The Rio Grande Valley Vipers had a marvelous year, snagging the D-league title and boasting a record-breaking nine call-ups on the season.
Yet it is a unique relationship forged with the Houston Rockets which makes them so intriguing.
The Rockets were the first NBA team to adopt the NBDL’s new “single affiliate partnership model,” an arrangement where a D-league team maintains responsibility of its business operations while one lone NBA franchise assumes complete control over all of its basketball decisions, from coaching, to offensive philosophy to even distribution of playing time.
Naturally, the partnership piqued my interest because of the parallels to a known practice of the Oakland Athletics.
In our email conversation, Sam Hinkie, Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations and head of basketball analytics for the Houston Rockets, explained the motivations behind the team’s investment:
We’ve been interested in minor league basketball for many years now. We spent a lot of time looking to create options to deeply evaluate more players and have a stronger hand in developing our own young players. But under the current rules, we wouldn’t actually own the NBA rights to those players in the NBDL. That puts a natural limit on the amount we wanted to invest, as the value of our work to identify and develop that talent is not guaranteed to accrue to the Rockets. So we looked for other alternatives to outright ownership that would meet our goals of broadening our basketball pipeline.
Indeed, the team truly is taking advantage of the arrangement to develop its players. The Vipers run sets from Rick Adelman’s playbook, not only giving prospects a chance to acclimate to the big-league offense, but also providing the Rockets opportunity to test out new wrinkles in an environment with lesser stakes.
The relationship brings to mind the control the Oakland Athletics imposed upon their minor league affiliates. A’s former general manager Sandy Alderson held a firm belief that “the organization as a whole functioned well only if it was uniformly disciplined.” Thus, Alderson strictly enforced his unique beliefs on hitting, leaning on the organization’s minor league coaches whose teams were not walking enough.
To be clear, the Rockets’ is a gentler reign with the team maintaining awareness of the Vipers’ needs. Still, the striking similarity is a cognizance of the value of uniformity.
In Moneyball, Michael Lewis goes on to describe how the Athletics’ organizational philosophy was ingrained into players. To persuade them to be patient and to work the count and wait for the pitcher to make a mistake, the belief that strikeouts were not necessarily bad was drilled into their heads.
The Rockets had instituted their playbook. But for an organization that so highly values the benefits of individual preparation, I wondered if, like the A’s, they stressed the importance of any specific individual practices at the lower levels.
Of the five players that spent time between both the Rockets and Vipers this year, Hinkie responded, delicately, that he would “hope those players saw many similarities in the larger philosophies and the way they prepare for a game,” adding that “they realize that the Rockets value similar things on both teams.”
In the Morey era, the Houston Rockets have been known to use purchased second round draft picks upon European talent, then stashing these players away abroad for further development.
While these prospects typically have higher ceilings than their American counterparts from that level of the draft, many have expensive buyout clauses and the investment does not pay dividends for some time.
Now having the ability to develop players in a controlled environment, with the option for immediate in-season call-up, would the new relationship with the Vipers shift the organization to prefer American players?
“Not really” responds Hinkie:
In the draft, we’re looking for who will be the best players over the long term. Any team that feels good about their ability or willingness to develop young players might have slightly more interest in acquiring young players in need of that development. But I think it’s a pretty small consideration overall compared to just evaluating who has the best chance to be a good player over time.
The Houston Rockets’ partnership with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers, the first of its kind, is just another example of the club’s attempts to optimize its use of its resources.
Much has been made of the experience young stars such as Aaron Brooks have gained in the D-league. But it’s the subtle payoffs that are overlooked.
In a sport where mere possessions can mark the difference between winning and losing, a reserve’s increased familiarity and comfort on any given play could determine the outcome of any given game. It’s for this reason that the Houston Rockets have sought yet another avenue to gain a competitive advantage.