In a super-scientific Golden State of Mind poll on July 7, 50% of the voters believed that Ognjen Kuzmic could eventually become the Golden State Warriors' backup center — an optimistic take, to say the least.
Kuzmic seemed to be coming along slowly, perhaps showing the capacity to become a serviceable reserve some day but never really demonstrating much to suggest he'd be a mainstay in a NBA rotation any time soon. Dan Feldman of NBC's ProBasketballTalk summed things up by writing, "He's 7-foot-1 and fairly athletic, but there just isn't much to go on."
So after playing just 164 minutes in 37 games over two seasons and not one playoff game during the championship run this past season, the Warriors pulled his qualifying offer and cut ties with the center in late July. Accentuating his sort of weird and totally unceremonious departure was a headline on CSN Bay Area reporter Monte Poole's article, succinctly announcing the move and Kuzmic's apparent value to the team: "Warriors end Kuzmic project, get slight cap relief."
It's unlikely that anyone will lament the departure of Ognjen Kuzmic from the Warriors at this point, but what unquestionably continued to fuel optimism for the project's success among fans was that he was getting plenty of opportunity for court time and acclimation to the system while playing with the Santa Cruz Warriors in the D-League.
A player like Kuzmic — a big who's neither running in quicksand nor completely inept when the ball comes his way — would seem to be a perfect match for a franchise with a D-League affiliate, which allows the NBA team to assign a player to their D-League team while retaining his rights. And with Santa Cruz so close to Oakland, the ability to go back and forth between the two would seem to insure that he'd get the playing time and instruction he needed would seem to set the stage for success at some point.
He got his time. He put up some impressive rebounding numbers. He was named to the D-League All-Defensive Team.
And yet despite all the supposed benefits, Kuzmic just became the latest Warriors' project — among the players they've signed as rookies and assigned to Santa Cruz — to make a disappointing exit from the franchise.
- The Warriors released Nemanja Nedovic in early-November after a similar experience as a European project expected to develop in Santa Cruz, albeit sidelined by injuries quite a bit.
- Kent Bazemore is actually something of a success story: he went from an undrafted summer league surprise to a player with defensive potential to a rotation player on a playoff team. However, after his maturation with the Warriors and a trade to the L.A. Lakers, it was the Atlanta Hawks who picked him up in free agency last summer and reaped the benefits during their surprising rise in the 2014-15 season.
- Jeremy Tyler was...well...he instigated a post-game brawl in China back in February. The Warriors originally traded him to the Hawks for a second round pick after consistently uneven play even in Santa Cruz.
For whatever reason, the projects that made acquiring a D-League franchise and moving it to Northern California exciting haven't quite panned out for the Warriors; whereas the Warriors were able to trade their previous projects, this year's departures of Kuzmic and Nedovic yielded the least return.
The NBA may have reached the tipping point for making the D-League a full-fledged minor league this summer.
With the Indiana Pacers agreeing to purchase the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, every D-League team will have a NBA affiliate in the next year or two. And further highlighting the increasing excitement about the developmental opportunities the league provides, that 19th team was just added this summer when the Toronto Raptors created their own team that will play in Ontario. Before either of those NBA franchises jumped into the mix, the Charlotte Hornets announced their intentions to join the cool kids in the D-Leaguee and there have also been rumors about the New Orleans Pelicans, Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks pursuing affiliates as well.
For the first time in the history of the D-League, every franchise is affiliated with a NBA franchise and those left out are lining up to get in — expansion is pretty much certain to happen as the majority of the NBA has readily accepted the purported value of having a D-League affiliate. But getting a specific articulation of what that value is can be tougher.
Charlotte Hornets general manager Rich Cho offered a very practical short-term assessment of the value of having a D-League affiliate, emphasizing the importance of building synergy between the franchises and being able to call up stop-gap players who are already familiar with "...the same offense and defense, using the same terminology..." when a team needs an extra healthy player on the roster. But the grandiose promise of a NBA team acquiring a D-League affiliate — perhaps moreso to the fans whose imaginations tend to run wilder than paid executives — is that they will not simply "discover" a diamond in the rough, but that they can identify, develop, and assimilate raw talent all in-house.
You can see that pie-in-the-sky rags-to-riches fantasy line of reasoning repeatedly, particularly in response to the new affiliations are established as we've seen this summer: giving young players a chance to play in the system instead of sitting on the bench, being able to work on specific skills identified by the NBA team and develop consistency, allowing young players to comfortably return from injury, synergy between coaching staffs at the D-League and NBA levels, and allow small market teams that struggle to attract free agents to develop talent.
