On Thursday night, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants and Santa Cruz Warriors will face off in game one of the 2015 NBA D-League Finals.
If such a scenario sounds rather familiar, that's because it should be.
This year's minor league championship series will be a rematch of the one that took place last season. This case of deja vu is much more impressive than casual D-League followers would seem to think. Because of the better pay and greener pastures that await them overseas or in the NBA, many players, coaches, and front office staffers alike depart the NBADL sooner than later.
This, of course, makes it difficult to develop continuity for teams from year to year. The term "dynasty" doesn't exactly apply. Making consecutive championship runs isn't all too likely, simply because the individuals on a given team aren't ones to collectively return too often.
With that in mind, it's time to give kudos to the coaching staffs. Head coaches Conner Henry (Mad Ants) and Casey Hill (Warriors) have been able to lead relatively different looking groups to the same type of success. Of course, this shouldn't be too surprising. Coach Henry led Fort Wayne to the organization's first championship in his first year as head coach last year. What's more, he won D-League Coach of the Year following the campaign as well.
In addition to leading Santa Cruz to a league best 35-15 record this season, Coach Hill's Warriors squads have made it to The Finals in each of the last three seasons (he was an assistant in 2012-13). Needless to say, each one is a quality coach --- they're arguably the best two in the league, and perhaps even deserving of respective NBA call-ups of their own. Such proven results up until this point is just further evidence of just that.
Having said all that, let's take a look at how each respective team breaks down:
The Fort Wayne Mad Ants:
Returning players: Matt Bouldin, Trey McKinney-Jones, and Ramon Harris: Like Coach Henry, this trio surely still has the taste of a championship on their lips. They crave it yet again. One of the most versatile players in all of the D-League, veteran Bouldin is a swiss army knife of sorts that can hurt an opposing team in multiple different ways. Last season, McKinney-Jones was a deadly shooter from long range. Since returning from international play this year, he's struggled a bit more and has taken time to come into his own. Nevertheless, he still serves as a threat. On the flip side, Harris has conversely in fact found such range. What's more, he's somewhat of a defensive specialist.
Key newcomers: Jordan Crawford, Gary Talton, CJ Fair, and Travis Hyman: Just last month, the Mad Ants were still fighting for a playoff spot, unaware whether or not they'd ultimately break into the postseason. Nevertheless, the recent addition of Crawford proved to pay dividends for the squad. Seemingly taking over for Andre Emmett towards the end of the campaign, the NBA vet Crawford has emerged as arguably the most skillful and efficient scorer in all of the D-League. Santa Cruz is sure to have its hands full defending him. A double-double candidate on any given night, Talton is quite the orchestrator. Fair has shown the most improvement over the course of this season, and Hyman stands tall as an imposing defender down on the low block.
Missing component: 2013-14 Most Valuable Player and notable D-League vet Ron Howard (suitably named "Mr. Mad Ant") led Fort Wayne through its title run last season, but sat out over the course of this campaign.
The Santa Cruz Warriors:
Returning players: Mychel Thompson, Kiwi Gardner, Ognjen Kuzmic, Taylor Griffin, and Darington Hobson: While his statistics may not have reflected as much, Thompson could have garnered consideration for the Most Improved Player award this season. His confidence never wavered, and his steady stroke from long range has become much more consistent, helping him rise up as a primary option in the Warriors' offense. On assignment from Golden State, Kuzmic has not only served as a towering defensive force, but has also become more assertive on the offensive end as well.
Griffin and Hobson weren't a part of last season's run to The Finals, but spent time on the team in 2012-13. Each one has had an impact this season. Griffin provides his team with unique size and steady shooting from around the perimeter. With Elliot Williams and James Michael McAdoo strutting their stuff in the NBA, Hobson stepped up in the clutch to fill the void and even earned RidiculousUpside.com's Impact Player of the Year award. Gardner is a larger than life personality who can ignite the home crowd simply from hitting the hardwood.
Key newcomers: Aaron Craft, Elliot Williams, Dominique Sutton, and Anthony Vereen: A true extension of Casey Hill, Craft is a coach on the floor and an ever-commanding leader. Arguably deserving of an NBA call-up, Craft won the D-League's Defensive Player of the Year award. A talented player on both ends of the floor, Williams was arguably the best player in the minor league this season, and went on to earn multiple NBA gigs because of it. A strong and explosive forward, Sutton earned the respect of his teammates rather quickly as a defensive hound. Like Gardner, Vereen is able to keep his teammates and the home crowd upbeat throughout, and isn't afraid to throw his body around on the defensive end.
Missing component(s): After winning a championship with the Dakota Wizards way back when, veteran Maurice Baker is hoping third time is a charm for Santa Cruz. Currently nursing a hard injury, he'll have to cheer his team on from the sidelines this time around. The team will also likely be without James Michael McAdoo, who proved to be a key component on their squad before getting called up by Golden State.
Series prediction: The team that wins game one in Fort Wayne will go on to win the championship itself. Having said that, the Warriors are carrying themselves with confidence and have the firepower necessary to overwhelm the Mad Ants right out the gate. Should they lose game two, Coach Hill and his staff have proven to do a great job of reacting and fixing apparent mistakes relatively quickly. Santa Cruz will win this series 2-1.