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D-League 101: An interview with Santa Cruz Warriors GM Kirk Lacob

In Part 1 of an interview with Santa Cruz Warriors general manager Kirk Lacob, he discusses his role with the team, the value of the Affiliate Player Rule, Jeremy Tyler's experience in the D-League and why Jeremy Lin declared he would never go back to the D-League after playing in Reno.

After the brief tour around the downtown Santa Cruz area and a look at the Santa Cruz Warriors' arena construction site on Friday - described here yesterday - GM Kirk Lacob sat down for what ended up being a very lengthy interview.

Pieces of the interview were used in yesterday's article about the early progress of the team, but Lacob was also quite open to discussing everything from Jeremy Tyler to Jeremy Lin to how he communicates analytics to Mark Jackson. It's a lot of material to digest, but for those of us who aren't very familiar with the D-League and how the Warriors see Santa Cruz fitting into their plans I figured it might be an interesting read as we wait for NBA training camps to open.

I decided to divide the interview into two parts: a D-League primer and analytics, with only a few pieces omitted just to maintain flow and shorten this already long transcript. Today, we'll start with the D-League primer and save the analytics piece for tomorrow. There were actually 4-5 people in the room during the interview, but Basketball Operations Manager Sammy Gelfand was the only person who spoke during this interview.

- - -

Nate Parham: So I think people are curious about what a D-League GM does day-to-day and what your role is vis-a-vis the NBA club.

Kirk Lacob: So I think in some ways this is a unique situation, although I think it's becoming less and less unique. You know, typically a D-League GM in the past has been here and they've done a lot day-to-day, nitty gritty stuff. I don't have the ability to do that because I do have another job, but I think day-to-day it's more that I really trust everybody here and for me it's kind of overlooking and talking with them – making sure they're happy and getting ideas and suggestions from everybody, relaying that to the NBA club or to the league office.

I would say a day does not go by when I'm not thinking about this team. And maybe I'm more into it than some of the other people in the D-League – or in the NBA, even - just because this is something that I care so much about and it's become so much of a pet project to get it here. So, in some ways, hard question to answer. But the second part of your question was...

NP: Just, that you have responsibilities with the NBA club as well, so...

KL: Well the great part about being up there and being so invested in this is that these guys get heard up there - there is a voice on their side at all times. They're never forgotten about, which I think is really important if you're trying to build a strong culture where players feel comfortable coming to the D-League and saying, 'Yeah, I really think I'm going to get a shot to make it' instead of, 'Oh they're just putting me there because they want their D-League team to win.' You know, this way they feel more connected because they've seen me, maybe, in training camp at Golden State and then they see me watching their games. And I may be the only person that they see in both worlds.

So, it's cool being up there and I'm constantly reminding everybody in the office, 'Oh, this is happening in Santa Cruz.' It's kind of at a point where- like, I wear this shirt and, like I said, everybody else is like, 'Oh yeah, I really want that Santa Cruz shirt!'; like they're really into it now. Last year it was like, 'Oh yeah, Dakota. Cool. Yeah, I hope that's going well.' And now I think everybody else at Golden State feels so much more invested and that's going to trickle down.

NP: You've said Dallas' D-League team has been successful. In terms of their record or in terms of how they use it with the NBA club?

KL: Both. They've been very progressive. They were one of the first teams to move a team closer – like I said, they bought a team in Colorado and moved it close to Dallas. They were the first team to utilize a rule that was new last year - that I hope gets more traction – which is sending down veterans. But they have to agree to that – the player and the agent have to agree. If you're in your first three years you can get sent down. And this year will be great because you can send them back and forth as many times as you want.

But they had Yi Jianlian who went down for two days – not a huge, huge name. Significant though.

And then the Lamar Odom thing would've been fantastic for the league – you know, he was going to go play a few games there but they had a bunch of injuries so they recalled him at the last minute. But for a name that big to say, 'I need to do a rehab in the D-League' would've been huge. That's when you start talking about like- an example would've been like Steph Curry last year – we obviously didn't want him to test his ankle in a NBA game because it's just not smart to do that. And you can't throw him out there for 10 minutes and say, 'We're just going to see how you react, but by the way this game is also really important.' It's hard to do that. Whereas if last year we had said, 'Steph: 10 minutes max, you're going to play in a D-League game' you can do that - that's not a problem.

I mean, wins and losses are important to us here, but at the end of the day, the most important thing is getting players ready for the NBA. Plus, 10 minutes of 80% Steph Curry is probably going to help too.

But it will take one pretty marquee name to do this before I think there's kind of a waterfall. And so Dallas was one of the first to do that.

NP: The new rule about veterans is that you're allowed to take three guys from training camp...

KL: Yeah, it's called the Affiliate Player Rule. It's actually been around a couple of years; it's getting more popular as there are more one-to-one affiliations. But you can have up to three guys from NBA training camp who get cut from your training camp roster and if they agree to go to the D-League, your D-League team has first dibs on their rights. So last year we had- Tommy Smith came. He ended up being the only one I think. Last year was really rushed – if we had had more time I think we would have brought in more guys that wanted to be there. This year we'll see.

