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The OKC Thunder Get Creative When It Comes To Utilizing The NBA D-League

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Last week, the ESPN Truehoop blog Daily Thunder published a commentary entitled CBA Primer: Developing the Developmental League. Considering the Oklahoma City Thunder are at the forefront of using the D-League since buying the Tulsa 66ers, one would think its fans would have a pretty good grasp on just how well the D-League is already being utilized.

Unfortunately, author Clark Matthews seemingly hasn't been paying attention to just how well the Thunder are using the 66ers and instead focused on things like captioning a picture of Pooh Jeter with "Success stories like Pooh Jeter are precisely why the NBDL is not very successful" and then not actually mentioning Jeter in the story.

I'm willing to ignore the usage of the "NBDL" and the fact that it hasn't been called that since 2005, but to say that the success of Pooh Jeter in the NBA -- an undrafted, undersized point guard who spent a couple of seasons in the D-League and had 13 points, six assists and five steals in a Sacramento Kings victory yesterday -- is why the "NBDL is not very successful" seems a bit asinine when not mentioning Jeter in the actual story.

On the other hand, Matthews did have a few ideas on how to improve the D-League such as: expanding the NBA Draft to three/four rounds (which I suggested here); allowing more than just first and second-year NBA players to be assigned to the D-League; paying players on assignment less than what they'd be paid if they were in the NBA; and the ability to fill an assigned player's roster spot with a free agent.

Matthews' first suggestion at improving the D-League -- Allow teams to assign all draft picks (including picks that are not guaranteed NBA contracts) to their D-League affiliate -- is one that has the Thunder already far ahead of the competition (and apparently even the team's own fans).

The 66ers current roster includes four former NBA Draft picks that the Thunder currently hold the rights to: Latavious Williams (48th overall pick in 2010), Ryan Reid (57th in 2010), Byron Mullens (24th in 2009) and Robert Vaden (54th in 2009).

Since Oklahoma City holds all four players' NBA rights, the only NBA team that could call one of these players up to the big league is the Thunder despite the fact that only Mullens -- currently on assignment -- is the only player being counted against the team's 15-man roster as well as the only player who's paycheck is being signed by Oklahoma City.

The 66ers didn't just magically acquire the other three players, either, but utilized the NBA's rules and the D-League's  player acquisition process to the parent club's advantage.

First, while all three players most definitely have NBA aspirations, the possibility of making the Thunder's roster this year would have been an improbable, if not impossible, task. So instead of signing with the Thunder to play in the preseason when they would have almost assuredly been eventually cut (something Demetris Nichols did with the Knicks to much chagrin a few years back), they agreed to wait it out until they could join the 66ers while being watched over by the Thunder staff and running the Oklahoma City system.

  • Williams was the first player to join the 66ers because he'd played for Tulsa last season before being the second ever player to be drafted out of the D-League. Since D-League teams keep the rights of all returning players, acquiring Williams was done as soon as the forward re-upped his contract with the D-League.
  • Next, the 66ers were tasked with acquiring Robert Vaden after the sharpshooter signed with the D-League prior to the annual draft. This meant that the 66ers, who drew the 12th overall pick, would have to hope the former UAB wingman would be either passed on by 11 D-League teams or that the Thunder would have to watch their property from afar. The situation was alleviated when Tulsa decided to trade former OKC call-up Mustafa Shakur to the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in return for Vaden after the Houston Rockets-owned team selected him with the seventh overall pick.
  • Reid's NBA rights were acquired by the Thunder in a draft-night trade -- along with "cash considerations -- in return for 51st overall pick Magnum Rolle (sent to the Indiana Pacers, now with the D-League's Maine Red Claws). There were rumors that Reid was going to sign in Poland for this season, but when those rumors proved to be false, the Thunder had him wait to sign with the D-League until the 66ers had a high enough waiver priority order to claim him.

Keep in mind that no other team has come even close to getting creative and creating this sort of bond between their NBA and D-League team with even one player -- and the Thunder have done it with three of their draft picks from the past two seasons. It might not be the easiest way to utilize the D-League, but the Thunder have proven that where there's a will, there's a way.

One might also consider the fact that three undrafted players that played with the Thunder this preseason (Elijah Millsap, Marcus Lewis and Jerome Dyson) were all sent to the 66ers as they utilized one of the new D-League rules this season to their advantage.

In the end, I guess Matthews was right in saying that the D-League might "someday have an influence" -- he just didn't realize that his own team was already doing what he was suggesting might make the D-League worthwhile.