The dust is slowly settling on free agency and we now have time to consider the future. Despite an interesting bounce back from the DeAndre Jordan snafu, the Dallas Mavericks are looking at a tough road, both this season and beyond.
With that in mind, Summer League, player development, and the Texas Legends should begin to play more of a role in our fandom. While at summer league, I had the chance to talk with Legends Assistant General Manager Travis Blakeley. (Full disclosure, Travis and I have known each other since 1997.) Blakely has been with the Legends nearly six years, first on the marketing and business development side when the franchise was getting off the ground, then as a player development coach, then as an assistant, and now in his role as Assistant General Manager. He's spent time under Nancy Leiberman, Dell Harris, Eduardo Najera, and now with Nick Van Exel.
Since the Legends' inception, they've existed mainly as an extended training camp for veterans coming to Dallas mid-season and as a grounds for younger and end-of-bench Mavericks to get playing time in an attempt to develop. With the Mavericks in a "win-now" mode every year of the Legends existence, their help in developing players for Dallas has been marginal at best. Dallas simply hasn't needed them to. Since that strategy is going to change at some point in the near future, Blakeley helped clear up some of my misunderstandings about the NBA Developmental League and helped explain how the Legends could benefit the Mavericks heading into the future:
Kirk: Could you walk me through how the Legends go about assembling their roster? How do contracts work? Can you offer multi-year deals?
Travis: It's a standard contract of one year. You can't offer more than one year unless the parent club gets involved and offers an NBA deal. You become the team's assigned player.
Kirk: I'm sure there are some loopholes then that teams try to use.
Travis : We're using one with Satnam Singh. You're able to draft a player that won't count against your parent club's 15-man roster or salary cap because that player will never report to training camp and won't sign an NBA deal. They report directly to the D-League team. It's worked out before the draft. There has to be a clear understanding.
Kirk: So Mavericks don't want a player holding up a roster spot for two to three years if he's never going to see the floor.
Travis: Correct. Particularly when there are two other impact players in Parsons and Matthews who may not start the season.
Kirk: With one-year contracts, does that mean you have to put together an entirely new roster every year?
Travis: We have 10 roster spots and two inactive. It's really about your returning player rights; right now we have 32. The difficulty this year is the expansion draft, so we'll have to nominate players to protect and then every other player will be available to the Raptors expansion team.
(Kirk's note: The Legends own the rights to 32 players, most of whom will not play for the team or any other NBA D-League team this season. These players then play elsewhere while the Legends' staff monitors their growth.)
Kirk: When do you have to put the roster together by?
Travis: Our draft is Nov. 1, so it's pretty late in the game compared to the NBA. We've been doing our work to "recruit", using that term loosely, either our returning players back that we want or next season or for players currently not under contract.
Kirk: With plenty of time between now and the draft, what are you working on?
Travis: I don't want to say that scouting players is the easy thing, it's certainly not, you want to find the right guys, but so many people out there have the same information, the same film, the same access, they know who to call. For us it's also scouting the situation. Where has that player been? Has he made money to stow away and can he make a sacrifice to come to the D-League for a year.
That's something we put a heavy emphasis on right now is scouting our potential "tryout" players. These are players who didn't win any awards in college, who have not played NBA Summer League, have not been part of a NBA roster, and have not been a part of another D-League roster. They are eligible as a "local tryout player" (Kirk's note: these players can be anyone, not just local players, so long as they meet the criteria).
These may be guys who played four years in college, immediately went overseas for two or three seasons. Maybe they were looked upon as a top 100 player when they left, but they didn't go to Portsmith or Chicago, they didn't get drafted and come to summer league. They've been living overseas and maybe they were forgotten about. Our most successful tryout players were Booker Woodfox and Darius Rice. So for us we have two guys who earmarked as potential try out players.
Our goal here in Vegas is to find those other undrafted guys who we might be able to bring in as "affiliate players," meaning they get brought into Mavs training camp and part of the last four men cut, then are designated as affiliate players to the Legends. As we talked about earlier, that's all worked out on the front end with a player's agent.
Kirk: That's a lot of moving pieces. With that in mind, you have to have a fluid goal structure, but if you're goal is to win...
Travis: Our goal is to develop.
Kirk: How then do you come up with development goals with such a limited period of time?
Travis: As it relates to 80 percent of our roster, that's a broad question. As it relates to 20 percent of our roster, it's pretty definitive. That 20 percent is Dwight Powell, Justin Anderson, and Satnam Singh. We know on the front end that these plans are in place. The plans are coming from the Mavericks; they have specific things they want to see done. It's the other 70 to 80 percent that, as you alluded to, make things a bit difficult. So for us, and this year is pivotal because we're seeing a lot of increased activity between the Legends and the Mavericks, we're looking to mirror what the Mavericks are doing with our entire organization. We not just looking to win games. We are creating an environment that's conducive with our Maverick culture.
Kirk: Let's talk about the three guys you mentioned who are understood to be Maverick players whether they are under contract or not. Development plans with those guys, is it decided by the Mavs then it's on you to execute? Do you get much say since you all are involved in the day to day?
Travis: We get more say on the execution and adaptation of the plan for a player rather than the development of the plan on the front end. As the player spends time in Frisco that plan is going to evolve to a degree based on performance, situation, or expectation level. That's where we might have more input. It's definitely a trickle down.
Kirk: So the other guys, how do you develop players who are only with the team for a limited amount of time? Is there a plan decided upon with the player on the front end or is that player simply on the Legends and you attempt to develop him in more broad ways?
Travis: I feel this year particular there's going to be much more of a standardization and process in place, both written and verbal, to goal setting and specific execution or performance workouts, all of that. There are responsibilities that will have to be met, not just from the player but from the coach responsible for the development. There's going to be a lot more fluidity and expectations that must be met compared to years past.
Granted, we've won awards from a development perspective, but we feel that because the roster is shifting a bit from title contender to now having to look at Justin Anderson and Powell. We need to put some procedures in place that will enhance development top to bottom. We can go back and point to certain situations and say "this is where we need to learn."
Kirk: Powell has shown he can hit shots. If he's playing with other good players, he's going to get catch and shoot opportunities. If there's one thing we can take away it's his willingness to take and make shots.
Travis: Yes, it's a definable skill. That and his effort with regards to rebounding.
Kirk: Do you see Powell spending time with the Legends this year?
Travis: After November and December when the roster gets healthy, maybe. Our style of play fits his style of play. I expect him to play 60 percent of the D-League games this season. (Kirk's note: The assumption here may be Powell will do what Bernard James and Jae Crowder did, which is play home games for the Legends while suiting up for Mavericks games.)
Kirk: There aren't a lot of big men in the league, which is why ones that display marginal skills are in high demand. Satnam is an example of this. He seems to have a pretty useful basic skill set. He might not play in the NBA for a while or ever, but he seems to be pretty solid from his limited time on the floor.
Travis: Kudos to IMG (IMG Basketball Academy) and Scott Fleming. They've coached him well. We're excited about Satnam. Our league has shown it can work with bigs. Big men are so rare. They're the unicorn of our industry. If they have even a little bit of a horn, they're still unicorns.
Kirk: Anything else you'd want the fans to know? I think there's a fundamental misunderstanding of what the league does and what it can do.
Travis: This year alone we saw 35 percent of the NBA as having spent some time in the D-League. In the playoffs, that number went to 40 percent. If you want to see players who will make an impact in the league one day, go spend $5 on a ticket. Watch them and see where they go after having played a certain way.