Expanding and Re-Locating the D-League

Yakima, Wash., with the Sun Dome, and its history of CBA basketball (the Sun Kings), seem to be a perfect candidate to host a D-League franchise. What other cities should be in the mix?

It seems imminent that there is going to be a 1-1 ratio of D-League affiliates to NBA teams in the rather near future. Considering the player development and organizational benefit it gives franchises, owning a D-League affiliate simply is worth the extra costs to NBA organizations and owners. A D-League franchise is like a personal R&D lab for NBA teams, and considering all the issues going on with college basketball as of late (whether it’s the Ed O’Bannon case, the threat of college athletes unionizing, the 1 and done rules, etc.) and the lack of control and input of players overseas in foreign leagues, it won’t be surprising to see franchises utilize the NBA’s minor league even more for talent development and acquisition in the next couple of years (and that is saying something considering the D-League set a record for call-ups and players called up a season ago). When negotiations begin for the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement, it is a safe bet that D-League salaries, league age-limits, and draft-eligibility will be negotiated (or at least discussed) to encourage more true “prospects” to consider to jump to the D-League rather than overseas or even college. And if that is the case (being able to have early, internal access to a 18-19 year old player), NBA teams would be foolish to pass on having a D-League affiliate.

Thus, it’s not a matter of “if”, but rather “when” the D-League will expand to 30 teams. So with that being said, what are potential locations for future affiliates? Before we get started with new potential cities, let’s look at affiliates that should (and most likely will) stay the same, both in terms of city and NBA franchise.

Staying the same:

  • Santa Cruz Warriors (Golden State Warriors), Los Angeles D-Fenders (LA Lakers), Reno Bighorns (Sacramento Kings), Oklahoma City Blue (OKC Thunder), Idaho Stampede (Utah Jazz), Rio Grande Valley Vipers (Houston Rockets), Austin Spurs (San Antonio Spurs), Texas Legends (Dallas Mavericks), Grand Rapids Drive (Detroit Pistons), Raptors 905 (Toronto Raptors), Canton Charge (Cleveland Cavaliers), Maine Red Claws (Boston Celtics), Westchester Knicks (NY Knicks), Delaware 87ers (Philadelphia 76ers).

Here are a list of current NBA D-League affiliates/franchises who shouldn’t move cities, but should probably change the NBA team their affiliated. I associated the D-League franchises with NBA teams that were better fits mostly geographically. However, note that while I changed the NBA-D-League affiliation, I did not move the franchise at all.

Old Franchises, new teams

  • Sioux Falls Skyforce (Old team: Miami Heat; New team: Minnesota Timberwolves).
  • Iowa Energy (Old team: Memphis Grizzlies; New team: Chicago Bulls).
  • Erie Bayhawks (Old team: Orlando Magic; New team: Brooklyn Nets).
  • Bakersfield Jam (Old team: Phoenix Suns; New team: Los Angeles Clippers).
  • Fort Wayne Mad Ants (No previous affiliation; New team: Indiana Pacers).

Sioux Falls has been an incredibly loyal D-League city. A couple of years ago, I visited a friend who lived there during the NBA Finals when the Heat played the Spurs. His family, which didn’t seem like big-time basketball fans (he grew up mostly in a wrestling family) cheered pretty hard for the Heat. When I asked them, their reasons were simple: Sioux Falls was the Heat’s “minor league team” and they felt obligated to cheer for the Heat, even though they were in Miami. As much as the Heat probably enjoy the loyal fan following in the East River of South Dakota, the Timberwolves make more sense. Sioux Falls sports fans in general tend to cheer for Minnesota-based sports teams, including the T’Wolves, Twins, Wild and Vikings (West River tends to go to Denver-based sports teams) and the “local” Sports network seems to revolve around Minnesota-based franchises as well. Sioux Falls’ passionate fandom of their D-League team would be a big boost for not only the Sioux Falls community, but the T’Wolves and their organization, as Sioux Falls fans would be more likely to travel to see their favorite player get called up. They’re not exactly paying for a cross-country trip to do that. But a 4-hour drive? That’s more do-able and that means win-win for attendance for the D-League and NBA franchises.

Chicago seems to have a pretty strong number of Iowa transplants. Those who graduate from the University of Iowa  seem likely to migrate to Chicago if they want the “big city” experience. Considering those ties, a relatively do-able driving distance (5 hours), and local Iowa hero Fred Hoiberg (i.e. “The Mayor”) now the head coach of the Bulls, the Energy seem to be the perfect affiliate. Of course, the color scheme would change, which would be the only negative, since Iowa has a pretty snazzy uniform ensemble.

