Often times in the NBA D-League, rosters are permeated with giant egos, selfish ambitions, and me-first attitudes. Teams are comprised of yesteryear's second-tier high school and college players fighting for a shot at the big stage that is the NBA.
One won't find any of that in Sioux Falls. Instead, one will find a team currently gelling and playing rather well due to plenty of unselfishness all around. It's no accident.
The Sioux Falls Skyforce are 19-4, the best 23-game start to a season in D-League history. They are led by a first-year head coach in Dan Craig who has his players committed to one common ideal, and it's paying dividends.
"There is a bit of a misconception that if you play well individually, you'll get a call-up," Craig told RidiculousUpside.com. "Our message this year...has been, ‘If you do things collectively, together, and by doing the little things - championship habits - on both ends of the court, you're gonna be in a better situation when you do get called up.'"
"It's great to see the guys come together and to buy into that, and to help each other for one common goal - for our team to do well."
"You don't win by mistake," said point guard Tre Kelley. "We play together. We play well together. We trust each other."
It is that selflessness and trust that has the Skyforce soaring atop the D-League standings, but by no means has the season been easy. The Miami Heat affiliate started the year 0-2 by losing a heartbreaker in the season opener before getting blown out by the Westchester Knicks on the road. But Craig kept a level head, knowing the season is a grind. He just wanted to help his players stay focused and get better every day.
Clearly, they have.
Kelley said the key to Sioux Falls' rebound was their ability to "dive into (their) main focuses offensively and defensively - creating great habits."
"Everybody talks about the (San Antonio) Spurs and what they've been able to do over the years," he said. "They have bought into great habits. The recipe to their winning has become a habit - same with the Miami Heat. Coach Craig calls them championship habits."
Sioux Falls has also had to deal with significant injuries to two starters. Guard DeAndre Liggins has been sidelined since Jan. 12 due to a foot issue. He is second in the league in steals per game (2.6) and third in assists per game (6.7) while recording two triple-doubles.
Meanwhile, forward Greg Whittington has been limited to ten games because of a broken wrist. He's averaging 15.2 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 2.4 steals per game.
"Obviously it hurts when you lose guys like that," Craig said. "But we have a next-man-up concept in that locker room. Guys have really bought into it.They stay ready mentally, they stay ready physically, and you see guys step into new roles."
Sioux Falls has also had to adjust to other moving parts common in the D-League, like not knowing when its most potent offensive threat will be with the team. Forward Jarnell Stokes has been back-and-forth on assignments between the Heat and the Skyforce. He's averaged 20.4 points and 9.6 boards in four different stints with Sioux Falls.
"Being down here is fun," Stokes said after Sioux Falls' 109-104 win over Fort Wayne on Jan. 15. "These guys play the game the right way. When I'm here I just try to play within the flow of the game, because we have very good players."
The team has proven time and again that it doesn't need to rely on Stokes to win.
Having a leader on the team like Kelley has helped bring the team through its various trials. At age 30, Kelley is three years older than Liggins, the next oldest member of the Skyforce. In nine seasons as a professional, Kelley has played for 18 different teams in 11 different countries.
"You're not gonna find a better pro," said Craig. "His leadership is tremendous. His work ethic is tremendous. Not only does he lead with his voice, but he leads by example."
"I've gotten a lot of great information about my game from other people - coaches, GMs - so I just continue to work hard," Kelley said. "A lot of people don't apply themselves mentally and with their heart. That's the thing that I want to give back to the younger guys: make it natural. If you want a bigger opportunity, you have to put in greatness. You have to have a good work ethic and never give up. That's something that I always wanna give back to those guys."
Craig's philosophy has produced arguably the D-League's best defense and a top-10 offense to boot. Entering Tuesday's game against the Iowa Energy, the Skyforce lead the league in both opponent scoring and shooting. Sioux Falls is allowing 94 points per game on 42.4 percent shooting. Only one other team is allowing fewer than 100 points per game - the Austin Spurs (99 ppg).
"You have to play the game the right way on both sides of the floor," Craig said. "I think it starts with your defense. If that's your DNA, you can stay in most games and give yourself a chance. But playing the game the right way (offensively) is extremely important, because the defense and offense play together. If you're taking bad shots, it's hard to get stops because teams are coming at you in transition. So it starts with our defense, but our offense is right there."
The Los Angeles D-Fenders won a D-League-record 38 games in 2010-'11. The Skyforce may shatter that mark - they are on pace to win 41 games this season. Craig certainly appears to be on his way to a Coach of the Year award. And at this point, it'd be foolish to pick against Sioux Falls to win its first D-League title.
But the Skyforce are focused on the present.
"We just have to stay with the process of trying to get better every single day, every single shootaround, every single practice, and every single rep," said Craig. "We say, ‘Try to get better one percent every day. No matter what we're doing, come with a mindset of getting a little better every day.'"