Dan Reed: Architect of Next
With the D-League playoffs set to tip this evening, what better time to catch up with D-League President and altogether good guy Dan Reed. Dan is making the interview rounds, and joins us to discuss globalization, how D-League talent compares to the NCAA, his league’s role in the stats revolution and, of course, the Spurs and Toros.
You’ve identified 4 missions for the D-League: 1) to be the best developers of talent in the world, 2) to provide the best basketball in the world along with the NBA, 3) to provide service through innovation as the NBA’s R&D department, 4) and to place a high emphasis on teams and community service. Taking those one at a time, how would you rate the D-League’s progress?
DR: I think we’ve made great progress along all 4 fronts. We’re promoting players to the NBA in record amounts, as over 70 NBA players are now formerly of the NBA D-League — that’s more than 15% of the entire NBA! But it’s not just players, as we’ve produced 19 NBA coaches, more than a quarter of the NBA’s current referees, close to 50 front office staff, and countless others who have improved their career by working within the NBA D-League. We’ve firmly established ourselves as the most heavily-scouted league in the world, and represent the highest caliber of basketball played anywhere outside of the NBA’s 30 teams. We’ve produced five times more NBA players than any other professional basketball league in the world. We’ve tested several innovations that have made it to the NBA, including live online streaming of games, bringing H-O-R-S-E to All-Star weekend, continued evolution of Spalding basketballs and basket stanchions, as well as adidas uniform fabrics. There’s more to come here, as we’ve recently implemented an innovative new “choose your opponent” playoff system and will be pushing the envelope on basketball statistics starting next season. Finally, our teams are doing a great job making a positive impact on their communities. We not only bring a fun, affordable, and highly accessible brand of basketball and entertainment to our 16 communities, but we’re committed to making an impact outside of the arena as well – as our teams have participated in over 300 community service projects this season so far.
The Maine Red Claws have recently joined the league, and there is talk of D-League teams opening shop in places like Harlem. Which cities are the likeliest expansion possibilities?
DR: Interest in owning NBA D-League teams is extremely strong, even in these tough economic times. It’s a very unique opportunity to own a top-flight basketball team with formal affiliations to the NBA in a growing, NBA-backed league. People initially express interest because they want to do something great for their community, and have a little fun in the process. But then they find out that our teams have quadrupled in value over the past 2 years, and they realize it’s a pretty sound financial investment as well. We’ve doubled the size of the league over the past 3 years, but that won’t happen going forward — we’re pleased with the size of the league right now, and are very focused on sustainable growth going forward. That doesn’t mean we won’t look to expand — as we recently did with our new team in Maine — but you may also see new owners come in to purchase and/or relocate existing teams, as we’ve recently seen with our teams in Reno and Anaheim (which is relocating to Springfield, MA). One very positive trend is that we’re attracting people to our league with deep expertise in running similar operations — for example, the Reno Bighorns were purchased by the group that runs Reno’s AAA baseball team, the owner of a successful local speedway purchased our new team in Maine (along with the Chairman of TD Bank), and our Springfield team owner also owns 4 very successful minor league baseball teams. To be able to attract investors of this caliber is a great testament to the upside this league represents. As for who’s next, we’ll see, but to the extent we add teams we’ll stay focused on building our footprint in the Northeast and the Midwest.
David Stern wants to eventually move the NBA into European markets. Can you envision a scenario where the D-League would be involved in this globalization, either by running ahead or following behind?
DR: I think its safe to say that we’ll grow internationally as the NBA continues to do so. For the near future this will likely involve participation in international tournaments, exhibitions, and training and development camps. These are important opportunities to participate in the explosive international growth of basketball and the NBA. We’ve done these sorts of things in the past — the Albuquerque Thunderbirds traveled to China to play the Chinese Men’s National Team a couple years back, we’ve participated in the FIBA Stankovic Cup, and we hosted the Iran National Team in Utah this past summer. We’ll continue to pursue these opportunities going forward, and to the extent that the NBA continues its growth internationally I have no doubt we’ll be right there with them.
It’s hard to discuss expansion without some mention of the economy. How has the slow economy affected the D-League this season?
