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An Argument for NBA Developmental Contracts

Many players we've watched over the past week in Las Vegas will have to make difficult career decisions in the next few weeks. The NBA could make it easier for the best of them while strengthening their organizations and maintaining a group of non-roster players who show promise.

Where in World Will Robbie Hummel Play?
Where in World Will Robbie Hummel Play?
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE

Here's a decision I've never had to make: Do you accept a fairly lucrative offer to work in your chosen field thousands of miles from home and in a different country? Or do you turn down that offer because there is a small chance that you will get an even more lucrative offer to work for the employer you've dreamed of your entire life? The problem is that if that small chance doesn't come through, you will be forced to work for peanuts to stay in your chosen field and lose a valuable peak earnings year in the process.

This is a choice that will face some of the players we've watched over the last week in the Las Vegas Summer League. Should they wait and hope for an NBA camp invite that might, just might, turn into an actual NBA contract? Or should they try to latch onto, or return to, a team in a foreign league that is offering guaranteed money right now?


I wrote about this the other day and yesterday Brent Koremenos talked about it on Grantland: There is sometimes a very thin line between in the NBA and out of it.

Being in the right place at the right time is as important as talent. For every player who is one of the last two or three players on an NBA roster there are probably a dozen or more who are just as talented, just as hard working, just as dedicated to their pro basketball careers.

Brian Roberts played for several years in second tier leagues in Europe before finding himself in the right place last summer and snagging a roster spot as a backup point guard for the New Orleans Hornets. He played well, and should return this year. I couldn't be happier for him. But is he actually any better than Stefhon Hannah, who played for very little money in Cyprus, Poland, and Lithuania before spending the last couple of seasons in the D-League? Frankly, I'd feel much better if the Wolves had Hannah on a developmental contract; the potential lack of defense and ball-stopping that could occur if, the gods forbid, Ricky Rubio went down again would be at least somewhat mitigated if a guy like Hannah was available and practicing under the Wovles auspices.

Dozens of players with NBA dreams are playing in the Las Vegas Summer League, and many of them are good enough to play in the NBA. Not nearly as many will get the chance. Roster spots are at a premium, and by the end of July almost all of them are spoken for in the form of guaranteed contracts. The Wolves, for example, have 14 players on guaranteed contracts for the upcoming season, meaning they have one spot open that they may or may not use right away.

How much sense does it make for Robbie Hummel to wait around for an invitation to training camp so that he can compete for a spot that only may exist, when his Spanish team will probably make him an offer? On the other hand, signing a contract in Spain means another year without the possibility of NBA basketball.

It seems to me there is a reasonable and cost effective way to make this choice easier for the best players while giving NBA teams more input into player development and allowing them to have a pool of players under their contractual control that could fill roster spots as needed.

Here's a proposal:

Each NBA team can have up to five players on "Developmental Contracts" in addition to their maximum 15 NBA roster players. These players could be second round draft choices or undrafted free agents. They would be assigned to a D-League team that would have two NBA franchises associated with it. The remaining spots on those D-League rosters would be filled as they are now, with unaffiliated players, as well as with NBA roster players "sent down" for playing time as happens currently. A player on a developmental contract would earn $150,000. That amount would be competitive with what most of these players could be expected to earn abroad, and would have several advantages.

The player wouldn't have the cultural/linguistic adjustments to make while trying to improve their games. They would be available at any time to be called up to the parent NBA team, at which time they would get an NBA contract (for 10 days or the rest of the season). They would get NBA style coaching under the auspices of a franchise that has an investment in their development as players.

Thus, a team could make a camp invite to a player much more appealing by telling him: we can't guarantee you an NBA roster spot, but if you accept our invitation, we'll at the very least give you a developmental contract.

I would suggest that an NBA team could renew a player on a developmental contract twice--in other words they could keep that player's rights for three years by keeping him under a developmental contract. If at the end of that time, the player has not been signed to an NBA contract, he becomes a free agent. The team and player could then agree to continue their relationship under a developmental contract, or the player could sign elsewhere: with another NBA club under an NBA contract, a new developmental contract, or overseas.

