Adreian Payne is yet to have appeared in an NBA game, but as fate would have it, the rookie has already made history.
The forward was the subject of the one of the more recent NBA to D-League assignments, one that undoubtedly figures to make a considerable mark in how minor league is utilized by NBA teams going forward, for better or for worse.
Entering this new season, the D-League hosted an all-time high of seventeen teams entered into exclusive one-to-one relationships with NBA teams. The exception to the rule, or better yet, the ongoing trend, was the independently owned Fort Wayne Mad Ants.
After winning the 2013-14 D-League championship, the Mad Ants proved that such squads can still find success in the minor league.
It's the organization's right to remain independently owned, with the local management group taking care of both the business and basketball operations side of things. That said, the fact of the matter is, such a desire to do so is not a common one among local ownership groups at this point. As such, with Fort Wayne standing as the sole independently owned squad, the NBA was left with no choice but to allow its thirteen otherwise non-affiliated remaining squads share the defending champs amongst themselves in a sense.
Perhaps such a solution wasn't the most conducive one, as it relates to ensuring all NBA teams continue to embrace the D-League to the fullest. Still, it's also possible that many, if not all, of the thirteen remaining teams, will come to the conclusion that sharing an affiliation in this fashion isn't productive for anyone. This may inch such teams closer to breaking free and opting to own and operate their own individual affiliate in the near future, after all.
But in the meantime, things figure to get crowded in Fort Wayne.
Still, the league has attempted to make certain provisions to such an assignment rule to make it work out for all involved. The rule states as follows:
To accommodate assignments to Fort Wayne, a flexible assignment system will be utilized when an independent NBA team assigns a player at a time when the Mad Ants already have either the maximum of four NBA players on assignment or two assigned players at the position of the NBA player who is being assigned.
In either event, the NBA D-League will identify to the assigning NBA team any singly-affiliated NBA D-League team that is willing to accept the assigned player, and the independent NBA team assigning the player will choose a team from among those teams to assign the player.
Two of the four assigned players (John Jenkins and Mike Muscala) were sent to the Mad Ants by the Hawks. In fact, the Hawks recalled Payne and sent Muscala to the Mad Ants on Saturday, assuring Fort Wayne stayed at four NBA players. They started the process to assign Payne to Austin on Sunday, and recalled Jenkins and Muscala on Monday.
That's not using the flexible assignment rule. That's manipulating the system.
What the Hawks did was within the rules. But it smells rotten from here.
With Fort Wayne hosting thirteen different affiliates, they're in no way obligated to run any individual team's system as their own. As such, while more playing time in the minor league for NBA assignees may be a likely benefit, being able to learn and grow in a similar system is not.
Atlanta knew with four current assignees, the Mad Ants would be unable to take on Payne at that exact point in time of his actual assignment. The Austin Spurs stepped up to the plate, seemingly throwing the Hawks a bone and doing them a favor. They've seemingly volunteered to host Payne for the time being, and as such, will subsequently benefit from having a player of his caliber in town, while the Hawks can rest assured he develops while further honing his skills in a similar system. After all, Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer was a San Antonio Spurs assistant for nearly two decades, while his assistant, Taylor Jenkins, previously served as Austin's head coach. It's safe to assume they have a few friends in town who may have been able to lend a helping hand.
The Hawks may have very well manipulated the system, but at this point, it was smart to do so. It was strategic. While this may have prevented the Mad Ants from benefitting from Payne's services, the fact of the matter is, the team still stands to benefit from up to four NBA players at a time, assigned from a potential pool of up to thirteen teams. What minor league franchise can say the same thing?
None. This is obviously the most positive outlook to have on this situation, but digging even deeper, perhaps the Mad Ants would sometimes prefer to give their own athletes more playing time down the stretch, as opposed to shifting things around to accommodate the incoming assignees.
This entire scenario clearly isn't ideal. Perhaps the Hawks emerging to poke a few holes in the set-up will work out for the best. On one hand, they're smart to do what's best for their own franchise (and arguably not so much the Mad Ants). On the other hand, it may motivate the D-League to make some changes come next season.
But in the meantime, Payne is set to make his debut for the Austin Spurs on Thursday. He previously averaged 13.7 points and 10.3 rebounds through six games with Fort Wayne.