No one is immune from the effects of the economy, but overall we think we’re very well positioned to continue our success in these challenging times. For one, we are an extremely affordable entertainment product — a family of 4 can enjoy great seats at an NBA D-League game for less than $40. History shows that ticket sales in industries like movies and minor league sports tend to do well in tough economies, so as long as we manage our business well we should be just fine. Another advantage is that we’re fully integrated into the fabric of the NBA, and demand for our services from NBA teams remains strong. This season’s number of Gatorade Call-Ups are higher than any year in our history, with the exception of last season’s all-time high of 29 call-ups. It will be interesting to see what happens this summer, as NBA teams evaluate our players in summer leagues and training camps. We talk a lot about call-ups, but we often see what I like to call a “delayed call-up” — a player plays well in the NBA D-League and although he may not get called up in season, he’s now caught the attention of several NBA teams who then compete for his services in summer league or training camp. That’s what happened to Dahntay Jones last year (who is now starting for the Denver Nuggets) and I suspect we’ll see a lot of that this summer, as NBA teams look to field competitive rosters while spending less money.
With expansion talk, you have to field the inevitable diminishing talent question. How can the D-League continue to grow while still maintaining, if not improving, its talent pool? Is this ultimately a question of raising salaries?
DR: Somewhat counter intuitively, we’ve actually found that our talent level has gotten stronger and deeper as the league has grown in size. This is partly because our track record for developing and promoting players to the NBA gets more compelling every year, but also because the opportunities for exposure to NBA teams increases as we add teams (as there are fewer NBA parent teams per NBA D-League team, and more minutes available for top prospects). Our ability to attract top flight talent to play in the D-League is a function of more than just salary, in fact players and agents have told us that it’s more about the opportunity to play in front of NBA scouts every game, the possibility of in-season call ups to the NBA, the ability to work with great coaches to improve their game while utilizing NBA rules, competing head-to-head with current NBA players on assignment, and that their teams are directly affiliated with NBA teams. Every year we look at all of these factors and ask ourselves “what else can we do?” We always find a few new wrinkles we can implement — some of which are small little tweaks, some others are more ambitious structural changes. There’s no shortage of top-flight basketball talent in the world (in fact I’ve run the numbers on this in my blog), so we’re confident that as long as we continue to successfully address all of these issues, we’ll be extremely competitive in attracting top NBA prospects going forward. In fact, this year is our deepest year talent-wise — if you look at our All-League teams, 13 of the 15 players honored were either recently in the NBA or have already been called-up to an NBA team, and there’s a very distinguished list of honorable mentions and other top prospects in our league who are just as good. So we’re not worried about diluting the talent level anytime soon.
Reactions to the D-League’s Dream Factory Friday Night and All-Star game were extremely favorable. ESPN’s Henry Abbott described the D-League dunk contest as a “revelation” that upstaged the likes of Dwight Howard and Nate Robinson. It gave him all sorts of creative ideas. On top of this, the TrueHoop Network suggested a series of All-Star reforms–for example, we’d like to see a rookies vs. D-League All-Star game. To what extent, does the D-League have a role in pushing the entertainment envelope?Â What do you make of all of our suggestions?
DR: I say bring the suggestions on! We constantly look for opportunities to experiment and find ways to continually improve what has been a phenomenally successful and entertaining sport. That’s part of our mandate as the R&D department of the NBA. One example is our inclusion H-O-R-S-E in our 1st “Dream Factory Friday Night” event at the 2008 All-Star weekend in New Orleans, as there was clearly a lot of interest in seeing how that would play. We even brought in Bill Simmons as a judge in our dunk contest, in part to his acknowledge his influence in pushing the idea. And it was quite successful, although we learned quite a bit about how to tweak the event to make it even better going forward. It’s not a coincidence that you saw H-O-R-S-E become a broader part of NBA All-Star Weekend in Phoenix this year. As far as our dunk contest goes, I agree that it was truly phenomenal watching James White and Keith Clark continually one-up each other. But that had everything to with the spectacular talent, athleticism, and creativity that our players have in spades — we just set up the event and rolled out the ball. And I thought it was a very positive validation of our league when James White was then called up to the Houston Rockets — not because he could dunk from the free throw line, but because he improved his overall game to the point where he was viewed as no longer just a dunker and a phenomenal athlete, but a player that can contribute in many ways at the NBA level.
