Last season, thirteen NBA teams, unaffiliated with any sole D-League team, were left to coordinate accordingly and work with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants if they wanted to assign a younger and/or rehabbing player to the D-League. As such, the "flexible assignment" rule that the minor league implemented at the start of last season left plenty to be desired. There were too many relationships to maintain, and the rule didn't exactly work out to the benefit of a handful of teams still interested in utilizing the D-League, but without an affiliate to call their own.
It may have been difficult to foresee a team like the Mad Ants being able to maintain relationships and go on to accommodate the unaffiliated teams and make them happy. That said, the smarter and savvier teams soon came to realize that an effective way to utilize the flexible assignment rule was not necessarily about working with Fort Wayne, but instead, another team of their choice.
One of the stipulations of last season's flexible assignment rule was that if Fort Wayne already had four specifics players at a given position at one time, that an unaffiliated team could find another "willing" team to take on a respective assignee in the meantime instead.
Such a wrinkle in the rule proved to work out better than an actual affiliation with the Mad Ants did for some teams. In cases like this, teams would look for an affiliate that utilized a more similar system (or perhaps even played in a more localized location), then simply waited specifically for the Mad Ants to be filled to capacity at the position in order to assign their given player. At this point, they would already have a pre-set arrangement for another team to be ready, willing, and able to take on the assignee instead.
Such a practice was seen last season when the Atlanta Hawks subsequently went on to assign Adreian Payne to the Spurs' D-League affiliate. With former long-time San Antonio assistant Mike Budenholzer running the show in Atlanta with former Austin head coach Taylor Jenkins at his aid as an assistant, there's safe to say there's plenty of familiarity there.
The Brooklyn Nets (who are reportedly looking to once again operate their own minor league team later in 2016) also boasted a similar mentality and strategy when assigning youngster Markel Brown to the more local Celtics' D-League affiliate in Maine.
This practice will assumedly become even more prevalent next season, now that the Mad Ants are solely affiliated with the Indiana Pacers.
For reassurance, the league has provided this explanation as per the revamped affiliate / non-affiliate arrangement for this coming season:
With the acquisition, the NBA D-League's flexible assignment system - which was instituted prior to the 2014-15 season - will continue to enable the 11 independent NBA teams to assign players to the NBA D-League for development or rehabilitation from injury. Upon receipt of an assignment from an independent NBA team, the NBA D-League will identify any NBA D-League team willing to accept the assigned player. The assigning independent NBA team will then choose the destination for assignment between those teams. If no NBA D-League team is willing to accept the assigned player, he will be assigned to one of the hybrid affiliate teams pursuant to a lottery. The 19 NBA teams with single affiliations will be able to assign players to their NBA D-League partners.
It will be interesting to watch unaffiliated teams continue to manipulate accordingly. This, however, is all in smart taste and strategy. The NBA squads are simply using the tools available to them, when a sole minor league affiliate to call their own simply isn't one of them.