Revenge of the G Leaguers
Salaries in the NBA's developmental league have always been super low, but the sudden need for dozens of emergency signings put big-league checks in aspiring NBAers' hands more than ever before
Braxton Key. Ahmad Caver. Jon Teske. Paris Bass. M.J. Walker.
If I am being honest, I did not know every single one of these players before the calendar flipped to December 2021.
Ade Murkey. Olivier Sarr. Craig Sword. Jaime Echenique. Jordan Schakel.
If I continue with candor, I can share that I have been quietly rooting for these guys to stick in the NBA for as long as possible.
Cat Barber. Xavier Moon. Malcolm Hill. Aleem Ford. Hassani Gravett.
If there has been a silver lining to the unprecedented roster disruption that slammed the NBA this winter, it was seeing so many hoop dreamers break through at the game's highest level and, so long as they could produce a negative COVID-19 test, bask in the bonus reward of their first taste of NBA pay.
Call it the Revenge of the G Leaguers.
Going all the way back to the all-time sports movie classic Slap Shot in 1977, and then spending a summer as The San Bernardino Sun's beat writer for the Class A San Bernardino Spirit many years and pounds ago, I have been fascinated by the climb elite athletes face in trying to get from the minors to the majors. Baseball and basketball obviously don't work the same, since NBA teams generally hold the rights to no more than a few players on the rosters of their G League affiliates, but that background has made me an ardent follower of the NBA's developmental league since its inception in 2001.
Throughout G League history, heated debate about player salaries has been a constant. This is the G League's 21st season and the standard player salary, along with the in-season housing and insurance provided, is up to a mere $37,000.
Count me among the many G League fans and observers who have lamented the meager compensation for years. Neither the NBA nor its teams want to kick in more, believing that the opportunity they provide to play on home soil in the most well-scouted league outside of the NBA offsets how small the checks are, because the G League does indeed provide the fastest route to the sport's grandest stage. It's a two-decades-long struggle that has given what we've seen over the past month, amid the nightly chaos so many NBA teams have faced to field representative squads, some truly heartening footnotes.
Entering Tuesday’s play, nearly 590 players had already appeared in at least one game this season — easily an NBA record. According to the G League’s own tracker, precisely 100 players whose rights do not belong to an NBA team have accounted for 108 call-ups, smashing the previous record (63 separate call-ups involving 47 players in 2014-15) before we even made it to January, which is the month 10-day contracts become available to NBA teams under normal circumstances.
Nothing, of course, is normal anymore in our third successive calendar year to be infiltrated by the coronavirus pandemic. The flood of signings has slowed somewhat after the NBA halved the amount of time players who test positive for COVID-19 must isolate via the league’s health and safety protocols from 10 days to five, but not before a flurry of life-changing transactions leaguewide.
That’s because 10-day deals in the NBA pay from roughly $53,000 for rookies to $150,000-ish for free agents with at least 10 years of NBA service time who signed hardship deals like Lance Stephenson, Isaiah Thomas, Joe Johnson and Greg Monroe. So for those in the $37,000 bracket with their G League clubs, call-ups came with a financial windfall that exceeded their annual salaries in less than two weeks … on top of the privilege of generating their own I’m-really-in-the-NBA pages on Basketball Reference.
If you find life-changing too strong … fine. We will amend that slightly.
“Definitely life-improving,” said one veteran player agent well-acquainted with the daunting climb out of the G up to the full-fledged Association.
While NBA teams keep pushing behind the scenes for a roster expansion that allows them to sign three or even four two-way players starting next season, rather than the current limit of two, I will continue to lobby as loudly as I can for standard G League salaries to rise. Doubling the current wage for the G League rank and file to $75,000, with housing and insurance benefits included, would be a wonderful, overdue step. Or how about $50,000, at a minimum, to entice more players to stay in the United States for what is billed as a five-month season?
Instinct tells me such increases are unlikely to happen any time soon. I can already see this season’s G League fairy tales being used to support the league’s belief that proximity to the NBA and how it makes a sudden jump to the big time more feasible — opportunities theoretically squandered by American players who opt to play abroad on more lucrative contracts — is more valuable than mere money.
The G League has never been more vital to the NBA landscape than it has been in 2021-22. Imagine how envious English Premier League clubs must be, albeit watching faraway NBA events from a completely different landscape that features three professional divisions under the Premiership, to see NBA teams have access to a pool of NBA-ready players to call on in times of emergency. Yet it also figures that the opportunity > salary argument is bound to resonate with some players louder than ever, modest as the pay stays, after we’ve seen so many Teskes, Murkeys and Swords land an unexpected call-up.
Who knows how far away we are from the next COVID crisis, or the emergence of a new variant like Omicron, that sends the NBA into another frantic search for temporary replacements?
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In advance of my first NBA travel of the new year, which I’ll be undertaking soon, I decided to warm up my travelogue-ing skills by posting a few recent pictures from Dallas happenings:
Perhaps I should leave this invite here every Tuesday.
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Half of the league's 30 head coaches have spent time in the league's health and safety protocols this season. Detroit's Dwane Casey just completed the shortest of stints after what the Pistons said Tuesday was likely a false positive, but Casey nonetheless missed one game and thus became No. 15 on a list that has also featured Indiana's Rick Carlisle, Sacramento’s Alvin Gentry, Phoenix’s Monty Williams, Philadelphia’s Doc Rivers, Denver’s Michael Malone, Portland’s Chauncey Billups, Chicago’s Billy Donovan, Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer, Atlanta’s Nate McMillan, Oklahoma City’s Mark Daigneault, Dallas' Jason Kidd, Memphis' Taylor Jenkins and both Los Angeles coaches: Frank Vogel (Lakers) and Tyronn Lue (Clippers).
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The Lakers' LeBron James is by far the oldest player in the league to average at least 34 points over a 10-game span. Three 34-year-olds (Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Bernard King), according to Stathead, previously achieved the feat as well as one 33-year-old (Dominique Wilkins).
When the Warriors visited Dallas as the opponents for the Mavericks' home game that preceded the jersey retirement ceremony for Dirk Nowitzki's iconic No. 41, it was a familiar scenario for Golden State veterans Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala. The Warriors were also the opponent in December 2017 when the Los Angeles Lakers retired Kobe Bryant's No. 8 and No. 24 in a halftime ceremony.
Until the banked fallaway that RJ Barrett sank for the Knicks to deliver a home victory at the buzzer over Boston, no New York player had connected on a game-winning shot at the final horn since J.R. Smith made two game-winners for the Knicks in December 2012.
The number of last season’s All-Stars who haven’t played a single second this season dropped from four to three when Kyrie Irving made his 2021-22 debut for the Nets last week. Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons, New Orleans’ Zion Williamson and the Clippers' Kawhi Leonard have still yet to play in a game this season.