The downside for players is that it would tie them to one NBA franchise, as opposed to being available to any franchise during the summer and during the season if they play in the D-League. However, they would be well-compensated for the arrangement, and because these would be akin to free agent contracts, they could also turn down the offer if they so choose.

I'm no economist, but this doesn't seem like it would be cost prohibitive. Many teams, as I will discuss below, already invest significant sums in D-league franchises with whom they have a one-to-one relationship. With a maximum of five developmental players at $150,000 each, that's a maximum of $750,000 in extra player salary, plus the costs of insurance and other expenses.


Currently, the NBA is in the enviable position of having their players developed for them on someone else's dime. Unlike Major League Baseball with its extensive farm system populated with players drafted out of high school, international players signed as young as 16, and college draftees, the NBA gets its players exclusively from the college ranks and foreign professional leagues. Many foreign draftees, even first round picks, do not immediately come to the NBA, meaning they don't take up a roster spot, nor do they receive an NBA paycheck.

The recent rule change barring U.S. players from declaring for the draft immediately after high school was accurately described by the NBA as a pure business decision. Essentially forcing players into at least a year of college saves the NBA a year of development costs and, in theory, reduces costly draft mistakes.

So why would the NBA want to mess with a system that allows them to foist development costs off on the NCAA and foreign leagues?

The league itself might have little desire to increase its costs by expanding rosters to include developmental players. However, we have seen more and more individual franchises invest in this direction by either purchasing D-League teams for themselves or making agreements with D-League franchises to run their basketball operations. These one-to-one relationships are becoming increasingly common, suggesting that NBA teams see value in having a developmental team, even without the ability to contract specific players on those teams beyond their 15 player NBA roster limit.

The advantage for those teams with one-to-one relationships is that they can control the coaching staff and systems, and they can make sure the kinds of players they want are on the roster and getting playing time (even when those players are almost all available to be called up by any NBA team). So when they do send one of their contracted players to the D-League, they can control exactly what kind of practice and development they are going to get.

There are currently 14 one-to-one relationships among the 17 D-League franchises, meaning the other 16 teams are crammed together among three D-League teams. (The Wolves just affiliated with the Iowa Energy, along with the Bulls, Nuggets, Pelicans, and Wizards). At the moment, that isn't a huge detriment, because no NBA team is going to have more than one or at most two players under contract playing with their D-League affiliate.

But there are significant benefit to teams if they could have players on developmental contracts. Knowing exactly who you have available should the need arise at some point during the season. Being able to more closely monitor their progress and provide specific instruction. Having the flexibility to take a flyer on a talented but raw player that you couldn't justify having on the 15 man NBA roster. Taking advantage of your player evaluation skills by building the best pool of developmental players, and then having the ability to trade those players for other assets.

Such a system might also help the D-League attract fans. Currently, it's difficult to articulate why I should be a fan of a D-league franchise. They are filled with players that have no relationship to my NBA team, and aren't likely ever to impact my team. There isn't a D-League team in my town, and the games aren't on television. However, if five guys my team holds the rights to are playing for Sioux Falls every night, all of a sudden, there's reason for me to pay attention. How is Hummel shooting? Is Demetri McCamey making progress on his point guard skills? Much like serious baseball fans pay attention to their team's minor leaguers, NBA fans would be more engaged with the D-League if their team held the rights to a group of players.

Allowing teams to have players on developmental contracts would be beneficial to the best U.S. players not in the NBA, because it would give them another good option to make a living playing basketball and keep them closer to the league. It would be beneficial for NBA clubs because it would allow them to control more players and direct their development at a reasonable cost. And it would be beneficial to the D-League because it would bring them a natural fan base that would be more interested in their players.

At some point, with the way things are trending toward one-to-one relationships between the NBA and the D-League, a system like the one I propose seems an inevitable progression. Teams are more and more invested in finding inexpensive talent that can help them win. The idea of developmental contracts is to make that process easier on everyone.