There's no denying that NBA and D-League teams entering into an exclusive one-to-one relationship is becoming an increasingly popular trend.
Still, just this past season, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants defied the odds and proved that an independently owned team (the minor league's lone remaining standing one, at that) can still be successful. With Ron Howard, Tony Mitchell, and co. leading the way, the team won their first D-Leaggue championship just a short months ago.
But with mere weeks remaining until training camp begins, a new season will be underway rather soon. It's time for the grind to start all over again.
Creating continuity and and aiming to repeat such success is difficult enough in the D-League with all the moving parts, but even keeping that in mind, the Mad Ants will continue to deal with other existing variables that other teams won't. As the only team not entered into an exclusive partnership with an NBA franchise, Fort Wayne will have to maintain relationships with the thirteen remaining big league teams this coming season.
This, undoubtedly, will be a tricky task. Still, the team has also benefitted early on from getting to make multiple stops (closer to each new affiliate) on its quest for new talent via the open tryout process. Furthermore, the team also has the luxury of 2013-14 D-League Coach of the Year Conner Henry leading the way again.
Coach Henry spoke with RidiculousUpside.com about the new affiliation system, the challenges ahead, his memorable championship-winning season, and the tryout process (For more information on the remaining tryouts, click here).
Continue reading below for more.
Q: With the new affiliation breakdown now cemented, we know the Mad Ants will host a total of thirteen NBA affiliates. As such, you've been able to make multiple stops in various locations during the open tryout process. How have things been going?
A: So far, they've been pretty good overall. We've had Minnesota, Washington D.C., Brooklyn, Atlanta, and we'll finish up with Los Angeles, and then on October 18th, we'll have our last one in Fort Wayne. The goal is to try and find five players through all of these tryouts. We think we've found five pretty good ones already. Will we have great interest in drafting them? We're hoping to get another good look at them by inviting the top five, along with some others, on October 18th. We'll see them play when the competition is real good. Then we'll see if we look to draft them and make them a part of our team.
Q: On one hand, I imagine making so many stops can be exhausting. But has being able to cast a wider net for talent presented Fort Wayne with an advantage?
A: I think it's been a positive advantage for us. We've been able to look around the country and turn over every rock. We've looked at guys who collegially maybe didn't have the opportunity. Maybe they were a year or two older and matured physically a little late. Some had family issues that prevented them from playing. This has been beneficial. We've seen a lot of guys. When we're putting our team together, we'll have choices. Will we find a real good player that makes our team and has a shot at the NBA? Time will tell. But we have a pretty good example in Ron Howard.
Q: The new affiliation system, and the idea of the Mad Ants hosting so many, has been met with mixed reception. What's your take on it? How will you balance the relationships?
A: Among the thirteen, we've already started to discuss relationships with each one, kind of directly and indirectly. Not only when we come to town for tryouts, but we've been proactive in talking to general managers, looking at their rosters, and trying to figure out who will make their team. There could be up to 25 players who can potentially be good guys for us. We're talking to agents and trying to see who could be a good fit in Fort Wayne. There will be challenges with the thirteen teams. We'll get four NBA players from camps, just like everyone else. We feel as though the advantage is we can get players from different teams. We need to be on it and make sure we get the best four.
There's an unknown to this new setup with the thirteen affiliates, because at any given time, we can have up to four NBA players assigned to our club. How that all works, time will tell. Developing relationships with each club, letting them know our expectations, how we like to play will be key. We're going to have the same philosophy as last year. When these guys come down, we're all still playing for each other. I know guys want to come down and get 20 shots or play 25 minutes. When the team is successful, players become more mature and improve their skills. When the season ends, they get more opportunities.
Q: After hosting up to six affiliates, and still managing to win a D-League championship, is it safe to assume that if any team can handle this new affiliation challenge, it's Fort Wayne?
A: We're not saying we have all the answers. Last year's group bought into the message of working hard, sticking together, and playing for each other. I think our play really dictated that. Our scoring and overall play was so balanced. That's a great example for us to follow. Will we be a very good team again? Time will tell. We didn't start well at all last season, but we had some moments where everyone realized we had to get closer as a group in order to win. From there, we made some shots, won more games, and became tighter as a unit. It turned out to be a special season.
Sadiel Rojas, Trey McKinney Jones, Matt Boundin, and Tony Mitchell are all overseas now and are doing well. Peyton Siva and Tony Mitchell (the Piston with the same name) fit in great when they came down from Detroit. They bought into what we wanted to do, and it resulted in a lot of wins, a good locker room, and I believe a good experience for everybody.
Q: Last season was great. In professional sports, there's so much pressure to defend a championship and repeat success. In the D-League, things are a bit different because of all the moving parts. With that in mind, what do you think will be the key to new success this coming year?
A: I think we have to develop and have the mindset to develop those who are with us. Everyone is in the D-League to win games, because that's how you keep score. But at the end of the day, you can't win games unless you develop your players. We'll start out on October 18th by putting our team together. Then on November 4th, we'll begin camp. We'll go day by day, and develop our talent. We'll hope to get them together and then aim for the playoffs.
I didn't preach anything about a championship last year. It was always about staying together. Then we made the playoffs. It came to a point where we always had something special in front of us. Now if you want to win it, you have to make The Finals. Once you get there, you see other factors come into play. It's a process. My message to the guys is that it starts on day one by re-establishing our work ethic and having a great time doing it. It's a good life that we have. We get to play a game and an opportunity to compete. When the players improve their skills, there are other things that come financially. They can become successful both on the court and off.