What does the NBA lockout mean for minor league hoops?

Point of disclosure. I’ve worked for the past several years in minor league basketball, both with the CBA, the Premier Basketball League and the National Basketball League of Canada.  These opinions are mine and mine alone, and do not reflect my employment or association with any sports league.

The last time the NBA locked players out and abbreviated a season was the 1999-2000 campaign.  When the season eventually resumed in February of 2000, the NBA needed warm bodies in playing shape and they needed them quickly.  At that point, they turned to the Continental Basketball Association, which at that time was the NBA’s official development league.  Within two days of the lockout, dozens and dozens of CBA players received emergency call-ups to the NBA.

That was a decade ago.

Today, the minor league basketball landscape has changed.  The NBA’s current official feeder league is the D-League, of which the closest teams to our environs are in Springfield, Erie and Portland.  Although the NBA is locked out, the D-League (which the NBA owns) will tip off as scheduled this year.  This lockout is going to affect the D-League just as much as it will affect the NBA.  In fact, while the lockout is in force, D-League team rosters cannot have any players who participated in NBA  games during the 2010-11 season.  And for those players who are currently on D-League rosters, they won’t be able to get those prized 10-day NBA contracts that helped keep a hungry D-League players’ hoops dreams alive.

Dayton Air Strikers at Rochester RazorSharks 12/31/2010
Professional basketball last year, in a Premier Basketball League game between the Dayton Air Strikers and Rochester Razorsharks. Photo by Chuck Miller.

The D-League is not the only basketball circuit in operation this year.  The Premier Basketball League will begin its fifth season in December; while the new seven-team National Basketball League of Canada starts play in November of 2011.  There’s also some low-level independent leagues, like the American Basketball Association, but the less said about that ragtag semi-pro rec-league circuit, the better.

Now does this mean that LeBron James is going to suit up for the Rochester Razorsharks to keep his playing skills intact?  Should our friends in the Great White North look forward to seeing Steve Nash suit up for the Halifax Rainmen? Very doubtful.  First off, the NBA superstars are not going to risk injuries or muscle tears by playing in the minors, any more than you would expect Carmelo Anthony to suit up for a shirts-and-skins  game at the local YMCA.

That doesn’t mean that there won’t be NBA players on PBL or NBL Canada rosters… it may not be the big big superstars, but it will be guys who have some NBA experience.  It’ll be NBA bench players or swingmen, guys who aren’t normally household names, guys for whom a minor league can offer a competitive game, just in case the NBA does end the lockout and they can return to their teams in top shape.

Then there’s another question. What if some of the NBA players formed their own “super-team” and joined a minor league?  It’s not like the players can’t suit up and play ball, there was a recent all-star competition between “Team LeBron” and “Team Wade” last Saturday at Florida International University’s home court.

That really won’t happen either.  First off, a “team” needs owners and a head coach.  A team needs a home court and a front office staff.  And what happens if the NBA lockout ends?  Suddenly this “superteam” is back in the NBA, and whatever organization is left won’t be able to compete.  What kind of a tagline is this – “Come see the Superstars of the NBA before they go back to the NBA and you can’t afford the tickets to see them in person?”

Essentially, here’s what’s going to happen.  The D-League and the PBL and NBL-Canada will start their seasons – each team will have its own homegrown talent and stars, there will be new up-and-comers who will make their name in pro basketball, and the fans will be able to watch competitive professional basketball – “professional” in that the players are earning paychecks for their efforts.

And someday, if not tomorrow, maybe next week or next month or next year, the NBA players and the NBA owners will finalize a new Collective  Bargaining Agreement, and the NBA will start again.

If we want our pro basketball fix, these are our options.

That, or we can just go watch some college hoops.