Entering the new season, the NBA D-League has now expanded to seventeen teams. Fourteen of those have since entered single affiliations. When pondering where the league is going, it may be worth suggesting that at some point (though perhaps not in the near future) the minor league will expand to thirty total teams.
But as it stands now, there are still three teams with multiple NBA affiliates. Ironically enough, there are plenty of interesting dynamics to consider when taking running such an organization into account. Obviously, a certain skill goes into being able to maintain relationships with multiple NBA teams. What's more, however, a bit more independence comes into play. Managing both the basketball and business sides of things, such D-League teams are tasked with balancing the acts of developing players, winning games, and satisfying a local community.
It seems like a tough job, but somebody has to do it. Recently, Iowa Energy (whose NBA affiliates include the Bulls, Nuggets, Timberwolves, Pelicans, and Wizards) General Manager Chris Makris spoke with RidiculousUpside.com to discuss the different aspects of his job, and how he aims to ultimately help the team achieve success each and every season.
Coming off of a season with the league's worst record, the Energy currently stand at 3-1. What's gone into their early turnaround? Different players are in town, but a familiar face has stepped up as coach in hopes of changing Iowa's fortunes and returning the team to its winning ways. Read below as Makris addresses the keys to such success, his everyday duties, and more.
Q: Chris, your Energy are just one of three remaining D-League teams with multiple affiliates. I don't want to necessarily say such a trend looks to be a dying breed, but can you tell me what goes in to maintaining such relationships? What's the key?
A: It is a little bit of a dying breed. We have five affiliates, but I definitely think that's an advantage. We have five NBA teams that we get to work with. That's five different teams that can help us through the affiliate program and the assignment player process. Those relationships may not be as direct as some of the hybrid affiliations, but we feel as though it still allows us to lean on some really intelligent people that know a lot about this business. That helps us come draft time and throughout the year.
We have great partners. Each affiliate understands what our goals are and what we need to win games. We understand what they're looking for, which is to develop players. The relationships are good, and that's something that we spend a lot of time on in the offseason by staying in contact to ensure it's a mutually beneficial relationship.
Q: That's interesting, because the number one priority of most D-League teams seems to be figuring out how they can better serve the NBA teams. Helping them develop prospects is one thing, but I'm sure a focus of yours has to often be winning games and satisfying the local community too, right?
A: No question. In Iowa, we oversee the basketball and business sides of things, which is a little unique. Winning is important to us. But I believe that winning and developing players isn't just mutually exclusive, but they go hand in hand. That's the quickest way to ultimately win more games. But when you watch teams, it's easy to tell that if they're winning games, they're practicing harder. That sort of thing for young players can really provide them with support. Winning and developing an NBA team's players go hand in hand. Obviously when an NBA team assigns its players to us, we're going to get those guys minutes. That's part of why we're here. But we believe that it can be done while winning games, and that's the approach we've always taken. It comes down to them also understanding our needs, but that's what it's about. This is a relationship. We both need to be comfortable with what the other needs, so it works both ways.
Q: Last month, your team was in an interesting position heading into the D-League Draft. The Energy owned the first pick in the draft before ultimately trading it away. That was a bold move. Still, you were able to acquire NBA champion Jarvis Varnado and some other strong pieces. Can you talk about what your strategy was heading into the new season?
A: I think you look back to last season, and we struggled quite a bit. We were able to acquire Los Angeles' first round pick, and I think that really set up this season. We were able to set ourselves up. You always want to win right now, so we knew by having the first and sixth overall picks that we'd put ourselves in a very powerful position.
In this business, you try and prepare for every type of scenario. We were not only looking at the talent level available in the draft, but throughout the entire league as well. We looked at potentially returning players and pondered where they might fall, had they been in this draft as well. How much did we value those guys, in relation to the draft picks? We felt as though we were able to get a really good haul out of it. Getting Diante Garrett and Jarvis Varnado and still having the 11th pick in the first round was a major success, and that's proven to be a springboard for our early success here this year.
Obviously Diante hasn't gotten a chance to put on our uniform, but that's why we're here. We understand that if you're going to compete for a championship, you need to have high level players. If you have high level players, they're going to be desired at the NBA level. That's something we always prepare for. But the way we set ourselves up, we feel as though we have a chance to make a real run at it.
Q: You're talking about building a team and finding the right formula for success. How difficult is that to do in the D-League, when taking into account the different players who venture away to play in the NBA, overseas, etc. each and every year?
A: It's really interesting in our league. I've always said the way to be really successful in our league was to utilize the returning players. We've experienced that in the past, having won three division titles and a championship, and that's how the Bakersfield Jam proved to be so successful last year. It's the easiest way to be successful in our league.
We didn't have a huge opportunity to do that this year, but we had the assets to make it happen in a different way. But having returning players comes down to having assets. In our league, there are returning players, affiliate players, assignment players, and then there's the draft. We were able to take advantage of a couple of those things to acquire talent and go from being the worst team in the league, to hopefully one of the better ones.
It's not easy in our league. It's easier than it is in the NBA, because you can turn things around rather quickly, for better or for worse. It's important to not only get good players, but to bring guys in who will buy into our system and have good philosophies. That's why we went after the guys we did.
And then you can look into things from a coaching standpoint. We were very fortunate to bring Nate Bjorkgren back here. He had a great situation in Santa Cruz and loved that organization, but we were able to get him back here in Iowa. He's a coach that players really like and will buy into what he says. You're seeing that early. When you have a coaching staff like that and players who buy into the system, I think you've got a winning combination.
Q: For my last question here, I just want to piggyback on your comments about Coach Bjorkgren. That was a big hiring for your team, so how beneficial is bringing a local guy like that back home?
A: It's really important. People in Iowa like their own, so it's easy for them to rally around him. He was familiar with the way we did things when we were successful. He knew not only our organization and staff, but our fans as well. He does a great job of leading us on the court and has an extremely bright future. We're extremely fortunate to have him back, because like I said, he gets guys to play hard for him. You see that on the court. Last year, his team had the best defense in the league. Even early this year, we're doing things that hopefully will translate into success on the court. It's still early, but we're looking forward to bringing things back to the way positive Energy basketball was.