The NBA bills the NBA Development League as its “official minor league,” a place where young players can gain some experience and veteran players coming off injuries can play a few games to get back into basketball shape.
For many NBA teams, the D-League works exactly as intended. A case-in-point: the Oklahoma City Thunder. If the Thunder want a rarely used youngster to receive some playing time, the Thunder simply put him in a car for a 90-minute drive to their affiliate, the Tulsa 66ers.
But for the Orlando Magic, the D-League has been almost worthless.
In the last seven seasons, the Magic have had five different D-League affiliates, and none of them were anywhere near Central Florida.
During the 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons, the Magic were tied to the Anaheim (Calif.) Arsenal. The next three seasons, the Magic had three different affiliates: the Bakersfield (Calif.) Jam, the Reno (Nev.) Bighorns and the New Mexico Thunderbirds.
The last two years, the Magic faced a geographic nightmare, because they were affiliated with the Sioux Falls (S.D.) Skyforce.
Former Magic general manager Otis Smith preferred to have the young players mired at the end of his team’s bench remain with the big-league squad. That way, they could learn in practices directly from coach Stan Van Gundy and Van Gundy’s assistant coaches. But Smith’s philosophy also stemmed from the logistical difficulties of sending players from one end of the country to the other.
Rob Hennigan, Smith’s successor, declined to send youngsters to play for Sioux Falls last season.
In the year ahead, it’ll be a bit easier for the Magic to use the D-League. The NBA recently announced the 2013-14 D-League affiliations, and the Magic will share the Fort Wayne (Ind.) Mad Ants with the Charlotte Bobcats, Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers, Memphis Grizzlies and Milwaukee Bucks.
Having an affiliate in Fort Wayne is an improvement over Sioux Falls, but it’s nowhere near ideal for the Magic. The geography isn’t optimal, and neither is the sharing arrangement.
The Magic eventually would like to have a “one-to-one” affiliation with a D-League team.
Fourteen NBA teams will have one-to-one relationships with D-League teams in the year ahead. The San Antonio Spurs, for instance, can send players to the nearby Austin Toros. The Cleveland Cavaliers can use the Canton Charge as a farm team. And the Philadelphia 76ers have the Delaware 87ers as their outlet.
Having that kind of an arrangement can make a big difference.
Last season, former Magic center Daniel Orton shuttled between Oklahoma City and Tulsa and played a total of 29 regular-season games for the 66ers. Orton wasn’t going to receive major minutes from the Thunder, and his time with the 66ers gave him a chance to make mistakes in a low-pressure setting.
“It was huge,” Orton said.
“More than anything as a basketball player, you need confidence, and I think that helped me to gain a lot of that confidence back.”
The Magic will have at least one hurdle to climb to have a better D-League affiliate. The D-League doesn’t have any teams in the Southeast, unless you count the clubs in Texas and Oklahoma.
The D-League has just 17 teams — leaving 16 NBA clubs to share three affiliates.
Simply put, the D-League needs more teams to make the league a true minor league.
“It's something that we're discussing now,” Dan Reed, the D-League’s president, told the website Ridiculous Upside a few days ago.
“We have the proverbial ‘good problem’ right now. There's three independent teams for 16 NBA teams, and there's a lot more NBA teams that are interested in getting in. We're going to spend the summer working with our teams and NBA teams to develop a process going forward, but I imagine it will involve expansion at some point.”
Orton, Harper reflect
Orton rummaged through a box of mementos the other day and found a team picture from the 2010-11 season — his rookie season in the NBA.
That’s when he realized how different the Magic look now.
Only one player from the 2010-11 squad remains with the franchise: point guard Jameer Nelson.
“All the guys are doing something new,” Orton said.
Orton, for one, looks totally different.
He got into better shape last season with the Thunder. When he played for the Thunder in the recently completed Orlando Pro Summer League, he displayed an explosiveness he didn’t show during his two-year stint with the Magic.
Orton, who will turn just 23 early next month, will face a challenge to make the Thunder’s season-opening roster. But if he doesn’t make the team, he showed more than enough promise to latch on with another NBA franchise.
Meanwhile, former Magic forward Justin Harper is trying to earn an invitation to an NBA training camp.
He spent the entire 2012-13 season in the D-League.
“It was rough at first, but you’ve got to realize it for what it is,” he said. “There’s a lot of stories of guys that have been through it and became successful.”
Harper spent one season with Orlando after being acquired in a draft-night trade in 2011.
He recently played for the Indiana Pacers’ summer league team in Orlando and is playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas.
The Magic’s recent signing of veteran big man Jason Maxiell and the anticipated signing of point guard Ronnie Price caught some observers by surprise. Maxiell and Price are both 30 years old, and the Magic recently have stockpiled youth. But Hennigan wanted to balance the team’s youth with some experience. Maxiell and Price also have reputations as classy pros and good locker-room guys. . . . Incoming college freshman Andrew Wiggins hasn’t played a game yet for the Kansas Jayhawks, but he’s already being called “the next LeBron James.” As good as Wiggins is, I wonder if that designation is too much pressure for any 18-year-old. Then again, wasn’t LeBron anointed “the next Michael Jordan” during LeBron’s high-school days? James has done just fine.
Josh Robbins covers the Orlando Magic and the NBA for the Orlando Sentinel. You can reach him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and connect with him on Facebook at facebook.com/JoshuaBRobbins. Follow him on Twitter at @JoshuaBRobbins.