Speaking of high entertainment value, I watch more than my fair share of Futurecasts. One thing I consistently note is the talent level of D-League rosters. Some readers will balk at this, but your teams are often a deep assemblage of former college standouts and recent draft picks on assignment. In terms of raw talent, I’d put a D-League roster against the NCAA’s best and take the D-League every time. They’re just better basketball players. Couple this with generally high scoring games, and you’ve got a nice product. How do you get casual fans to realize that “development” does not in any way mean “scrub”? Relative to the NBA, it’s the Development League. Relative to the NCAA, it’s an All-Star league. Is this simply a case of universities having established, built-in markets of students and alumni?
DR: I think it’s fascinating that you say that some of your readers balk at the fact that our league has so much talent, because what you’re saying is true. 60% of our players last season were All-Conference or better in college, which sure sounds a lot like your comment about an “All-Star league”. In each of the last 4 seasons, at least 25% of that year’s NBA draft class played in the NBA D-League. But regardless of how many stats I can rattle off that demonstrate how great our basketball is and how many top NBA prospects are playing in our league, for whatever reason people think about the idea of “minor league basketball” differently than they think about, say, college basketball or even minor league baseball — although I think we’re starting to change that perception.
Part of the reason for the difference in opinion is that historically, for the most part, minor league hoops hasn’t been the most stable of institutions, which results in a couple of unique challenges for us. One, so many different leagues have been tried (and have come and gone), that it’s extremely difficult for fans to discern what separates one league from another. So someone who has had experience with former leagues may equate us with Will Farrell’s “Semi-Pro”, or some other model that doesn’t involve the deep connection with the NBA that we have, and we typically have to spend time and energy proving to people how we’re different. Second, it’s hard for fans to really understand and root for something when a team or league only exists for a couple of years, which again has been the unfortunate history of minor league basketball. All of the coming and going of leagues and teams has resulted in a very fragmented, and in some cases, disaffected fan base. When you compare that to institutions that have been around for over a century, like college basketball and minor league baseball, and it’s easy to understand why we need to educate people on how our league is different and how great it is.
But we’re up for the challenge, because we have a great story to tell. We are the only pro basketball league in history with formal affiliations to NBA teams, that allows the ability for NBA teams to send their players to play in our league (a la minor league baseball), and has the backing and support of the NBA. We’ve been quite successful at developing NBA players — any night of week you can watch our alumni making strong contributions at the NBA level, whether it’s Ramon Sessions getting a triple double for the Milwaukee Bucks, Mike Taylor of the Clippers scoring 35 against the Knicks at the Garden, Von Wafer making a huge impact for the Houston Rockets, or Kelenna Azubuike doing a little bit of everything for the Golden State Warriors. As a result, we attract and produce a higher caliber of basketball talent than any league that has come before us, as you note. And while that message is increasingly getting out, we find ourselves constantly having to educate people on these facts, but that’s OK, it’s understandable and just a part of the process.
I think at the end of the day, it’s really about giving fans more opportunities to learn about the players and watch games in our league, which is what we’re trying to do via our games on NBA Futurecast, NBA TV, and hopefully more expanded offerings going forward. Because after seeing a game or two it’s pretty self-evident that this is world-class basketball, and that our league is teeming with up-and-coming players that, if given the opportunity, will see success in the NBA.
Okay, I have to resist the temptation to re-write the CBA now. There are clearly some things that will need to be discussed when it rolls around, like the possibility of rehabbing vets in the D-League. R.C. Buford has said that one thing he would see changed is the limitation of only two years for assignment players. Do you see that as a legitimate possibility?
DR: All of these changes are things that will need to be collectively bargained with the NBA Players Association, so I don’t want to speculate on any changes that may or may not happen going forward. But I think the current version of our assignment system for 1st and 2nd year NBA players has been quite successful. NBA GMs, coaches, and players have found tremendous value in what we’re doing, and we always field suggestions on how to make the system even more effective for player development going forward. All of that bodes well for positive developments in the future.
So the D-League likes to stay ahead of the curve. Has the D-League given any thought to becoming the trend setter in the stats revolution? Earlier this season, I wrote how I’d like to see someone bite the bullet and re-invent the box score, and why that would be beneficial to developing players. Even the inclusion of basic stats–stats that every NBA team already tracks–such as deflections, offensive fouls drawn, and Gretzskys would represent a huge leap forward. It strikes me that placing emphasis on these sort of non-traditional numbers would encourage players toward greater refinement of their skill sets. In other words, if a guy knows he will be credited on the box score for drawing a charge, he’s likely to concentrate more on good, timely rotations. What do you think?