We've got a couple of really good guys that are gonna be in camp. It's been released that Terrence Kinsey is in our camp this year and he's kind of agreed if doesn't make the team he still thinks he's gonna be a player. And I agree - he's right there. So if he doesn't make the NBA club, he'll probably come down here, play here and try to get called up. That's a guy who has played three years in the NBA.

Then you'll have guys like Lance Goulbourne is at camp right now – he'll be at camp – from Vanderbilt. And he's a guy who, again, if he doesn't make the NBA club, he's indicated there's a good chance he'll come to the D-League. And he will play for us here.

So what it helps us with is that instead of having guys invited to NBA vet camp as favors to agents and who are just there – you know, they're never going to make the team and you don't really want 'em there – now it's, 'Ok, we're going to focus on guys we think are really close, that fit our system and might not be ready yet.' And we want to make sure these are good guys and that they'll possibly agree to do this. They get a vet camp experience, they get to put that on their resume and then they get to come to a system that they've already started learning with a coaching staff that's an extension of the one they just played for and they'll get the best possible chance to move up.

What we're really hoping for and the league is really working on is some form of protection of players in the D-League; we can't protect anybody unless they're assignment guys – like Chris Wright was an assignment guy last year so no one can call him up. But like Edwin Ubiles: he got called up by Washington because we can't protect him. We're looking to find some sort of – and it won't happen this year, obviously it's too close – but they've been talking about it since the new CBA went into place, an addendum, to kind of figure out a way to protect players, whether it's like a two-way contract like in hockey where you have a guy's rights for two years, you pay him more than the D-League salary and it doesn't go against your salary cap though in the NBA and you're the only team that can call him up. I think something like that is hopefully in the works and would be really great because it would give us more of a farm system.

NP: A lot of fans look at a guy like Jeremy Tyler and wonder what the D-League could do for him. He's obviously been in the D-League before with North Dakota-

KL: Yeah, he played – what was it? - five games? And he was scheduled to play more but then things happened and he started NBA games. But Charles Jenkins was actually scheduled twice to play in games in the D-League last year and like at the last minute, you know, Steph got hurt or Nate (Robinson) got hurt and we needed him. So he actually never made an appearance last year. Chris Wright obviously made the most appearances – he's a guy we really liked and he just wasn't able to be on the court. And if you're going to sit in a suit, you might as well be playing games and learning.

I think we've got a much deeper roster this year so we're gonna have potentially some really good players down here. It may only be quick down here – you know, play a game, go back to practice – but we're having guys who were draft picks to have a chance to be down here, not because they're not NBA players but simply because they need to play. You can't get better unless you're actually playing the game.

NP: What do you think Tyler gained when he was here for those few games, if anything at all?

KL: Jeremy is a good example because he was very young and a little wild in terms of his game. It was really hard for a kid that young who had such kind of bad pro experiences before he got to us – it was tougher to adapt to the NBA lifestyle so quickly, the way he was just kind of thrown in. So I think what it helped – Sam would kind of agree, he spent a lot of time – it really just slowed things down for him.

You know, it was, 'I'm not in the big city. I'm away from my family. No one's watching on the court. I'm getting to play 30 minutes a game. I'm getting to play my game. And I'm get to be around guys who look up to me and say, 'You're pretty good! Damn, you can play!'' And it was really valuable for a kid like that to get kind of a gut check like, 'Hey you haven't made it yet. Are you on the court playing 30 minutes a game for a title contender? No, you're not.' But at the same time it's him getting his confidence back; it's easy when you're young and not playing to lose your confidence and that's such a big part of the game because all of these guys are really talented. It's really the most confident guys who are kind of the better ones at this point.

Also, to try things out – you know, maybe he didn't have a hook shot before. And really, his hook shot for instance was really very basic. He had never really used it. He was all about really using quickness to get around guys and putbacks and things. And now he had an opportunity: we're going to feed you in the post, we want you to practice putting up that hook shot against other 6-foot-10 players in the game. And he could do that without missing really badly and people booing him or people making fun of him. And so it's an opportunity for things like that.

Jeremy Lin is another really good example: this is a guy who we had really high hopes for and clearly was not going to play in NBA games and came in here and it was a chance for him to get his confidence back and to show people up. And I think he came in and he was really good in Reno. He was really good – I think people didn't realize how good he was in Reno because they actually played him off the ball a lot even though we really wanted him to be the point guard. Also, it's not like he was playing 35-40 minutes because that was a really good team. So he was playing 25-30 minutes a game and he was like averaging 18, 6 and 6. I mean and then he goes to Erie last year and he throws up a triple-double.

The Jeremy Lin story is so great because sometimes all people need is a chance. Well, I'm not sure anyone would've picked him up if they hadn't seen what he had done in the D-League in Reno. You know they might've said, 'Oh they just cut him and he didn't play before so, what's the deal?' But if he hadn't put up a triple-double in Erie, they might not have played him significant minutes that game against the Nets.

But he's another example of (someone who) got to work on things: coming out of the Ivy League, for instance, it's hard. The level of play – he might be a great player – but the speed changes, the size of the guys changes. You just need, sometimes, a stepping stone.

