Why the Pacers Don't Use the D-League and Why Lance Stephenson Likely Will Never Play There

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It’s no secret that the Pacers franchise sees little to no value in the NBA Development League, which will celebrate its tenth birthday in less than a year. When it was founded, the D-League was touted as the first official, non-NCAA farm system to give those players who were not quite ready to compete at the highest level of basketball some extra seasoning. In time, David Stern and other proponents believed that it could become the equivalent of AAA for Major League Baseball.

It certainly has not become that yet, but teams are increasingly seeing the benefits it can provide with some tangibly reaping the rewards of calling players up and sending prospects down. The Golden State Warriors, for example, have brought up several productive guys, including Reggie Williams, who averaged 15.2 ppg on 49.5% shooting for the Dubs last season in 24 games, and put up 12.2 points and 7.3 boards per night for them in 44 games. Then of course comes the Utah Jazz’s famous call up of Sundiata Gaines, who hit a buzzer-beating, game-winning three against LeBron’s Cavs last year in just his fifth career NBA game.

If the Warriors are the poster child for believers in D-League experimentation, the Pacers are the antithesis.

Never has Indiana called up a player nor have they ever sent one down. For all intents and purposes, the D-League does not exist for the Pacers. In fact, we were just discussing this recently with the good folks over at D-League Digest, to whom Tim Donahue offered the following perspective.

I suppose D-League supporters would give this approach an F. I give it an A+. As currently constituted, I see no value in the D-League, and I don’t think it is helpful for the Pacers’ young players to play there.

While the Pacers’ management is not quite that blunt, but they seem to agree.

Here’s what Larry Bird recently had to say to Mike Wells about not sending down Lance Stephenson, who has been inactive for all 18 Pacers games so far this year.

“Not right now, because I think he needs to be here,” Pacers president Larry Bird recently told the Indianapolis Star. “We do a lot of stuff in practice that he needs to learn. (Pacers coach) Jimmy (O’Brien) stays on him pretty tough. I’m very high on the kid. I want him to be part of the team whether he’s dressing or not.”

Larry did add a “you never know” and noted that they may send Stephenson down later in the year. Based on history, however, it seems unlikely. Coach Jim O’Brien also told Wells that he was unconvinced that getting playing time in the D-League would help Lance since he wouldn’t be “learning what we’re trying to teach” him.

D-League blogger Scott Schroeder predictably disagrees, noting the fact that many other franchises are increasingly seeing the value of the D-League could meant that the Pacers are missing out on a resource that is helping other clubs improve.

It seems many teams would disagree with O’Brien’s assessment judging by the current amount of call-ups just two weeks into the season being more than half of the record 24 that were assigned all of last season. New Jersey Nets coach Avery Johnson was the latest to voice his opinion on the matter.

“If a guy is going to play six or eight minutes a game, why not?” Johnson told SportsNet New York. “I think it’s a great tool, sometimes even if it’s just for a week.”

Johnson recently assigned Terrence Williams, a lottery pick last season, to the Springfield Armor.

D-League president Dan Reed, not surprisingly, agreed with the value of assigning players not currently getting playing time in the NBA.

“Given our success of producing NBA players, developing NBA players and all the call-ups from the past year, there’s a new kind of confidence that teams and players hold in utilizing the D-League to help develop first-round draft picks and really a highly regarded talent like Patrick Patterson, like Ed Davis, like Cole Aldrich, and that’s a really positive thing for the league.”

Whether the Pacers eventually see the light is anyone’s call, but until they do, they’ll be playing catchup to most of the other teams in the NBA.

I personally don’t have an opinion on this.

In theory, a small-market team like the Pacers should be trying everything it can to find a diamond in the rough. It will always be hard to attract premier NBA talent to Indianapolis through free agency (even when they have up to $30 million in cap room in the 2011 summer), so why not put out the occasional feeler on a shot in the dark? Will they find a future All-Star? Probably not. But cheap guys who can produce like Reggie Williams aren’t exactly growing on trees elsewhere, and they very well might be able to find a quality rotation guy in time.

Then again, trying to mine and use the D-League effectively would create some additional costs for a cash-strapped franchise. And the league is nowhere near being an actual development tool like the farm system of Major League Baseball. If it was, it would be harder to defend Indiana’s decision to put its head in the sand and pretend the minors don’t exist for basketball.

But it isn’t. So I really don’t know.


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Tags: Avery Johnson D-League Jim O'Brien Lance Stephenson Larry Bird Reggie Williams Sundiata Gaines

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