DR: Funny you say that, because that is in fact the next frontier for us, in terms of innovation. Not that the box score will be reinvented next year — something like that will certainly take some time — but we’re already preparing to be able to capture and communicate much more advanced statistics for next season.
In fact, I’d really like to enlist all of the smart and passionate people who are working on this to help us — partly because we don’t have the budget to hire an army of statisticians, and partly because unlike an NBA team, we have no incentive to keep our efforts proprietary. We can help drive an “open source” movement on basketball statistics and actually apply them in a real league, within the confines of the NBA. So, to the budding basketball statisticians out there, please send me an email via my blog and we’ll follow up with a way that you can potentially get involved. And who knows, maybe we’ll help you get “called up” to become the next Daryl Morey!
The Toros hired Peter Lubell as their chief operating officer. He’s charged with growing the Toros brand within the Austin market. You’ve made yourself by knowing how to do this sort of thing. Have you offered him any advice? How much of an advantage does a team like the Toros have by being fully supported by the Spurs? Conversely, do the Toros represent an opportunity for the Spurs to grow their market in Austin?
DR: I think the fact that the Spurs hired Peter shows that they view the Toros as more than just a pure basketball concern, and that there are real business opportunities to be had by owning an NBA D-League team, particularly in a neighboring market like Austin is to San Antonio. If you look at minor league baseball and hockey, some of the “major league” teams have achieved strong business benefits by owning their minor league affiliates, others haven’t seen as much success. The Spurs are an excellent organization, and I know they are committed to this. I haven’t personally given any advice to Peter, although I speak pretty regularly with the Spurs as I do all of our team owners. We have a whole team of talented people in my former group at the NBA that provides very effective, detailed and relevant “best practices” from around the NBA family, so I try not to spend too much time directly offering advice to teams (although I do fall off the wagon from time to time).
Mike Taylor was the first D-League player drafted, do you expect that others will follow his example?
DR: I’ll say this — Mike’s ascent from an overlooked prospect (several D-League teams even passed on him at first!), to the first NBA D-League player ever drafted directly into the NBA, to being the first rookie since Allen Iverson to score 35+ points on the Knicks in the Garden has gone a long way towards publicizing the unique benefits a player gets by playing in the NBA Development League. I firmly believe that for a number of reasons, would-be NBA players are best served by going to college. But if for some reason that doesn’t work out (a la Mike’s situation), we offer some pretty compelling benefits. Namely, that we are the most-heavily scouted league in the world by NBA teams, and provide an opportunity to play against NBA talent, using NBA rules, with NBA-caliber coaching, right here in the United States with teams that have formal and direct relationships with NBA teams. We also provide a plethora of continuing education options for players who want to supplement their education — for example, Randy Livingston (a former NBA D-League MVP and current assistant coach with the Idaho Stampede) got his college degree via our program with the University of Phoenix last season. We have a couple more draft-eligible players this year who are playing quite well (Trey Gilder in Colorado and Keith Clark in Tulsa) so it will be interesting to see how this plays out over time.
I wrote a piece called TrueHoop, Malik Hairston and Malcolm Gladwell which outlined the Spurs general approach to using the Toros as part of their player screening process. They’ll sign a player and then assign him to the Toros as part of an extended interview for their 14th or 15th roster spot. It’s an incredibly bright approach that allows them the opportunity to look at a player’s skill set within their system alongside prolonged assessments of character, basketball IQ, and professionalism. I see all the advantages. What are the drawbacks? What prevents teams from following the Spurs lead in Austin?
DR: I loved your piece, and thought it very intelligently spelled out how the Spurs are using the Toros, and the potential that exists here for other teams. I don’t think there are many drawbacks for an NBA team to manage the basketball operations of their NBA D-League affiliate, other than some teams don’t have as much of an appetite for having to buy the team and operate the business side (while other teams find this to be quite attractive). Each of the past 3 years an NBA team has purchased their own D-League affiliate, which speaks to a pretty strong interest level, and there are many more NBA teams that have expressed interest in gaining control of the basketball side of their affiliate. In an effort to satisfy this demand, we’re working on solutions that allow NBA teams more flexibility to directly manage the basketball operations of their D-League affiliate without necessarily having to run the business – a model that’s worked well in baseball and hockey – in a way that’s a win/win for everyone involved.
In addition to players, the Spurs are developing coaches and trainers in Austin. Your aim is wide too. How are your coaching and referee development programs going?