And we had a guy on our D-League team last year who's coming back this year, Justin Johnson, who was the NAIA Player of the Year. He was passed over in Division I because he was scrawny. He's gotten kind of wiry strong now. And he clearly struggled at first in training camp. And he definitely struggled (with) the speed, the size of the guys – it was way different than the NAIA. But you could see he could play. And by midway through the year, he was arguably one of the best sixth men in the D-League.

Sammy Gelfand: Actually he got cut at our training camp.

KL: Yeah, we actually cut him.

SG: He started off slow, he just really needed to get a feel for the game. He picked it up at the end of camp – I mean, by the end, he was right at the cusp. But, you know, 10th guy. We had a lot of guards, we needed just another big body. And then the lockout ended and there was a huge rush of players that called to training camps – I think we lost four or five players.

KL: We lost a lot of players.

SG: So, the thing is, players we cut in training camp we have first dibs to so he was the first person we called to come back. And he had 16 points, 18 points, 15 points, his first four games-

KL: And we're talking about, like, efficiently.

SG: 6-of-10.

KL: We're talking, 6-of-10, 5-of-6. I mean, he was playing. And I think by the end of the year he was – he was a really good player. He'll be even better this year. But I think it's another case: sometimes you have really talented players and they just need time to adapt. And you know if a NBA team put him into training camp, he probably wouldn't have done a thing. And people would've checked him out and said, 'Hey – what do you think of Justin Johnson?' 'Oh he was terrible at our camp.' (That's) not really fair because that was the first time this kid has played against anyone that good. And now he's going to have a chance I think by next year to maybe play in a training camp, maybe summer league and get a chance for people to see him.

NP: So I actually went to summer league this year and two free agents stood out for most people: Kent Bazemore, who you guys signed, and then Justin Burrell, who signed overseas.

KL: I think it was France.

NP: So when you look at a guy like Justin Burrell who you didn't keep in the system but seemed to do reasonably well, I mean, was there ever talk about trying to get him to come to the D-League?

KL: Sure. Sure. We definitely had conversations with their people. I think sometimes for guys like that pride does get in the way. It's 'look at how much money I can make' versus, 'You're gonna pay me in between $15- and $25,000?' And it's not like we're saying, 'Screw you, you're not worth the big money.' It's that the league pays the contracts in the D-League – we have nothing to do with it. I mean, you just gotta recognize you gotta make a short-term investment for this to work out. And you gotta take a pay cut. And some guys wanna do it and some don't.

NP: So Bazemore, if for whatever reason he doesn't make the team in training camp or they decide he's not fit for the NBA club, how would you work that out with him?


KL: I think the fact that we gave him a partial guarantee shows how much we do like him. So we would really try to convince him if he gets cut for whatever reason – I think that's the type of guy we'd really like to have down here. It may be that he's so good that we don't want to even risk that – we'd rather just keep him as a 15th guy, kinda just see what happens, play him in the D-League and, 'Ok, wow. Yeah, glad we didn't cut him - someone else might've picked him up.'

But yeah, summer league is a great time to start evaluating those guys. We reached out to a lot of people in summer league saying, 'D-League. How do you feel on this?' And they're all like, 'What? What about training camp?' We're like, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa – you may come to training camp, you just gotta think about coming to D-League. What's your reaction?' And I think there's still a lot negative stigma to the D-League, from a lot agents more than anyone else. And a lot of NBA coaches. It's slowly starting to turn around. It's really starting to turn around.

I can tell you, Jeremy Lin was livid about going to the D-League. He wanted so badly to be in the NBA. And he and I used to have talks every time I'd see him in Reno. He'd be like, 'I'm just telling you, I'm perfectly fine being here. I'm not throwing a fit - I never will. But I'm telling you I'm going to be back in the NBA and I'll never be in the D-League again.' He kept telling me. The summer before we cut him he said, 'Just so you know – I will never play again in the D-League. That's not only a goal - it's a fact.'

So, you know, it's something people just kind of have to get over. His wasn't as much like, 'I hate the D-League' as this became a feeling for him: 'I'm not a D-League player.' We do get players who say, 'I'm not going to the D-League because it's the D-League.'

I think as that starts to change more- 25% of the players in the NBA last year had some sort of D-League experience. Two years agao six of the lottery picks – six out of 14 lottery picks – spent some form of time in the D-League. Last year that wasn't as high a number and I think more because of the lockout than anything. But, I mean, that's almost 50% of the top 14 players drafted. I mean, that's pretty significant.

So I think as it becomes more commonplace, players start to buy into it, the agents start to buy in to it, teams themselves become more positive towards it. And I think we're going a long way toward that; everyone in our front office, everyone on our coaching staff understands you've gotta be behind Santa Cruz because this is part of us. They aren't the other guys – they're part of this family. So that's going to go a long way toward getting everyone comfortable towards the idea and then you'll start getting better and better players here. Hopefully that leads to better league sponsorships, which means they can play the players more. Things like that and then you've got even better players. I mean, the talent level in the D-League is at an all time high and it just gets better every year. I don't know if you saw any games last year.

NP: I didn't actually. I'm going to try to.

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