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The D-League’s Salary Balance Act

Contributor David Scott looks at why it’s so important for the D-League to boost their salaries.

Brooklyn Nets General Manager Billy King speaks to the media during a press conference to announce the Brooklyn Nets D-League team.
Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

As a basketball fan, I like to think that my support for players truly impacts their lives. It pains me to say this, but my support probably doesn’t change anything. However, I can speak out about the tragedy occurring in the NBA’s D-League. To put it plainly, NBA Development League players are grossly underpaid. Under the old three-tier contract system, the average salary payout was barely more than $19,000, with the lowest tiered contract sitting at a value of $13,000. Though individual teams could pay their players more if they saw fit, once the season began, the money wasn’t even guaranteed.

Even with the newer two-tier contract system, players aren’t promised any money regardless of how hard they work, how much time they dedicate to their game, or how much they mean to their teams. Although teams aren’t allowed to change salary payouts without the direct consent of a player, and the league usually requires all salary changes to be based on legitimate roster adjustments, the present average salary of $22,750 is ridiculously low to begin with.

Today’s standard ten man roster setup conforms to the new two-tier contract system. Players are assigned to one of two tiers, “A” or “B” which salary payouts are based on. To remain under the salary cap, teams sign players to $26,000 “A” contracts and $19,500 ”B” contracts. These totals must be adjusted and tweaked to make the $209,000 salary cap. While many conservative fans will argue these salaries are more than fair for players competing solely to make it to the NBA, the fact of the matter is that no league as large as the NBA should be paying players such horrendous wages.

In 2015, the United States released updated financial guidelines stating that a person living alone making $12,000 or less annually is said to be living in a state of poverty. Therefore, D-League players that fell under “B” and “C” contracts in the previous system, unless receiving a secondary source of income, were faced with the possibility of living dangerously close to the poverty line. While the primary goal of the D-League is to provide development and exposure for young players hoping to make a career of their talents, these payouts are barely enough for them to support themselves up until they truly “make it” in basketball.

Before 2006, the minimum age requirement for the NBA D-League was 19, but in April of 2006 the eligibility rule was lowered to 18 years old. For many of these players, payouts like these in such an unreliable career put them at great financial risk. Brian Rzeppa put it elegantly in his article in which he spoke about how hard D-League players work:

Whether it's a young player looking for his first shot in the NBA, or a veteran trying to work his way back into the league, years of hard work goes into getting that very call.

— Brian Rzeppa Mar 10, 2016

When faced with making such little money, those years of hard work, developing yourself into a player worthy of playing in the biggest basketball league in the world, that effort seems almost futile. That ultimately drives talent to head to Europe and China to make more money for playing basketball.

According to the NBA, 174 players played with D-League experience at the end of the 2014-2015 season. This set a record for the percentage of players in the league with D-League origins, sitting at 39%. This sum of nearly 200 players included both players called up from the D-League and players sent back down for further development. While these numbers may inspire hope in a lot of young faces going into the league, the low payouts may drive them away from the Association. To add to this, pundits like you and I aren't the only ones who advocate for detailed changes to the D-League.

One of the biggest supporters of these, is the one and only 9x NBA All-Star and 3x Olympic Gold Medalist, Carmelo Anthony. Carmelo believes the league should be viewed as an opportunity instead of a dreadful punishment. He also supports the idea of larger wages, which also doubles down as an incentive, keeping players from playing overseas, and motivating them to stay in the US.

Though the low payouts provide motivation for developing players to continue to work hard and endure the struggle, we mustn't forget the great success stories of the NBA D-League. Take Hassan Whiteside for example, the Miami Heat’s star center. Whiteside began his professional career playing for multiple affiliate teams and international clubs, struggling to make his way into the NBA. After nearly four years of bouncing from club to club, the Miami Heat signed Whiteside on November 14th, 2014.

They then assigned him to their development team, the Sioux Falls Skyforce. Less than two months later, Whiteside proved his doubters wrong in his NBA debut, recording a double-double with 11 points, 10 rebounds and 5 blocks.

While the NBA D-League’s salary cap has raised, the NBA still isn’t doing enough to fix this issue for their financially strapped youngsters. Sources and rumors point to new salary payouts being put into action this season, at $19,500 for “B” contracts, $26,000 for “A” tiered-contracts, and ridding the D-League of the “C” tier all together. If this is to happen, as expected, it would certainly be a step in the right direction. At the end of the day, more action in general needs to be taken to insure developing players are properly paid for the hard work and dedication they put forward.