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The Indiana Pacers, the Mad Ants, and the Development Problem

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Now affiliated with 13 NBA teams, will the Mad Ants really be an optimal place for the development and growth of members of the Pacers' roster as well as other NBA players?

Maddie Meyer

The Allen County War Memorial Coliseum serves as the home of the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, the reigning NBA minor league champions and lone independently owned NBA D-League Team.

Including the Indiana Pacers, the 2014-15 Mad Ants will be affiliated with an unprecedented total of 13 franchises next season. Still only permitted to carry a maximum of four NBA players on assignment or two assigned players at the position of the NBA player being assigned, a "flexible assignment system" has necessarily been devised to accommodate the logistical issues sure-to-be present when 13 NBA teams are each, or potentially all, attempting to assign players to Fort Wayne.

If the Mad Ants are at their maximum for NBA assignments, then, per official release from the NBA and NBA D-League, the following rules regarding assignments will be implemented:

"[T]he NBA D-League will identify to the assigning NBA team any singly-affiliated NBA D-League team that is willing to accept the assigned player, and the independent NBA team assigning the player will choose a team from among those teams to assign the player. If no singly-affiliated NBA D-League team is willing to accept the assigned player, he will be assigned to one of the non-NBA-owned single affiliate teams pursuant to a lottery."

In essence, long-gone may be the days where a Pacer on D-League assignment could simply make a little over a two-hour drive from Indianapolis to Fort Wayne to gain in-game experience. Theoretically, if the Mad Ants already have four NBA players on assignment from some combination of the other dozen teams affiliated with them, assigned Pacers in the first three years of their NBA careers could, if accepted or essentially assigned via lottery, potentially have to travel all the way to Los Angeles (Defenders) or Santa Cruz (Warriors) for development, an obvious issue if the Pacers need to quickly recall a player to Indianapolis for practice or a game.

Unfortunately, the potential for a long-distance relationship with developing players is not the only drawback to being one of the thirteen franchises essentially sharing access to the Fort Wayne Mad Ants. Singly-affiliated NBA and NBA D-League teams naturally have a more symbiotic relationship.

When the Celtics formally announced their hybrid-affiliation (allowing for NBA teams to secure control of and cover the expenses related to the basketball operations of an NBA D-League team while partnering with existing local ownership, which maintains responsibility for the team's off-the-court business operations) partnership with the Maine Red Claws in 2012, Celtics' President of Basketball Operations Danny Ainge commented on the obvious perks of single-affiliation:

"What a great opportunity for our young players to get game reps and develop their skills, while still maintaining the continuity and direction of our organization."

The Celtics, like the other 16 singly-affiliated NBA teams, have decision making authority over the Red Claws' coaching staff and roster. Moreover, according to Mass Live, the Red Claws, not shared by 12 other squads, deliberately "run offensive and defensive sets similar to the Celtics' so that players are familiar with the Celts' plays and terminology when they're called up [or recalled] to the NBA."

At least as described, this one-to-one relationship sounds starkly different from the experience below expounded upon by Solomon Hill:

"The D-League is for developing talent and I didn't get a chance to play," Hill said. "I sat the whole fourth quarter. It's like, is it really a developmental league? I'm very grateful for the opportunity to play with the Mad Ants organization, but in order for me to try to develop, I have to be on the floor. That just makes me think about my next trip, if I want to go back down there. I'm kind of not tempted to go back down there now just because if I go down there and play 25 minutes after a two-hour drive, it's like, am I really developing?

"I can really practice here and get better than playing 25 minutes in the Developmental League. It was good. It was good to see shots going in. It was good to compete still at a high level and I felt all in all, I [got] something from it."

As reported by Pacers.com, Hill, looking back at his short two-game stint in Fort Wayne, later admitted he "just didn't handle adversity well."

Whatever the case, appearing in only 28 games for the Pacers and averaging just 1.7 points on 1.4 field goal attempts per game, Solomon Hill, now expected to fill part of the void left by Paul George, most definitely could have benefited last season from getting some extra run-time with a D-League team that, by intentional design, runs a similar system to that of the Indiana Pacers, as is the case in the relationship between the Celtics and Red Claws.

Despite these and other definite benefits to single affiliation (whether fully owned and operated by a parent NBA team or operated under a hybrid relationship), there is no word that the Pacers are willing to join the 17 teams that fully or partially oversee an NBA D-League Team.

As for the reigning D-League champions, their ownership, per Mad Ants President Jeff Potter, has no immediate interest in entering a single-affiliation with an NBA parent club, according to the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette:

"Our ownership doesn't want to give up our product at this point," Potter said. "We enjoy being able to do the business and community relations, and also to be a part of the basketball team and create a team and put something fun together, like we did last season. ... We started this team and didn't just want to be ticket takers. We wanted to have fun and create a team."

While each singly-affiliated NBA team has obviously just one D-League team to which they can send players on assignment, the Mad Ants will be able to continue to freely assemble their own roster, run their own system, and fill their four NBA player maximum with players from a potentially much larger pool pulling from any of the 13 independent NBA teams.

"That's a lot of teams, obviously, but we had a lot of teams last season, too," said the Mad Ants President to the Journal Gazette. "We'll communicate with each of them and let them know where there are opportunities to send players. Hopefully, we'll get some good ones."

In the absence of a one-to-one relationship, it is difficult to imagine that the Indiana Pacers, currently in a shared affiliation with a dozen other teams, will have the same goals in mind as their minor league city. Interested, rightfully so, in maintaining controlling ownership and assembling a competitive and consistent roster, there are no guarantees that a Pacer on D-League assignment will even be able to be assigned to one of the four spots available in Fort Wayne let alone earn steady playing time or have the privilege of learning the Pacers' system, as is the case with other aforementioned single affiliations.

Without similar interests, it brings to question whether the "D" in D-League should really stand for dysfunctional rather than developmental for the thirteen teams choosing to remain independent and effectively share access to the Mad Ants.

As Solomon Hill questioned, "I'm kind of not tempted to go back down there now just because if I go down there and play 25 minutes after a two-hour drive, it's like, am I really developing?"