Way back in July 6, 2005, then-NBA commissioner David Stern announced that the National Basketball Development League (NBDL) would be changing to the NBA Development League (NBADL) in an attempt to make an appeal to make an appeal to fans regarding its status as the minor league system to the NBA. In the fifteen years since that announcement, the league has progressed at a rate that has really amassed yours truly, who started to write about the league in 2012.
As someone that’s been covering the league for almost a decade and has studied up on its history, it becomes clear that you can split the fifteen years of the D/G League since that announcement into three separate eras. Within this three-part series, you’ll get a chance to read about the its growth and evolution from being based solely in the south and southeast to the true international league that you see today.
Era Of Change- 2005- 2012
When David Stern made that announcement in the summer of 2005, the D-League was in the type of state that folks that have gotten into it over the last few years wouldn’t be able to recognize due to how the league was basically based in the south. With the exception of the Albuquerque Thunderbirds, who were based in New Mexico, cities like Roanoke, Virginia, Fort Worth, Texas, Fayetteville, Virginia, North Little Rock, Arkansas, and Fort Myers, Florida all hosted teams during that season. While it may seem strange to you, it was commonplace at that time due to the league largely starting with squads below the Mason Dixon Line.
Just a few months later, that trend would come to an end as all of those teams besides the Arkansas RimRockers and Fort Worth Flyers would fold before the beginning of the 2006-07 campaign. During that season, the league started to different regions. That expansion had a lot to do with the slow death of the Continental Basketball Association (CBA) as established franchises in the Sioux Falls Skyforce, Dakota Wizards, and Idaho Stampede all made the leap to the D-League during that season.
That trio along with the ABA’s Bakersfield Jam was joined by expansion squads in the Anaheim Arsenal, Colorado 14ers, and Los Angeles D-Fenders. That last squad was the most intriguing of the bunch as they were the first team to be owned by an NBA squad, through their relationship with the Los Angeles Lakers. Despite the elimination of the teams based in the south, the addition of those clubs was still enough to see the league grow from eight teams in 2005-06 to 12 in 2006-07.
Along with the growth of teams, that year also represented the first D-League All-Star game and introduction to the Dennis Johnson Trophy, which is given out to the coach of the year. An interesting fact about that inaugural All-Star game, is that it featured current Capital City Go-Go GM Pops Mensah-Bonsu, who won MVP due to putting up 30 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 blocks on 11-13 from the field and 8-12 from the free throw line.
As the years went by, the face of the D-League continued to change through both folding, expansion, and relocation. Prior to the 2007-08 season, the last two squads from the NBDL, the Fort Worth Flyers and Arkansas RimRockers both folded. However, the show went on for the league as the league went to 14 teams in that season through the introduction of the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, Iowa Energy, RGV Vipers, and Utah Flash. Evidentially, growth continued in the following year as the 2008-09 campaign represented the league moving into the northeast with the launch of version 1.0 of the Erie BayHawks.
During that same 2008-09 season, current Utah Jazz head coach Quin Snyder led an Austin Toros team to a fantastic 32-18 record. Him pushing that squad to be top five in both offensive and defensive rating led to the league naming him as their Coach of the Year. Despite the great season from the Quin Snyder-led Toros, the team couldn’t contain Colorado 14ers duo of Sonny Weems and Eddie Gill, who combined to put up 50 points in their 114-111 winner-takes-all conference finals victory. That duo was enough to push the team to sweep the Utah Flash in the Finals and win the title.
At the same time that Quin Snyder was leading the Austin Toros to regular season success, a young Nick Nurse was doing the same up north with the Iowa Energy. After struggling during his first year with the team in the 2007-08 season, the team spent the next three years shining as the most consistent team in the league.
In three straight years, the Iowa Energy either stood as the best team in their division or conference. The peak of that run came during the 2010-11 season where the team had a league-best 37-13 record. That success continued into the playoffs as they won consecutive against the Flash and 66ers before meeting the RGV Vipers in the D-Finals. In a matchup against potential future NBA head coach Chris Finch, Nurse’s leadership combined with the duo of Michael Haynes and Stefhon Hannah, who scored a combined 52 points in the team’s 119-111 series-clinching victory in Game 3.