Erie was in a tough spot. They’re in the same state as the Sixers, but Delaware technically is closer to Philly, and without a Pittsburgh NBA franchise, and Canton already serving as a close affiliate to the Cavs, I had to pick the closest NBA franchise, which happened to be the Brooklyn Nets. I could see this maybe happening for a year or two before the Nets probably got something more local…a Long Island team, perhaps?

I suffered through the same issues with Bakersfield that I did with Erie. Bakersfield and Phoenix just seem too far apart and doesn’t feel like a fit. Then again, neither does Los Angeles. I could see the Clippers doing something akin to the Lakers and just running their D-League franchise out of their practice facility. It saves a lot of money and gives them more direct access to their D-League operations. However, I feel that is a bit of a cop-out (seriously, you pretty much incur no operating fees by running your D-League team out of a facility that looks and feels like a rec center), and I like to see professional basketball be in cities that really would appreciate professional basketball, even if it is not the NBA. Bakersfield seems like that kind of city, so I’m giving them the Clippers…for now.

Fort Wayne has always seemed to pride themselves in their independence (they are the last D-League team that is not a sole-affiliate), but let’s be serious here: they’re in Indiana, and the Pacers are in Indiana. It wouldn’t feel right if an Indiana minor league professional basketball franchise was an affiliate for another NBA outside the state of Indiana. Indiana basketball, whatever its form is, always has to keep Indiana ties. It’s just the damn tradition of the state. Fort Wayne really should’ve been the Pacers affiliate years ago, and it’s about time that starts to happen.

New D-League Cities and Franchise Affiliations

  • Grizzlies (New D-League City: Bowling Green, Kentucky)
  • Heat (New D-League City: Fort Myers, Florida)
  • Hornets (New D-League City: Asheville)
  • Nuggets (New D-League City: Rapid City, South Dakota)
  • Bucks (New D-League City: Kansas City, Missouri)
  • Pelicans (New D-League City: Lake Charles, Louisiana)
  • Blazers (New D-League City: Yakima, Washington)
  • Wizards (New D-League City: Baltimore, Maryland)
  • Magic (New D-League City: Daytona Beach, Florida)
  • Suns (New D-League City: Albuquerque, New Mexico)
  • Hawks (New D-League City: Birmingham, Alabama)


Some of the choices I came up with stemmed from teams that had basketball history in their city. For example, Bowling Green and Lake Charles stemmed from ABA franchises, and Yakima and Rapid City stemmed from old CBA franchises. I tried to keep the distances less than within 3-8 hours driving distance, with Kansas City being the furthest away from their D-League affiliate at over 8 hours. The reason I went with Kansas City say over St. Louis (which is closer) is because A.) I am biased toward Kansas City because I currently live there, and B.) There always has been a weird lingering inter-city rivalry with Milwaukee and St. Louis stemming from the “Brewery” wars (i.e. Miller and Budweiser) and it didn’t feel right to put the Bucks’ affiliate team in a city that is considered a “rival”. I know this puts Baltimore in a weird spot, since there is a similar rivalry between Baltimore and D.C., but the Wizards used to be in Baltimore, and I want the “Bullets” to come back in existence in some sort of way. I feel that making them a D-League franchise with some variation of the old Bullets uniforms would be awesome and nostalgic in all kinds of good ways that would satisfy the old “purists” who miss the Bullets while not interfering with the NBA franchise (who won’t seem to budge on changing their name).

I feel less confident in the Southern D-League affiliates because A.) I don’t think basketball would be all that big and B.) I had a hard time finding cities that were reasonable to their NBA affiliate distance-wise and were still small enough to be “Minor League” hosts. If people don’t remember, a lot of the early D-League franchises were located in the south, and a lot of them flopped because they just couldn’t draw. I think with the D-League taken more seriously now than before it would be better, but I wonder if “Minor League” basketball can make a decent enough dent to exist in the Deep South. I think that could be the biggest challenge for the D-League going forward: finding reasonable affiliates for Atlanta, Orlando, Miami and Charlotte (though I think Charlotte would find it easier because North Carolina is typically a basketball-crazed state, though more on the college end).

So those are the changes I would propose to the D-League should they expand to 30 teams. It’ll be interesting to see as time goes by what cities are chosen to be affiliate cities and the rate the D-League will grow. Whether it’s in 5 or 10 years, it is simply a matter of “when” not “if” the D-League will grow to 30 teams, with each franchise having a D-League affiliate.

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