To stay or go: the positives and negatives of the NBA D-League

On a Sunday afternoon, basketball players took to the Barclays Center court for a shrunken version of an NBA game – a mostly empty arena watching unknown players whose paychecks were a couple of zeros shy of what NBA superstars earn.

This was an NBA D-League game, which is short for the development league. It was created to prepare players and coaches for the major leagues.

“Everyone in the D-League plays with a chance to make the NBA,” said Donnie McGrath, a New York native and current guard for the D-League team the Long Island Nets.

The D-League is primarily known for its professional athletes on the cusp of a career, making less than school teachers. These guys play in hopes of being promoted to the NBA, when 70% of the players in their situation won’t. And of the 30% that does make it, half of them are players signed with the NBA, on NBA contracts, but were assigned to the D-League to develop their game – they are typically referred to as affiliate players.

McGrath, who spent the last 10 years playing professional basketball overseas, said “the D-league only makes sense if you legitimately think you have a chance.”

Players in the D-League are assigned to one of three tiers, and paid accordingly: C-Level players make $13,000, B-Level players make $19,000, and A-Level players make $25,000. In 2015, the Federal Poverty Level for a one-person household was $11,770, which means C-Level players are only making $1,500 more. 

These salaries are no comparison to the minimum rookie contract, or the lowest salary of a player in his first year in the NBA, which is about $540,000.

“The pay in the D-League is an issue,” said Brandon Rosenthal, assistant coach of the Northern Arizona Suns, minor league affiliate for the Phoenix Suns.

It is an issue that is acknowledged by the players, coaches, league, and the commissioner, Adam Silver. He has been in open discussion with the media speaking about the need for more incentives in the D-League, whether it be through increased salaries, new contracts, or new facilities.  

McGrath has dealt with the hardships of making such low wages, pushing him away from a career in the states. When McGrath first came out of college he signed with the Brooklyn Nets. He went through training camp, and played Summer League with the team, but failed to make the final roster. Instead of going to the D-League, he followed the money, and signed a two-year contract to play professional basketball in Italy.

And many agree with this path: “You’d be stupid to turn down a $1.5 million contract to play for Spain,” said Adam Barnes, the basketball operations assistant for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Playing overseas has positives and negatives of its own. The positive: the salary, which can be well over the base $65,000; the negative: it is hard to break international contracts to sign with the NBA if they are interested.

“The real benefit of staying in the D-League is the access you have to NBA personnel,” said Barnes. With the direct relationship between the NBA and the D-League, players can constantly be coached, analyzed, and recruited by NBA scouts. While international players are still recruited, they don’t have the daily interaction with NBA personnel and affiliate players.

This season is McGrath’s first in the D-League. At 32-years old, he has realized that his dream of being in the NBA may be coming to an end.

“Guys keep their hopes up and think they will make the league, but realistically that’s not the case,” said McGrath, “It’s a long season, but I think I have a few good years left.”

So far the Long Island Nets lost ten games this season, and won two of them. It is still the beginning of their season, but the daily hardships of the salary, mindset, and system of the D-League poses a challenge to aspiring NBA players.

“At the end of the day the D-League is designed to better affiliate players,” said Rosenthal, “and players understand this. They are here to learn from the affiliates and perform with them at a high level.”

When affiliate players (NBA players asked to play down for additional playing time and development) are assigned to play in the D-League, coaches are asked to design plays for them, and ensure the affiliate player makes a certain number of points. This does not always occur, but when it does D-League players get the short end of the stick: less playing time and less exposure to scouts.

D-League players, like McGrath, understand this. There will be games where Brooklyn Nets players’ Chris McCullough and Anthony Bennet will be assigned to play with them, taking away from McGraths playing time or forcing him to pass the ball to McCullough and Bennet. But for McGrath this is all a part of the D-League and the game. It’s a part of how are you scouted, and “it's part of what you signed up for,” said McGrath. 

Kirsten Watson