The D-League Finals begin Sunday at 5 pm eastern with the #2-ranked Rio Grande Valley Vipers facing the #8-ranked Tulsa 66ers - though unfortunately we won't be able to watch until midnight on Versus (which I don't agree with). Because we have a few days before they begin, Jon L (can I just call him Jon? Or should we stick with the L since that's his name?) and I have several preview posts planned to discuss who exactly these teams are and how they got here. Yesterday, Jon L took a look at the regular season games between the two teams. Today: a look at RGV's season as a whole to see how they got to this point.
Jon L used good headings in his post this morning, so I'll do the same - just to keep it uniform.
Finding a coach
Ummm, well they actually had a coach until August 18th when the Rockets decided to let go of former coach Clay Moser - looked at here at RU as an unpopular, but ultimately unsurprising, firing. Without an assistant coach waiting in the wings (Robert Pack was hired as an assistant with the New Orleans Hornets), the Rockets embarked on a coaching search.
Originally, we'd heard that R.J. Adelman (son of Rockets coach Rick Adelman) and former University of Virginia coach Dave Leitao were the two options - though Leitao eventually (reportedly) turned the Vipers down and Adelman never emerged as a serious candidate.
Eventually they settled on Chris Finch, head coach of Great Britain's National Team. While it wasn't clear how he'd acclimate himself to coaching in the D-League at first, he's obviously done quite well.
Well, they didn't draft exceptionally well, as only two of their eight picks ever made a difference on the RGV roster. Fortunately for them, those two picks - Antonio Anderson and Jonathan Wallace - both performed very well this season. The rest of the draft didn't really matter for them, either, as they already had D-League MVP Mike Harris and three time call-up Garrett Temple assigned to them along with returning contributors Stanley Asumnu, Ernest Scott, Julian Sensley and Kurt Looby. Add to that core the knowledge that they'd be assigned Joey Dorsey for most of the first half of the season along with the occasional assignment of Jermaine Taylor and they really didn't need to draft exceptionally well.
I'll review their season after the jump.
After losing their first game to eventual playoff opponent Austin, the Vipers rattled off six straight wins on their way to a 9-3 record through December. The other two losses, however, were at Tulsa - one being an 18 point drubbing even though the Vipers were stocked (stacked?) with the solid starting five of Jonathan Wallace, Garrett Temple, Antonio Anderson, Mike Harris and Joey Dorsey. If you're paying attention, three of those players ended the season on an NBA roster and three of them are still starting in Rio Grande Valley (Mike Harris overlaps in both categories).
While they'd lose Mike Harris for a bit to the Rockets for his first call-up of the season later in the month, the Vipers added two of their current key cogs right around the same time. First they reacquired bench dynamo Craig Winder, who had played with the Vipers during their first two seasons in the D-League. Shortly thereafter, they traded little-used Kurt Looby for Will Conroy (I wasn't sure about Conroy's attitude at the time - but it's proven to be a 180-turn since last season).
Anderson was also named the Player of the Month while averaging 18.1 points, 7.1 assists, 4.5 rebounds and just under two steals per game.
Same old stuff this month: they finished 11-3 and never lost two games in a row. It seemed like it took Conroy to a little bit of time to get acclimated with his teammates, but they ended the month on their second six-game win streak of the season - so it didn't take long.
Mike Harris returned right before the Rockets had to guarantee his contract which obviously helped their plight a bit as he had a monstrous 48 point, 24 board game, but Joey Dorsey was recalled to the Rockets not long thereafter. They also lost Will Conroy to the Rockets on January 28th for his first call-up of the season, but Jermaine Taylor was sent to RGV to replace him.
Mike Harris was also named the D-League Player of the Month for averaging 27.6 points, 11.9 rebounds and 1.5 steals while shooting 60% from the field. Not bad.
February was a weird month, mostly because the Vipers had an 11-day layoff for NBA All-Star weekend. They also played three straight games (in four days) in lovely Albuquerque, New Mexico, though went just 1-2 on that stretch while experimenting with replacing Will Conroy in the starting lineup (Antonio Anderson, Garrett Temple and Jonathan Wallace all had opportunities). Sometime during this series, Jermaine Taylor was recalled to fill in for injuries in Houston, which probably didn't help either. I should also note that this was when Albuquerque had Carlos Powell - and therefore was respectable. Will Conroy also had back-to-back triple-doubles, which isn't exactly horrible.
On February 7th, Garrett Temple received his first call-up. Not surprisingly, it was to the Houston Rockets. Then Jermaine Taylor was assigned. Again. The following day, Antonio Anderson was also called-up to the Oklahoma City Thunder, the first time RGV had a call-up not to Houston this season! One day later, Taylor was once again recalled to Houston to fill in for injuries. Sticking with the 'one day later' theme, Mike Harris was called up to the Washington Wizards.
Even with all of that movement, the Vipers were able to secure their first winning season in franchise history, winning two straight without Anderson, Harris, Temple and Taylor. It helps that those games were against bottom-feeders Bakersfield and Springfield, but that's still quite an impressive feat to have secured in February.
March started out with a 16-point loss, at home, against those same lowly Springfield Armor that I just mentioned. Grossly, it was their sixth win in 33 games. The following day, Will Conroy was once again called up to the Houston Rockets - leaving me to think RGV was going to start a quite horrid downward spiral without... well, pretty much everyone. No worries, though, they'd beat Bakersfield three days later with a starting lineup of Jonathan Wallace, Kenny Hasbrouck, Sean Barnette, Ernest Scott and Kevin Rogers - Yeesh! It was an up-and-down-sort of month for them as they'd finish just 8-7 to end the regular season with a roster that would be constantly changing as Mike Harris, Antonio Anderson, Jermaine Taylor AND Will Conroy all returned to the team throughout March.
Oh, and Kenny Hasbrouck earned a rather random call-up to the Miami HEAT before Mike Harris eventually signed with the Rockets for the remainder of the regular season. Jermaine Taylor also was recalled due to injury in Houston AGAIN.
After the Vipers struggled to a 1-1 tie in their first series with Rod Benson and the Reno Bighorns, Mike Harris (I'm seriously getting tired of typing his name) was assigned for the pivotal game three - and he carried them to the second round with a 45 point, 13 rebound performance.
In the second round, the Vipers drew a very tough difficult match-up with the Austin Toros, but eventually prevailed 99-98 in the deciding game 3. A lot of stuff happened in that game, but instead of boring you with the details, here are the highlights of the greatest series EVER played (in the D-League).
Well that's how they got here. Basically there was quite a bit of player movement, but almost all of the key cogs are back with the Vipers now.
They're going to be tough to beat.