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Rivers on D-League Franchise: "We Haven't Decided Yet"

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Following the announcement yesterday that the two youngest players on the Clippers roster, Branden Dawson and C.J. Wilcox, would head to the Bakersfield Jam of the NBA D-League, I reached out to the Clippers for a comment regarding the potential for a future developmental team owned by and directly affiliated with the Clippers.

The assignment of both players made sense: Dawsen is 22, Wilcox 24, and neither had appeared yet for the Clippers.  In fact, they were both chosen for the two inactive slots in all five games the Clippers have played in so far.  Wilcox, the second-year shooter from the University of Washington, played in five NBADL games last year for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, averaging 13.0 points, 3.4 rebounds, and 1.6 assists in 24.4 minutes per game.  Wilcox shot 53% from the field and 45% from deep in tow separate stints with the Mad Ants, an uptick from his 42% field goal and 37% three-point shooting in 21 NBA games for the Clippers.

The assignments, however, raise the topic of the NBA D-League, where other questions must be asked.  There are currently 19 NBADL teams for the 2015-16 season, all of which are single-affiliates with, or owned by, an NBA team.  That left 11 NBA clubs without a developmental team of their own.  Recently, Charlotte and Brooklyn have both announced that they're starting teams of their own, bringing the number of NBA franchises that haven't invested in player development to 9--and the Clippers are one of them.

Every other pacific division team has a D-League team (Los Angeles Lakers-Los Angeles D-Fenders; Phoenix Suns-Bakersfield Jam; Golden State Warriors-Santa Cruz Warriors, Sacramento Kings-Reno Bighorns), and so do the other elite teams in the Western Conference (San Antonio Spurs-Austin Spurs; Oklahoma City Thunder-Oklahoma City Blue; Houston Rockets-Rio Grande Valley Vipers; Memphis Grizzlies-Iowa Energy).  That means of the 6 teams widely considered playoff locks in the West, the Clippers are the only without their own D-League team.  The Cleveland Cavaliers (the only true contender from the Eastern Conference) also have a team in the Canton Charge.  Some of these developmental franchises are simply affiliates while others are owned by their NBA counterparts.

So, why don't the Clippers have one?  Especially if they're going to use the system for their young players, doesn't it make sense?  The perks of having Dawson and Wilcox playing for the Small Town X Clippers and not the Bakersfield Jam are obvious: the front office staff and coaches will be chosen by the Clippers, not the Suns, the roster and supporting cast will be chosen by the Clippers, not the Suns, the amount of playing time the Clippers' prospects get will be decided by the Clippers, not the Suns, the players will practice the schemes the Clippers run, not the Suns', and other potential call-ups on the roster would be seen daily by Clippers coaches, not Suns coaches.

This isn't the first time this has come up: Justin Russo went in-depth on the potential investment a few months ago, and if you're interested in some more reading on the topic, you should check it out.

After I received the news that the Clippers were sending the two prospects down, I decided that , even if for my own curiosity, it was time to respectfully ask the Clippers what their interest level was.  Here's what I heard back from Doc:

"Realistically, we could have a D-League franchise by next year, but we haven't decided if we are going to get one yet. We are still in the process of looking at everything involved."
"[The D-League] can be a good place for those guys [CJ Wilcox and Branden Dawson] to play. We are sending them to the right place. We talked to [Bakersfield] and identified a team that we think plays a somewhat similar offensive style to us, so this will give them an opportunity to play and get minutes."

For context, the first part of his answer was in response to the first part of my question: "[Is there] any potential interest from the front office and ownership in acquiring or starting a developmental franchise of their own, directly affiliated with the Clippers and owned by the Clippers ownership[?]".  The answer to that, clearly, is yes.  Especially given the direction that the league is going, I don't think Doc and Ballmer are going to be holdouts--but that's purely my speculation.  The Clippers certainly haven't been D-League pioneers (partially due to a certain former owner's stubbornness when it came to investing in the Clippers), but I don't think they'll be the last ones to the party.

It's hard to blame Ballmer to taking his time--the guy did just drop $2,000,000,000 on the Clippers, so starting a new team (one that's almost certainly not going to be turning a profit) probably isn't high on his to-do list.  From a league-wide perspective, however, the NBA collective bargaining agreement will be renegotiated this summer, and one issue that's expected to be addressed is reforming the NBADL, D-League contracts, and NBA team rights over D-League players.  Presently, an NBA team may assign up to two players to the D-League, but those players both count against the team's 15-man roster.  Additionally, the team exercises no rights over the other prospects on their developmental team.

Any solutions would likely become contingent upon every (or almost every) team having a developmental franchise, so the implementation of reforms might not be immediate, but go into effect within a few years when all teams have had time to start their team.  I'd look for NBA teams to be allowed the same 15 players on their roster, but a total of around 18-20 contracts, with up to 5-7 of those players being prospects in the NBADL.  The other players on the developmental squad would be free agents and could sign with any NBA club that wanted to call them up.  This would allow for additional rounds added to the NBA draft, and contract reforms for D-League players (players whose rights are not owned would likely still have very low salaries, but players whose rights are owned could be paid significantly less than the NBA minimum salary while still paid at a rate competitive with the non-major European clubs).

The latter part of Doc's response, regarding Bakersfield's system, is in response to the end of my question, which mentioned that with their own team, the Clippers could better oversee their own prospects' development.  Doc's certainly going to cover his bases and not say that Dawson and Wilcox will be getting sub-par coaching, and I have no reason to doubt that he's right, but I also don't think there can be much question that the players and Clippers would be better-suited long-term by having their own coaches working with their players.