The Portland Trail Blazers have had a contentious relationship in the past with the NBA’s Developmental League, now the G-League after an off-season sponsorship with Gatorade. The team’s affiliation with the old Idaho Stampede was rocky at best, as chronicled this summer by Ridiculous Upside, and didn’t prove to be terribly beneficial for either party.
However, the G-League has taken major strides over the last few seasons to legitimize itself as an effective minor league for the NBA. Only the Blazers, Nuggets, and Pelicans are currently without an affiliate, and with the Pelicans actively searching for a location for their proposed team, soon only Denver and Portland will be left on the sidelines.
With rookies Caleb Swanigan and Zach Collins relegated to the bench, and second year man Jake Layman also out of the rotation, it may be time for the Blazers to consider adding a formal G-League affiliate of their own, or risk missing out on valuable opportunities for player development.
We already know that Neil Olshey is apprehensive about the league’s value. Olshey said in an interview at the end of last season:
There are arguments either way. There are teams that have developed players because they have an opportunity to go to the D-League and then we've developed players because we have the value of having them around our team more.
We saw it this year. Tim Quarterman was making great progress with us and we thought going to the D-League was going to maximize the foundation he had built here and it actually worked as a setback. Jake [Layman] same thing. It ended up being more of a setback. That was sending them to a place that wasn't under our direct control. They don't run the same system. It's more challenging. But we still have to figure out where would put it and how are we going to make sure that these guys don't lose touch with the Portland Trail Blazers.”
Olshey makes a fair point, but it’s possible that the problem with Quarterman and Layman last season was that they were playing on teams controlled by other NBA franchises, who had little investment in their development.
The Blazers could still send players to another team’s affiliate under the NBA’s Flexible Assignment Rule, but doing so would simply create the same problem. In order to have full control over the player’s development, the Blazers would need to bite the bullet and start their own affiliate.
With the inception of two-way contracts this summer, the Blazers were given two extra roster spots who could spend up to 45 days on the main roster despite being under G-League contract. Neither Wade Baldwin or CJ Wilcox, Portland’s two-way players, have even appeared in a G-League game this year due to injury.
When Baldwin and Wilcox are healthy enough to play, they will be sent to a team willing to take them who’s primary interest is developing their own players, not Portland’s players. Essentially two-way players face the same problems as players from the main roster.
Past Successes in Idaho
While both Quarterman and Layman struggled last season in the G-League, the Blazers have had some moderate success in the past developing players with the Idaho Stampede. Portland even had a “hybrid affiliation” with the team from 2012-2014, where the Blazers controlled the basketball operations but the business side was run from Boise. Former second round picks like Will Barton and Allen Crabbe were able to successfully develop in Idaho and become legitimate rotation players in the NBA.
Players like Barton and Crabbe are hardly exceptions. According to the G-League’s website, 44% of NBA players on current rosters at the end of last season had spent time in the G-League at some point in their careers. Teams like the Spurs, Warriors, Rockets and Raptors all have utilized their respective affiliates to develop their young players, and are currently reaping the benefits. Players like Clint Capela, Danny Green, and Norman Powell have all become solid players partially thanks to their time in basketball’s minor league.
The Blazers need to act soon if they want to take advantage of this trend. While they can still technically send players down without an affiliate, it appears as though owning and operating the affiliate is the most beneficial for all parties. If the affiliate is close enough to Portland, players like Swanigan and Collins could practice with the big league club during the day and still be able to play in home games for the G-League team at night. This represents best of both worlds, and can properly develop the team’s younger players while simultaneously keeping them connected with the team.