The NBA is racing closer and closer toward full one-to-one affiliation between its professional teams and developmental league teams. Arguably no franchise has provided more proof of this system’s benefits than the Houston Rockets. You won't find other teams utilizing the D-League quite like them.
As Dylan Murphy of the Fort Wayne Mad Ants told me:
Every NBA team uses its D-League team differently. Because the Vipers are 1-to-1 with the Rockets, they're able to focus a bit more on player development and experimentation with scheme/strategy. Since the Mad Ants are a multi-affiliate team with its basketball operations run independently from any NBA team, our focus was more on winning. That meant we might acquire older, more developed players to achieve that goal, whereas a 1-to-1 team probably wouldn't do that as much.
There are now 17 one-to-one partnerships between NBA and D-League teams. We’re over halfway there.— Sean Highkin (@highkin) June 10, 2014
In the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the Rockets have created a farm roster that’s been something of a secret weapon for them. Troy Daniels, the unlikely late-season call-up and subsequent postseason hero, is but one example of the fruits of heavy investment in a feeder team.
Daniels was immediately ready to drain a cool game-sealing overtime three for the Rockets in the first round against the Portland Trail Blazers (and go on to shoot 53 percent beyond the arc over the series) in large part because that was nearly the only shot he took with the Vipers.
In Rio Grande Valley they implement an experimental style. To some extent, this makes for a laboratory in which the Rockets see just how far they can push their offensive frontier in the NBA. Per Grantland’s Zach Lowe:
The Vipers, Houston’s D-League affiliate, average nearly 112 possessions per game — about a dozen more than any NBA team. All that sprinting and 3-point gunning has produced 115 points per 100 possessions, best in the D-League and a number that would blow away the entire NBA. “If we could take a 3 every time down the court,” [Vipers coach Nevada] Smith says, “we probably would. There’s going to be a game where we shoot 60. I’m telling you. And people are going to think we’re crazy.”
When the Blazers gave Daniels an inch of free air from deep, he hoisted shots up with the ease of a layup. A stone-cold specialist, his catch-and-shoot capabilities were tuned to a point nearing perfection. And if Daniels’ success is anything like a presage, the Rockets may be able to pluck similar shooters from the Vipers consistently—like many an MLB outfit has historically done with base stealers and pinch-hitters.
"To be honest, the D-League has prepared me for this moment," Daniels told reporters after his big shot against Portland. "You can say whatever you want about the D-League, but I wouldn't have hit that shot if I wasn't in the D-League a couple weeks ago.”
The Rockets have also used the Vipers for more traditional means, namely the training of young starting power forward Terrence Jones. A rough but huge talent, Jones was given the necessary reps with the Vipers to play through his mistakes and find his form.
“Not playing a lot can be stressful,” Jones said, per Nicholas Norman of Distinct Athlete. “Being in the D-league, being able to get minutes, and being able to keep my confidence is a great advantage especially for young guys in this league.”
Jones broke out as a pro in 2013-14, earning his starting spot over Omer Asik due to his heightened versatility. A lithe runner, solid rebounder and creative scorer with shooting range, Jones now looks to be a big part of the Rockets’ future.
The rich basketball sandbox that is the Vipers isn’t likely to be mentioned among the Rockets’ great organizational accomplishments. Especially not if the team is successful in luring yet another superstar to Houston this offseason.
But if the astounding dominance of recently crowned champions San Antonio Spurs tells us anything, it’s that player development and depth can’t be overvalued. They overwhelmed the Miami Heat with a longer rotation and a stronger team system.
The Rockets are doing what they can to replicate the Spurs’ template of excellence by taking such care with the Vipers. NBA championships can be won in the margins, and by using the D-League as something more than a rehab center for struggling players, the Rockets are working spectacularly within theirs. Expect their progress to act as a cue for the rest of the league.