The NBA Gatorade League is an ever-evolving apparatus of the world’s top basketball league. Previously known as the NBA Developmental League, it was nothing more than an attempt to have professional basketball in the United States as an option for players who didn’t want to/were unable to play overseas. There were a little more than a dozen teams, some of them had deals with NBA teams that allowed them to send down young players and some of them didn’t. To call it a crap-shoot would not have been unfair.
Over the past few years, however, the league has made huge strides. With the Capital City Go-Go (of the Washington Wizards) debuting this season and The New Orleans Pelicans set to debut a team next year, all but 2 NBA franchises, Denver and Portland, have their own G-League team dedicated to just them. The advent of two-way deals allows for teams to have a pair of players who go back and forth, and more and more franchises are putting extra resources into their minor-league team in preparation of it becoming a full-fledged minor league in the coming seasons.
As it is, the G-League still stands in an awkward purgatory between being a full-on minor league and an independent league with only loose ties to the NBA. The league has had huge changes in the past few years and more are likely on the way, as such I thought it prudent to make it a mission to find out what changes should be made to the league from those who are actually involved. From players, to coaches, to equipment managers, to front-office members, here is how they would change the G League.
The Money and the Grind
All-in-all I spoke to around 70 people, the majority of those being opposing players visiting the DeltaPlex. The vast majority of answers, especially among players, had to do with money and the overall difficulty of playing in the G-League. After a pay-bump, players now can make up to $35,000 for a season, or $7,000 per month over the 5 months that the G-League season takes, this is in addition to housing and insurance benefits while under contract. There is the potential for affiliate players to earn a bonus of up to $50,000, affiliate players are players who spend training camp with an NBA team but are then waived to spend the year with their affiliated G-League team, but many players make less based on their classification.
The vast majority of players spoke about some combination of improving that money and/or the travel. Even by normal human standards, $35,000 over 5 months is not a huge amount of money, by NBA standards it is almost comical. For reference, most G-League teams will carry the minimum 10 players for most of the season. Even if we are generous and put all 10 at the maximum pay rate of $35,000, the total earnings of the G-League roster is $350,000 over the course of the season. If a first-round pick is sent to play time in the G-League, that player, on the super-cheap rookie-scale contract, will make at least three times as much per season as the entire G-League roster. Simply put, the gap is huge.
On top of that, travel is arduous and constant. Players typically fly coach, a huge number of players and coaches expressed a desire to travel charter, and back-to-backs are constant. Some form of “These guys gotta chill with all these back to backs” was said to me more than a couple dozen times. Griping about the difficulty of the schedule and poor pay is something felt by just about every member of the G-League.
The reason for this is part of the problem and a huge frustration for some teams. Players in the G-League do not actually sign with the individual G-League team, instead, they sign a deal with the G-League, and then their team is decided based on various rules, whether the G-League draft, entering the waiver wire, or returning players rights(if a player leaves and comes back then the team they left has first dibs on them).
Some organizations would like to pay their G-League players more money, or would at least be more than happy to pay every player at the maximum salary slot of $35,000, but they do not technically pay them because the league does. This also limits the ability for players to choose their teams and for teams to get the players they really want. The whole process is also so overly convoluted and strange that even people experienced with the league (like me) do not fully understand all of the ins and outs of how a player ends up playing for a certain team.
Culture of Selfishness
The problems vary a bit depending on who you ask, but in a basic sense, the main issue is that the G League is still not a proper minor league. Other than two-way players, (of which you may have two) any player on a G League team can get an NBA contract from any NBA team. So for instance, Lorenzo Brown is a player that has spent time playing for the Grand Rapids Drive in three different seasons, in all three of those seasons he left the team for a call-up to the NBA but only one of them was to the Pistons. Examples of this are aplenty across the league. Essentially, even if a team is smart enough to identify a player with NBA talent, and then good enough and committed enough to spend an entire season developing them with their G-League team, any other NBA team can swoop in and snatch them up at any time.
This breeds an environment that doesn’t actually lean towards emphasizing development because there is very little incentive for a team to develop their guys. As such, many G-League teams are lacking in many basic things like weight-programs, full-time trainers, and other basics. And most of the teams that have this are only doing so as an investment towards the eventual growth of the G-League so that when it is actually beneficial to do these things they will be ahead of the curve.
Stockton Kings head-coach Ty Ellis spoke about this, saying that the G-League as it stands has a “selfish environment” and suggested that one of the best ways to solve it would be to make coaches part of the coaches association.
Ellis speaks some big truths and was more honest about the issues facing the G League than most. Almost everyone in the league, from players to coaches, is simply looking at it as a stepping stone and that coaches simply view players as a means to an end.
At its core, this is the primary issue facing the G League.
Somehow, there needs to be a tangible benefit to a G League team to developing guys into better players, whether by sending players to the NBA or simply being better for that G League team.
