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Interview with NBA Agent Bill Neff: The Economic Downturn, Affiliations, and the Direction of the D-League (PART 1)

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Recent occurrences in the D-League have made it abundantly clear that we are approaching a difficult time for both the NBA and Developmental League.  The financial markets have begun to predicate many of the actions taken by major league and minor league franchises.  Bakersfield recently announced their platinum club plan, charging exorbitant prices for D-League games.  A quick scan of our transactions list reveals that a lot of well known D-League players are making the jump overseas.  Many NBA teams have been cutting staff and signing players very cautiously, in an effort to guard the bottom line.  Combined, all of this paints a painful picture, filled with tough decisions ahead.

In order to get a handle on the state of the D-League and the outer forces influencing it, we're going to be interviewing a series of people who can be considered "stakeholders" in the League.  GMs, coaches, players, and agents will be the target of this effort, which will essentially try come to some understanding about where the D-League stands in the next year and where we are headed in the future.

Our first interview in the series is with well known agent Bill Neff, who works for Saga Sports and has over 15 years of experience with the CBA, NBA, and D-League.  Bill graduated from the University of Michigan in 1980 and has represented mostly minor league players for much of his career.  Mr. Neff's current client list includes the likes of well known player/blogger Rod Benson, Gerry McNamara, Jamaal Tatum, Kevin Ollie, Mike Wilks, Jason Hart, and Demetris Nichols.  Bill was also representing Mike Taylor when he was the first player drafted from the D-League in the 2008 NBA draft.

Today's post is Part 1 of the interview, followed by Part 2 tomorrow morning.

 AD: How long have you been representing players and how long have you been working with the D-League?

Bill Neff: I have been representing players for about 16 years now and have worked with the D League since its inception and the CBA before it. The essence of our firm [Ed. Note: Saga Sports], its DNA, if you will, is minor league players. We believe strongly in it. First, because of the kinds of players we get or try to get, where we do not do anything which violates NCAA or NBPA rules, they will not necessarily get drafted. However, they may be as good as a drafted player but not received the exposure that some of the draftees get. The minor leagues help that. Second, you have to play to get better. Sitting on an NBA bench as a younger guy is a waste of time. See Ramon Sessions. Third, all of my players go through the D League and prior to that, the CBA. It makes them so much better. It is graduate school.

All of my players go through the D League and, prior to that, the CBA. It makes them so much better. It is graduate school.

AD: Generally how have you seen the D-League grow or change over the course of your interactions with the League? What have been some positive and negative changes?

Bill Neff: The D League is a work in progress. Used correctly, it could be a great vehicle, as the Bucks did with a terrific coach in Joey Meyer for Sessions. They were lucky, in that regard. If the NBA sees the D League as an opportunity, it can be that. If you see it as an expense, it is an expense.

If the D League is about development, you can take a late second rounder and turn him into a mid level player. It happened for me with Troy Hudson who, by the way, looks great now that he is healthy. Younger players need to play. If you are like the Jazz and run the same system as the NBA team, that is a good way to go. Or, if you make sure your draft choice goes down and gets to play, it should be helpful.

Or, if you use it to give an incentive for players to come there. For instance, promise the players that they will be on your summer league roster. If you can handle it logistically, attempt to work out with the Players Association, an angle where D League players get practice time benefits, such as money, if they practice with the big club. Add that to the CBA. Tell your Personnel Directors if you find a Kevin Ollie, Mike Wilks or Jason Hart in the minor leagues, we will boost your pay. Have them work like Mark Warkentien (Dahntay Jones) and Carroll Dawson used to with Chucky Brown and Mario Elie and find championship pieces in the minor leagues. They are there.

The problem is too many NBA people look at the NBDL as a lesser place. It is not. Some really good coaches like Phil Jackson and George Karl toiled there [Ed. Note: both coached in the CBA in the mid-80's] and the recent generation of Dave Joerger, now with Memphis, Bryan Gates, now with Sacramento, and Meyer are every bit their equal. The view from the NBA has changed, unfortunately.

In short, the D League has grown because of the assignment aspect of it but it is still hampered by the NBA's/NBDL's lack of creative thinking. Spend a touch more in salaries, which they won't, allow more freedom to go to Europe and you will have a great league. Relax the rules to allow players to choose which team they can go to but what has happened is because of the D League's byzantine rules, you must be very careful when you put your guy into the pool. Also, teams like San Antonio have tinkered with the rules to their advantage. The rules should be simple, allowing for the best players to enter into the League. They do not exist now. Only because I believe in the D League have I pushed my players there. I am in the minority of agents. So, the positive changes are some NBA teams' mild embrace of the league, its greater exposure but the negatives remain which hamper its development: an embrace by the NBA as an equal partner, unclear rules, low salaries, so it will continue to lurch along by fits and starts until it cleans up some of those things.

The problem is too many NBA people look at the NBDL as a lesser place. It is not.

AD: Over the past few seasons, but this season in particular, the global and regional financial outlook has been fairly grim. It's well documented that NBA owners are trimming the pocketbooks and preparing for rough times ahead. How do you think this affects the D-League? Are there fewer opportunities for players to be called up from the D-League, or will NBA teams be seeking more cheap talent than ever?

Bill Neff: The global economy has affected everyone and will affect the D League. There will be fewer callups. I wish it were different. The NBA should be seeking cheap talent but by the way they used the summer leagues and just promote their own players for the most part, they will not be looking to the D League, as they should. They should be encouraging cheap talent. The hybrid teams should attempt to encourage players to come by offering summer league spots but they do not. It is really a waste of a good product to some extent.

Stay tuned for Part 2 with Bill Neff tomorrow morning.