- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 17, 2015

District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser corrected a reporter Tuesday afternoon.

“The Mystics, this is the home of the Mystics,” she said.

At a press conference, Bowser was emphasizing that the WNBA’s Washington Mystics would be the anchor tenant of a new 5,000-seat arena to be built on the St. Elizabeths campus in Ward 8. But, the Mystics will likely have company once the doors to the arena open.

The Wizards, and owner Ted Leonsis, are in pursuit of a D-League team to place into the arena. After light talks in the past with the D-League about purchasing a team, to use Leonsis’ words, there is a “serious discussion” taking place now, and the D-League is a willing listener.

Washington enters the upcoming season as one of 11 organizations not affiliated with a D-League team. The Indiana Pacers purchased the Fort Wayne Mad Ants earlier this month, changing the club from a universal player dumping ground for teams without an affiliation to a developmental squad owned by the Pacers.

That leaves the Wizards without a specific possible home for a player they would like to send to the minor league this season.

“Obviously, it’s not the optimum kind of situation for us,” general manager Ernie Grunfeld said.

The Wizards have talked about purchasing a D-League team for years. Their inability to do so has become extra evidence for those who view the Wizards’ player development abilities with disdain. They point at draft busts, like Jan Vesely, among others, who did not become high-caliber — or even average — players for the Wizards as evidence the team does not develop young talent well. Even when the Wizards had a catch-all D-League team at their disposal, they rarely used it.

Agreeing to a deal for the new arena should change the Wizards’ status with the D-League. Malcolm Turner, the league’s commissioner, spoke with Grunfeld and senior vice president of basketball operations Tommy Sheppard during Summer League in Las Vegas about the club purchasing an expansion D-League team. The Wizards’ interest aligns with that of the league.

“There’s no question expansion and this notion of 30 for 30 is our No. 1 priority,” Turner said. “We’re very focused on growing the NBA Development League, its footprint and creating and launching D-League affiliate teams for all of our 30 parent clubs.”

The purchase of the Fort Wayne team, coupled with the deal for the new arena, should expedite the Wizards’ ability and plan to obtain a D-League team. First, Washington will need to navigate the league’s “flexible assignment rule” during the coming season, which can be tricky for unaffiliated teams.

“They notify the league office that they would like to assign a player to the development league,” Turner said. “We will in turn notify all of our D-League teams that a player is being made available for assignment, and we’ll ask for expression of interest among those teams. After we confirm which teams are interested in taking on that assignment, we’ll go back to the assigning NBA team, make them aware of the teams that raised their hand, and they’ll make their selection for where they would like to assign their player.”

The rule was put in place a couple of years ago with the anticipation that all existing D-League teams would have single affiliates, which happened once Fort Wayne was purchased. If a team does not volunteer to take on a player, that player will be put into a lottery system and assigned a team. Turner said he does not anticipate any form of waiting line to be created by league’s assignment system.

Having the agreement to build the arena in place solves one of the major issues when placing a new D-League team. Next is developing a business plan specific to the team. The D-League has teams in small cities like Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It has also a team in Los Angeles. One thing that would be unique about the situation in Washington would be the D-League team’s proximity to the parent club. The proposed site for the new arena and Wizards practice facility is just six miles from Verizon Center.

City representatives and Leonsis project the arena to be ready by 2018. As the owner, the city is responsible for its construction. The D-League has a 12- to 18-month timeline for the launch of a new club.

“The heavy lifting is the business planning … to build the business and sales plans and marketing plans and build the staff,” Turner said. “So, generally speaking, you’re looking at a 12- to 18-month lead time of actually launching a team, launching a business before you can play.”

When asked the purchase price of a D-League team, Turner said the league does not disclose financials.

Placing a team in Washington would help the league begin to fill a geographical void that once did not exist. On the East Coast, there is no D-League team south of Delaware. The Mid-Atlantic and Southeast regions are devoid of participation in the league. Teams in Roanoke; Fayetteville, North Carolina; Greenville, South Carolina and Fort Myers, Florida, all folded between 2003 and 2006.

The Miami Heat and Orlando Magic are affiliated with D-League teams that play in Sioux Falls and Erie, Pennsylvania, respectively. Those two are among hybrid arrangements, where the team is independently owned, but the parent club runs and finances basketball operations. Like the Wizards, the Atlanta Hawks and Charlotte Bobcats are not affiliated with a D-League team.

“So, this discussion with the Wizards’ organization can be an important connection point as we grow out our footprint down into the southeast,” Turner said.

That is also what’s happening with the Wizards in Washington.


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