There's a lot of excitement, but most of it is based on anecdotal evidence — where's the data to support any of this?
Often cited as evidence for the D-League's value is that successful franchises are actively using the league — according to data collected by Chris Reichert of Upside Motor, eight of the nine franchises that have made the Western Conference Finals since 2009 have assigned players to the league at an above average rate, including the Golden State Warriors.
Yet despite all the excitement over the D-League these days, rarely does anyone seem to ask a question that Reichert asked in July: does the D-League translate into more wins for NBA teams? As Reichert notes, even that question has to be answered separately for teams with affiliates and those making call-ups without affiliates, which splinters the data and renders the value of the D-League totally unclear. And if we grant that player development might not immediately generate wins, his inquiry still begs the question of how exactly we can tell the value of a D-League affiliate if wins aren't the right measure?
Take, for example, the Santa Cruz Warriors: by just about any measure they have been a huge success story.
On the court, they've made three consecutive trips to the D-League Finals and finally broke through to win it all this past season. Off the court, they have consistently been at the top of the league in multiple key business metrics. The staff there has done an amazing job turning Santa Cruz into a basketball town despite perfectly reasonable doubts from outsiders and even those within the organization. Experiencing a game at a packed Kaiser Permanente Arena, the temporary arena that the Warriors conjured up on the edge of the quaint downtown area of the city, is like squeezing as much of the energy and passion of Oracle Arena as possible into a high school gym until the brink of explosion.
Golden State owners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber have done everything in their power to make Santa Cruz a first class franchise. And, as Geoffrey Dunn of the Huffington Post reported back in May, D-League president Malcolm Turner has called the Santa Cruz Warriors "a model franchise" for further expansion.
Labeling the Santa Cruz Warriors a failure would just be silly: by all accounts, the Warriors have achieved a level of excellence in the D-League that is pretty much unmatched. But there's definitely one thing Santa Cruz has failed to do: deliver on that lofty promise, real or imagined, of developing players that can consistently contribute to Golden State's rotation.
And if Santa Cruz hasn't produced a regular for Golden State, how valuable has that investment in a D-League affiliate really been?
In talking with someone well-connected to the league this offseason, one question that came up was whether Santa Cruz has actually managed to privilege winning over development in spite of aiming to create the conditions to develop talent for Golden State. We can debate whether that's actually good or bad, but they've been a lot better at winning D-League games than producing players for Golden State.
Of course, the thing to bear in mind is that the Warriors' affiliation with their D-League franchise has also coincided with a rather rapid improvement in the standings for Golden State that can be almost directly tied to the shift in power from Chris Cohan to Joe Lacob. Last year, Golden State was a team that former All-Star David Lee could barely find a place on -- how reasonable is it to believe that someone assigned to the D-League after training camp would step in to make an impact to begin with? The value of this investment is exactly what Rich Cho pointed to: it's about building and solidifying a culture, having players in the reserves ready to go in case of emergency. And despite despite the finality of failure embodied by Kuzmic and Nedovic this past season, there were glimmers of unfinished promise in Santa Cruz that can't be overlooked.
Despite the finality of failure embodied by Kuzmic and Nedovic this past season, there were glimmers of unfinished promise in Santa Cruz that can't be overlooked.
The next exciting shiny object project for the Warriors will likely be Kevon Looney, who will be recovering from surgery after a promising showing in summer league. Raw and in need of a NBA identity, Looney is another player for whom it seems a D-League affiliate is made for. As GSoM community member Badly Browned wrote shortly after summer league, patience will be key with Looney, but he seemed to have all the tools to fit in and succeed with the Warriors. He already has the energy, defensive versatility, offensive rebounding ability, and 3-point shooting ability to turn into a lethal stretch four, like a shooting Tristan Thompson; he models his own game after Kevin Durant.
But getting into the comparison game with Looney is beside the point because maybe the whole point of this exercise of looking at the value of the D-League is that tempering expectations is a must. While Santa Cruz has not delivered on the storybook promise of producing a rotation player for Golden State, it allowed Festus Ezeli to get some run upon returning from injury; it allowed Justin Holiday a game of live run with the Warriors' system; it allowed Golden State to keep tabs on Aaron Craft; Bazemore and Seth Curry did eventually score guaranteed spots on NBA rosters, just not with Golden State.
Eventually this winning culture the Warriors have built -- in both Santa Cruz and Golden State -- will pay dividends. And if they keep making the Finals every year and the Santa Cruz community continues to embrace them, there's no reason not to remain patient in waiting on that grandiose promise.