If you’ve been following Ridiculous Upside for any period of time, whether it’s here or social media, you might’ve figured out that we can be critical of the NBA G League. That censorious mindset has been due to varying factors whether it’s their recent corporate rebranding or their inability to actually pay their players a living wage.
Even though there are still some key flaws in the G League, it would be a mistake to overlook the growth that’s been made since Malcolm Turner took over as league president in October 2014. When he came on board, the league featured 18 teams for the 2014-15. Now in 2017, there’s going to be 26 squads for the upcoming season. That growth will continue for 2018-19 as both New Orleans and Washington have announced intentions to have their own G League affiliates.
With the Pelicans and Wizards entering the G League down the stretch, there’s now only two organizations that are still left sitting on the sidelines: the Portland Trail Blazers and the Denver Nuggets. Over the next week, Ridiculous Upside will be investigating the real reasons as to why neither NBA team has their own G League affiliate. To start things out, let’s take a look at the Trail Blazers.
Although Portland is currently without a G League team, that doesn’t meant that they’re strangers to minor league hoops. In fact, the Trail Blazers actually jumped on the bandwagon in May 2012 when they entered a partnership with the Idaho Stampede (now Salt Lake City Stars) that was known as a “hybrid affiliation”. That gave Portland control of the operations for two seasons while the owners of the Stampede retained control of the business operations.
The first move that the Blazers made with the Stampede was hiring Michael Peck to be their new head coach. Prior to his hiring, Peck made his name as the head coach of Findlay Prep, where he went 157-8 in five seasons which included leading the team to a No.1 national ranking in 2009.
More important than that success, Peck was able to groom future players like Tristan Thompson, Avery Bradley and Cory Joseph, which allowed him to be known as a great coach when it came to player development. Although actual on-court success is solid, the Blazers hired Peck to see if he can turn one of the members of the Stampede into the next Thompson or Bradley.
Unfortunately, that experiment got off to some rough patches as Peck experienced a culture shock as he transitioned from high school hoops to the G League. Peck explained that initial frustration in an interview he did for Kevin Danna’s e-book entitled A Eulogy for Professional Basketball in Idaho.
“I kept wanting to hit the pause button, the slow-mo button, the rewind button, because you go up there thinking you know a little basketball, but that first year I was like ‘oh my gosh, this might as well be soccer, because I don’t have a clue right now,’” said Peck, reminiscing on spending time at training camp with the Portland Trail Blazers (as part of his job as Stampede head coach, he would go to Portland training camp to work with the staff).
His inexperience immediately showed once the season actually got under way as Idaho started things off going 1-12. Idaho’s slow start immediately frustrated a variety of people within the Stampede organization, which included managing investor Bill Illett who expressed his frustrations in a January 2013 interview with the Idaho Statesman.
"I'd be lying to you if I told you it wasn't frustrating. In my world, there's only one group that comes into this arena that gets to vote. And it's not the Portland Trail Blazers and it's not the owners of the Idaho Stampede. It's the people that buy tickets and come to the games," Ilett said before the game. "The entertainment package has slipped."
"We're concerned about winning tonight, tomorrow night and the next night," Ilett said. "Maybe they're looking at it as developmental."
"I look at the other teams that have hybrids in this league and they're winning games and building crowds and building an entertainment package. The Idaho Stampede and the Portland Trail Blazers need to sit down and say, ‘How do we fix this?'" Ilett said. "I don't think we have seriously looked eye to eye: How can we together solve this problem? That needs to happen soon."
Illet’s comments immediately showed that the Stampede had a different mindset regarding the franchise than the Trail Blazers. For Portland, they wanted to use that squad as a means to develop young prospects like Will Barton and Nolan Smith. Meanwhile, the Stampede’s brass was focused primarily on trying to win games and put asses in seats. Unfortunately, neither occurred as the Stampede finished with a 19-31 record while only one of the prospects that the Blazers sent down is still in the NBA.
Fortunately, things improved during the following year as the Stampede started the 2013-14 season with an 8-0 record, their best start in team history. That initial success was due to the great play of 5’11 guard Pierre Jackson, who immediately stood as arguably the most electrifying player in the entire league as he put up a then- G League-record 58 points in a February game against the Texas Legends. That great scoring lasted throughout the season as he ended up leading the league in scoring with 29.1 points per game.
Coinciding with that, the Stampede also had the opportunity to utilize Blazers rookies CJ McCollum and Allen Crabbe, who were both top-35 picks in that year’s draft. Neither player spent too much time with the team but it still showed that the Blazers were somewhat comfortable with sending their young prospects down to the league on a temporary basis. Those factors ultimately helped push the Stampede to finish with a 24-26 record.
Despite those improvements, the Portland Trail Blazers decided to end their hybrid relationship with the Stampede after the 2013-14 season. Although the relationship between the two organizations became tighter, Portland weren’t necessarily interested in staying in minor league hoops.
“[Portland GM] Neil Olshey made the statement to me, and he may be correct – he felt that he could develop players better in his practice facility with his team than having a D-League team,” Ilett said in A Eulogy for Professional Basketball in Idaho. “That’s the approach he’s taken, and he’s done pretty good, so maybe he’s right.”
“I respect the Trail Blazers and wish them well.”