DR: Our coaching and referee development programs continue to be quite effective. We had three of our coaches get “called up” to NBA benches last season (Joe Wolf to the Milwaukee Bucks, Roy Rogers to the New Jersey Nets, and Jeff Ruland to the Philadelphia 76ers), which makes for 19 in our history. At the start of the season, 8 NBA teams had a former D-League coach on their bench, and that will continue to grow, as we have superb coaches in our league right now who we think will see success in the NBA.
We are the official referee development program for the NBA, and every referee hired by the NBA has come through the NBA D-League. Of the 61 officials currently in the NBA, 16 are formerly of the NBA D-League (over 25%), and we had 3 make the jump last season. Ron Johnson, Bernie Fryer, Joe Borgia, and George Toliver have done an excellent job managing our referee development program across both the NBA and the D-League, and all of the changes we’ve made to our program over the past year impacts both leagues.
The Spurs have been acrobatic in their attempts to keep Malik Hairston around the team–drafted, camped, cut, allocated, signed, cut, re-allocated. This is great in one way, but a shame in another. I know this is ultimately a CBA issue, but isn’t there a way a team could receive call-up protection on recent 2nd round draft picks? In other words, protection from other teams claiming the fruit of their labor. Dell Demps and I have nightmares ofÂ someone stealing Malik Hairston.
DR: This is an interesting idea and I indeed have heard several variations on this concept, but you’re right in that this is a CBA issue so won’t comment on it for now.
I asked the previous question with James Gist and Malik Hairston in mind. I’d like to ask a similar question, but from a slightly different angle. The Toros lost Andre Brown and Charles Gaines to Europe. Aside from raising salaries, how can the D-League convince players to stay here?
DR: Actually, we’re increasingly seeing top players choose to play with us because of our track record of producing NBA players and the significant NBA exposure we offer. In fact, we’ve seen fewer players leave for Europe this year versus previous seasons. The economy has something to do with this, but we’ve also become a much more attractive option for players that are truly on the cusp of making the NBA, because of the unparalleled level of exposure we provide to NBA talent evaluators, coupled with strong player development resources. So we’ll continue to push on those fronts, and so long as these efforts continue to result in NBA success for our players, we’re going to continue to be an extremely attractive option for top players.
Last question. What are the most frequent suggestions you get from scouts on how to help your players develop? I’m curious what the guys looking for NBA players say they’d like to see from you.
DR: Overall, NBA teams are very pleased with our track record of aiding the development of players in our league. When you look at NBA D-League prospects like Dontell Jefferson (who transformed himself from a backup shooting guard with the Dakota Wizards to an NBA-caliber point guard now with the Charlotte Bobcats) and Kurt Looby (who you’ve probably never heard of, but just tied the NBA D-League’s single game block record and will likely be in the NBA within 2 seasons), we’re pretty strong in this area — although most credit needs to go to the players themselves. That said, the primary piece of feedback we hear revolves around providing even more time and resources devoted to skill development. We’ve responded in part by hiring 20-year NBA coaching veteran Bob Hill as our “coach consultant” this year, in addition to the shooting, big man, and strength & conditioning specialty coaches that tour our league. This year we also allowed NBA teams the ability to send their assistant coaches along with players on assignment to the NBA D-League, and we’ve encouraged our coaches to spend even more time on individual skill development. We also spend a significant amount of time on off-the-court training and development for players and front office staff. We are the NBA *Development* League after all, so this is an area we always monitor to make sure we’re doing everything we can.
If you can’t get enough of President Reed, Ridiculous Upside is running an interview that picks up some of these issues, with many more aside. My favorite bit from the Schroeder/Reed exchange:
RS: The D-League has to be the most accessible league in the world with your blog, Futurecast, Jeff Potter’s blog, Scott Roth’s podcast, Garrett Martz’ blog, and Rod Benson’s everything, among others. Is this something you encourage more in the league to do? How much do you think this new media has helped the D-League?
DR: ….Jumping headfirst into new media was not only a very deliberate strategy for us to grow our business, but is another way we perform our R&D function for the NBA. For example, before we launched NBA Futurecast last year, there was no way for fans to watch an NBA D-League game without literally going to an arena. Now fans can log on and watch any game for free, and follow their favorite team or check out a top NBA prospect. While this has certainly been a boon for the awareness of the NBA D-League, it’s also aided the NBA’s new media efforts…
Thanks to Dan Reed for taking time out of his schedule to talk with 48MoH.