The Timberwolves inevitably joined the NBA’s developmental arms race Monday, when they agreed to purchase their own NBA Development League team in Des Moines starting next season.
By buying the existing Iowa Energy, the Wolves position themselves alongside teams such as San Antonio, Houston and Oklahoma City that have used a league, started in 2001 with only eight teams, to nurture their own young talent.
The Wolves will be the 18th NBA team to own and operate their own team in a 22-team D-League that likely will have at least 25 teams by next season. The Energy, which plays in Des Moines’ 16,000-seat Wells Fargo Arena, is currently owned and operated by the Memphis Grizzlies.
Until now, the Wolves have used the D-League infrequently, sending little-used young players Tyus Jones, Shabazz Muhammad and Adreian Payne in recent seasons to D-League teams in places such as Boise, Idaho; Des Moines; and Erie, Pa., for assignment a week or two at the most.
Now the Wolves will have a team of their very own they can use to shuttle young players back and forth.
They also can use their D-League team to install Wolves President of Basketball Operations and coach Tom Thibodeau’s system of play and groom coaches, front-office management and training staff for the big-league club.
Jones spent 16 days as a 19-year-old rookie last season playing for Utah’s team in Idaho. It was an assignment aimed at helping him find playing time and confidence.
“The NBA still is different from the college game,” Jones said. “The D-League gives you a chance to get more accustomed to the NBA rules and just a different style of game.”
Eventually, all 30 NBA teams are expected to operate their own D-League teams. It’s a system that will grow more important when the NBA’s new labor agreement increases roster size from 15 to 17 players next season. That will enable teams to sign two players to two-way contracts that pay them one salary in the NBA and a much smaller one if they’re in the D-League.
No purchase price was announced. Last season, Sports Business Journal estimated the value of a franchise at $6 million.
The Wolves’ agreement comes one day after the D-League’s five-day “Showcase” event ended in a Toronto suburb. Wolves General Manager Scott Layden and other front-office employees as well as executives from every other NBA team attended.
“If you really study minor league basketball, it has been a big part of the NBA for a long time,” Thibodeau said last week. “There have been a lot of terrific players who have come up through that. Historically, the top 20 players — whether in the CBA [the former Continental Basketball Association] or the D-League — they’re coming up. I think the next step is for first- and second-round picks to get some actual playing experience there with NBA rules.”
Eight NBA teams operate D-League teams in their own metropolitan areas, everywhere from Toronto, Brooklyn and Utah to Dallas and Oklahoma City. That allows their young players to practice with the NBA team during the day and play in a D-League game that night.
The Wolves considered starting a D-League expansion team in Rochester, Fargo or right in the Twin Cities area. They also considered taking over the existing Sioux Falls Skyforce in South Dakota. They decided upon buying the team in Des Moines, also home to the NHL Wild’s minor-league team.
Current Energy managing partner Jed Kaplan will continue as a partner and remain active in the team’s management.
By choosing Iowa, the Wolves will not be able to shuttle players back and forth in mere minutes. But at 230 miles away, it’s less than a four-hour drive. There also are four nonstop flights daily.
“The teams that have utilized the D-League best, proximity is really important,” Thibodeau said. “You’d like it to be driving distance.”
The Thunder moved its D-League team from close to closer in 2014, from Tulsa — a 90-minute drive away — to right at home in Oklahoma City.
“The NBA is getting younger and younger,” said Thunder coach Billy Donovan, who played in the CBA and coached college ball for 26 years after that. “You’ve got guys entering the NBA at 19, 20 years old and they’re still in the very, very early stages of their development. I always think the development piece is very important at any level. For us, it’s important to have someplace where they can actually get better in game situations instead of just getting shots up before or after our games.”
Thibodeau said he believes better teams such as the Thunder, Spurs and Clippers benefit most from the D-League because they rely less on their young players who then can find playing time in the D-League that they can’t earn with their NBA teams.
“We need our young guys to play a lot of minutes,” Thibodeau said, “so they’re not going to be in the D-League.”
That should change in the coming years.
Development, not demotion
Muhammad averaged nearly 25 points and 10 rebounds in four games with Iowa, an assignment in January 2014 that came after coach Rick Adelman didn’t place him in the rotation.
Muhammad credits those eight days with turning around his rookie season.
“At first you think it’s a negative thing, but it’s really not,” he said. “It was a really good thing for my career. It’s hard. There’s a lot of adjustment. But I was really hungry. I felt I had a lot of confidence, and I felt like it really pushed me over the top.”
Thibodeau has studied the matter and calls having a D-League team close enough to the NBA club important because “it’s not looked upon as a demotion, it’s looked upon more as development.”
Jones’ time spent in Idaho seemed a long way from Minnesota and the NBA.
“Uh, it was different,” Jones said. “I never had been there, never had planned on going there. I can definitely check it off my bucket list of places I’ve been.
“It’s tough at first, but you just have to have the right mind-set about it. You have to have the right mind-set about everything in this league.”
Dallas’ D-League team is a mere 27 miles away in a suburb, the kind of proximity that Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle considers both convenient and too close. Late in his playing career, he played three weeks long ago for Bill Musselman in the CBA, where his Albany, N.Y., team’s dressing room was a public arena bathroom and the Hertz rental-car van was the nicest vehicle in which his Patroons traveled.
“It’s the movie ‘Bull Durham,’ only it’s basketball instead of baseball,” Carlisle said. “In that situation, you’ve got to love the game and love competing. Riding on buses and doing that kind of stuff really gives a taste of what the minor leagues are.
“When you get in that situation, you can have an even greater appreciation of what it means to be an NBA player on an NBA roster.”
A Harvard assistant coach then, Thibodeau drove hours from Boston to watch Musselman’s teams practice.
“Rick’s only saying that because he had to play in Albany,” said Thibodeau, who not long after became a Musselman assistant on the inaugural Wolves team.
“I shouldn’t say that because Albany is a great city and their teams were great. There are some places maybe a little on the outskirts. That’s all a part of it. Whatever your circumstances are wherever you are, you have to make the best of them.”