In the time since the Trail Blazers cut ties with the Idaho Stampede -- who have since been bought out by the Utah Jazz and moved to Salt Lake City to become the SLC Stars — there have been only one real story regarding the organization’s potential interest in joining the G League. That lone piece comes from an interview that Oregonian’s Mike Richmond did with Neil Olshey in late April. Although most of the interview was basically centered around recapping the 2016-17, Olshey had a pretty thorough response when asked about whether the Trail Blazers considered getting a G League team.
We've looked at it. It's an ongoing process. In order to maximize it it's gotta be geographically in the right place. When we looked and we tracked the teams that are really successful with the model, there are things we would like to replicate. It just takes time to find the right time to do it, where to run the team, what resources to put behind it. It'll give us a good sample with ... are these two-way contracts (in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement) going to make it more productive? There are arguments either way. There are teams that have developed players because they have an opportunity to go to the D-League and then we've developed players because we have the value of having them around our team more.
We saw it this year. Tim Quarterman was making great progress with us and we thought going to the D-League was going to maximize the foundation he had built here and it actually worked as a setback. Jake (Layman) same thing. It ended up being more of a setback. That was sending them to a place that wasn't under our direct control. They don't run the same system. It's more challenging. But we still have to figure out where would put it and how are we going to make sure that these guys don't lose touch with the Portland Trail Blazers.
From the surface, it appears that Olshey has evolved his thought process about the G League since he cut ties with the Stampede. Rather than basically discrediting the merits of the league like he previously did, Olshey seems to be a lot more intrigued about the whole process. For one, he mentioned how the Blazers are studying up on how other NBA organizations have successfully utilized the G League. That research can go from the Kings use the Reno Bighorns to develop their rotation to how the Santa Cruz Warriors are the hottest ticket in town while also being a great breeding ground for some of players that helped push the big league club to being an NBA champion.
In order to replicate the success of those organizations, Olshey noted that the affiliate needs to be in the right location. Rather than have that affiliate be more than a six hour drive away, like what they had with the Stampede, the Blazers would ideally have it located near the big league club. Olshey’s realization came when the development of rookies like Jake Layman and Tim Quarterman actually took a significant step back due to them spending time with a G League team, the Windy City Bulls, that was more than two thousand miles from Portland.
A close location would allow a Blazers prospect an ample opportunity to play in NBA practices while also getting playing time against solid G League competition. For example, that prospect could spend the afternoon practicing with the big league club while being able to spend the evening in the G League.
An additional benefit to this is how local fans may be more interested in attending G League games if they’re already familiar with the big league affiliate. That attachment could increase attendance if Portland sends down their young players or just to watch prospects on two-way deals. Because if the organization promises that the G League will feature future Blazers players, fans might be interested in watching young prospects that might eventually be in that big league team’s rotation. The intrigue of fans could turn into bigger attendance which would bring more money to both the NBA and G League clubs.
The Blazers are going to need to take those steps before they get an affiliate, as they don’t want to have the same troubles that they had with Idaho. Rather than just jumping head first in the G League waters, the organization is going to be patient until they can figure out a way how the affiliate will be beneficial from both a financial and on-court perspective.
In regards to the Blazers feeling on two-way contracts, they currently stand as one of the lone teams that might not take advantage. Portland’s hesitance is due to how the organization currently views two-way deals only as trade assets since they’re the minimum non-cash conveyance allowed for trades, sources tell Ridiculous Upside. So currently, the Blazers basically think of two-way players just as trade ammo, similar to how some teams select a Euro-rights prospect that will probably never come over to the NBA.
Of course, that mindset can definitely change as the Blazers will be studying how successful G League teams like Santa Cruz, Raptors 905 and the RGV Vipers utilize two-way players. If the Blazers see that multiple players under two-way deals can turn into solid role players, then they might be willing to get on board. However, they currently seem to be more pessimistic than anything else.
At this point, that pessimism seems to engulf the Trail Blazers when it comes to the G League. That cynicism goes back to their relationship with the Idaho Stampede where they weren’t on the same page as that team’s front office staff. While there’s a huge difference between the hybrid relationship that they had with Idaho and just being an actual owner of a G League squad, Olshey and company still use that experience as a reason to be hesitant.
That reluctance has pushed the Blazers to take their time before they take the step towards getting their own G League affiliate. Before they take that big step forward, Olshey and company are taking their time to study up on other G League affiliates and how they utilize the two-way deals. Even though it’s usually smart to take your time before reaching a big decision, their indecision might actually backfire on them. Because while twenty six NBA squads are now able to utilize their G League affiliate to develop players or even coaches, the Blazers are left hanging in the dust.
That indecision could definitely hurt in the competitive Western Conference as teams like Houston, Golden State and San Antonio have utilized the G League to develop solid young prospects like Clint Capela, Patrick McCaw and Dejounte Murray. Coinciding with that, the Spurs also found a huge “diamond in the rough” with Jonathon Simmons, who shined with the team during the playoffs and just signed a 3 year/$20 million deal with the Orlando Magic. While those teams are progressing in the West due to having young prospects on cheap deals that developed, Portland has to go out in free agency and overpay for someone like Evan Turner because they need guys that can play 20-25 minutes per game.
While it might seem smart for the Blazers organization to take their time before jumping head first into the G League, this wait might end up really hurting them in the long run.