At the same time that they were within a few better possessions away from winning a title, the RGV Vipers stood alongside the expansion Texas Legends as the only teams to have a single affiliate partnership with an NBA team. Although it was previously mentioned that the D-Fenders were owned by the Lakers, they used the 2010-11 season as an off-year to restructure the whole organization.
In the time where organizations like the Legends, D-Fenders, and Vipers were rare, the league was a mess for teams that wanted to use the league as a way to develop their young talent. Along with having no control over how many minutes that player received when they were sent down, there was a legitimate chance that they’d have to compete for playing time with both the regular players on that roster and prospects that other teams sent down.
Because during that time, it was completely common for three to four NBA teams to be affiliated with a D-League squad like the Reno Bighorns or Fort Wayne Mad Ants. Heck, the D-Fenders taking a gap year meant that five (!!!) NBA teams were affiliated with the Bakersfield Jam.
Along with forcing the player to compete with playing time, that prospect would also simply be using the time in the league to remove rust or gain confidence as they obviously wouldn’t be getting familiar with their NBA affiliate’s on-court ideology, which could prevent their development within the organization. That predicament makes you wonder if Willie Warren, who played with the Jam during that season, would’ve been more likely to stick with the team or in the NBA in general had he been in the situation that current assignees are in.
While you’ll have to wait until the 2nd part of this series to read about the rise of single affiliates, let’s wrap this piece up by taking a brief look at the best players from the era. When it comes to players that diehard NBA fans may know, this is the era that saw the likes of CJ Watson, Ian Mahinmi, Alonzo Gee, Reggie Williiams, Alan Anderson, Garrett Temple, Gerald Green, and Lance Thomas shine as D-League All-Stars before having lengthy careers in the Association.
In fact, Green used a fantastic performance in the 2012 D-League All-Star Game, where he put up a phenomenal 28 points on 10-17 from the field, 3-8 from 3 and 5-5 from the free throw line, to get called up by the New Jersey Nets. In the eight years since that All-Star Game, the veteran guard has stayed in the NBA as a solid 2nd unit scoring threat.
Looking away from that group of notable NBA veterans, there’s a lot of interesting players that dominated the league during that time. For example, 6’4 guard Randy Livingston kicked off the D-League era of the Idaho Stampede on a huge note in the 2006-07 season through putting up 12.3 points, 10.6 assists, 4.7 rebounds, and 1.6 steals on 37% from the field and 31% from 3, numbers that were good enough to have him get named as the D-League MVP.
While on the topic of great facilitators, this was the time where Iowa Energy great Curtis Stinson shined, this was the era where Iowa Energy legend Curtis Stinson got most of his 2032 career assists, which still stands as the #1 number in league history. The best season came during the 2010-11 MVP campaign, where he averaged 19.3 points, 9.8 assists, 5.7 rebounds, and 1.4 steals on 50% from the field.
Despite being the era before perimeter shots dominated the game, there were still a lot of players that knew how to make the nylon sing. One of the best examples of that was Will Conroy during the 2008-09 campaign where he put up 26.5 points, 8 assists, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.9 steals on 45% from the field and 34% 3 on 5.7 attempts per game for the Albequerque Thunderbirds. Although Iowa Energy big Courtney Sims won MVP, the Thunderbird still holds the single-season scoring record at 1300 points.
Sticking with dominant scorers, 6’6 wing Mike Harris was able to use offensive rebounding and creating work while isolated in the pinch post to have a 2009-10 season worth remembering. In 34 games, he put up 27.2 points, 10.5 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 1.2 steals on 58% from the field for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, numbers good enough to have him be named as the D-League MVP for that season.
Although they didn’t receive any accolades during this stretch, notable D/G League legends Renaldo Major, Andre Ingram, Ron Howard, Elijah Millsap, and Maurice Baker all got their start during this era. If you think that this is the last that you’ll be hearing about any of these players, you’re sorely mistaken as they’ll be discussed in future parts of this series.
As we noted at the beginning of this piece, the NBA D-League began in the 2005-06 season with only eight teams. Six years later in 2011-12, that number doubled to sixteen teams with squads located all over the United States. In addition to that, the fans were able to watch the games get televised on Versus (now NBC Sports Network) and NBA TV. That set the groundwork for the broadcasting rights that will be discussed in future parts of the series. While those examples showed that the league grew a lot in just six years, nobody was ready for the advancements that we were about to see as the 2010’s rolled on.