This could be something as simple as making it so that when an NBA team signs a G League player to their roster, they have to pay some price to the G League team they signed him from. And remember that this can be essentially pocket change for an NBA team. If the price was even $70,000, less than the $83,000 that a player makes on a single 10-day contract, would be enough to cover the wages of two players for the team.
Another option would be to give G League teams independence to sign their own players to their own contracts. The potential to sign players to multi-year contracts that were guaranteed would seem like a win-win. G League players would likely enjoy the stability of a guaranteed deal over the current system where every player in the league is on one-year deals that can be terminated at any moment, and this would force NBA teams to buy out the rest of the contract to get a guy. It could create a system similar to the world soccer market where smaller clubs with good systems can develop young talent and sell the players to bigger clubs for a profit.
The most obvious solution would be to fully integrate it into a minor-league, where players sign on with the organization instead of the G League and then players can move up or down as the team sees fit. The issue is that this would require a few things that are difficult.
First, this would require teams to invest more money into the league. Some teams like this idea, others don’t. As stated before, a decent number of teams view the G League as a barely needed necessity and put as few resources into it as they possibly can, this doesn’t even mention that two franchises don’t even have a G League team yet.
Second, it would likely take money away from players currently in the league. In order to fully integrate into a minor-league, the money will then be coming directly from the NBA clubs, how exactly this would happen is not entirely sure but it would almost certainly result in at least a minor pay-decrease for NBA players currently in the league and also complicate things as for whether or not to integrate players into the Players Union and what privileges they get. Remember that the reason that rookies are on such a cheap pay-scale is that guys not in the league yet don’t get a say in the Union so the Union has minimal interest in getting them paydays. A similar issue will be had with the G League.
Points one and two essentially come down to the basic fact that neither the owners nor the players in the NBA will be quick to give up even a minimal amount of the pie that they currently have. But there is a third thing, even if they decide they want to do it, it will be highly complicated.
Does this expand the rosters of NBA teams? How old of players are you allowed to demote? (currently, anyone with more than 4 years of experience cannot be sent down without their expressed desire, and two-year contracts can only be given to players with 4 or fewer years of NBA experience) What if a G League player on a cheap G League contract gets a call-up and is good enough to just keep playing? Does he stay making pennies or does he get an instant raise? Do they have to expand the draft to additional rounds so that teams can draft guys to fill their G League teams now? What about the attempts by some NBA owners to undercut the NCAA by getting guys in the G League instead what happens there when all the players are signed with an NBA team?
Simply put, there are a ton of questions that will need to be answered in order to fully integrate the G-League as a proper minor league. The league’s entire structure and all of it’s rules will need to be torn down and re-built, nearly from scratch, and the end result will be that both the owners and players will take home at least a little bit less money. This is also the basic reason why the NBA (and other pro-sports) is willing to let the NCAA continue to screw over college athletes. Why go through the effort and funds to try and set up your own system when there’s a pre-made one that you don’t need to try and finance?
As much as we can all talk the talk, and some teams are even walking the walk, teams like the Brooklyn Nets who have made serious commitments to making their G League team first class.
Many teams simply do not share this appetite for taking on the challenge. Objects at rest tend to stay at rest, and there is a very good chance that changes continue to simply trickle in and frustrations around the problems with the league will remain.
The Veterans who See the Growth
Within all of this, there is a certain brand of guys, mostly coaches, who have a different view of the G-League. A number of coaches in the league have been there for a long time, Grand Rapids head-coach Ryan Krueger happens to be one of them. For the guys who have been on this grind for years, their perspective leans more towards how much the league has improved over the years. In a way, this may simply speak more to how bad it was, but it is worth noting. Many of those who have been in the league the longest seem to have the highest opinion of where the league is at and where it seems to be going.
There is a certain degree to which the severe grind of the league probably also appeals to certain kinds of coaches. The challenges are constant and always changing as your roster has constant turnover, most teams turn over around half of their roster over the course of a season, winning games is a secondary concern to trying to develop players, and you spend more time around young and hungry players and less time around entitled millionaires trying to get you fired. Drive coach Ryan Krueger said that the G-League has been very good to him in fact.
This is an important thing to remember in all of this. As frustrating as the league can be, and for many it has rather exasperated them, those who have been in and around it the longest are almost universally thrilled with the direction it has gone and looks to be going. So even if the change is coming slowly, the right changes are happening and at a rate that you do notice the positive changes.
With that in mind, even with the potential for change to continue to be slow and maybe not comprehensive enough, the league is indefinitely growing. A decade ago there were just 14 teams and players made about half as much, with the introduction of the select contracts for top-level high-school players next season it should only continue to gain steam. And as more and more clubs take it more serious, the groundwork is there for something truly special. But now it’s up to the NBA to not just talk the talk about improving the G League. They need to walk the walk.
Here’s a full thread of each head-coach I asked this if you’re interested.
Note If you are wondering why the players asked are not on video, pretty much all of those were asked in the locker room (where cameras are not allowed) or asked quickly as they were going to or from warmups. Big thanks to everyone who spared some time for me this season.
Featured Image: Grand Rapids Drive