.
As for the Vipers, well, we'll see. I'd think that some team elements will change, even beyond the obvious stuff like the plays they run. The coach, for instance. It's possible the Rockets may decide that current head coach Clay Moser isn't best-suited to run Adelman's offense and seek a change, but that's purely speculative at this point.
I'd imagine that we have a pretty good idea of who will be on the Vipers' roster next year, and it puts some of the Rockets' recent draft-day moves in better perspective. Houston essentially bought three second-round picks from various teams, Jermaine Taylor, Chase Budinger and Sergio Llull, and looking back I wonder if this was advance preparation for having their own D-League team. I think Kurt Looby is a likely candidate to return, as I think with a few more seasons' he could become one of those low-budget Rockets interior defenders that became all the rage in the playoffs. If you squint hard enough he even looks a little like a Dikembe Mutombo-type. If I were running the Rockets, I'd sign Looby to a contract for next season and hire Mutombo as an assistant coach (or at least as a consultant) to work with him. I also wonder if the Vipers will see more of James White next season. The Rockets already have announced their commitment to White's development, but the team has a lot of forwards even without re-signing Ron Artest, so having an affiliate that runs the same offense would be a way to help ensure that he gets playing time while still growing into the role that eventually will be expected of him.
The D-League, though, will have to wait and see how this new system plays out. On our first scan of the "hybrid" model, I don't think there was any real downside seen. An NBA team would get to control their affiliate's basketball operations without the "million-dollar" annual loss in operating costs. Still, if Houston has success with this, it would encourage other NBA teams to look into it, potentially leading to an increase in D-League teams (because they would need enough teams to accomodate those affiliated with multiple NBA teams in addition to those owned or run by individual franchises). Based on current evidence and trends, I could potentially see the Memphis Grizzlies, Utah Jazz, Toronto Raptors, Denver Nuggets, and Cleveland Cavaliers all consider the hybrid model in the future (and perhaps Dallas, if what I understand is true that the Frisco team will be affiliated with other teams in addition to the Mavs). In fact, it's increasingly looking like there soon will be a fairly even split (at this point it's probably still about 30-70 or 40-60) among NBA teams who use the D-League extensively and those who don't.