A shot at the NBA dream, minus the glamour
On the court, the Santa Cruz Warriors feel every bit like an NBA team, with towering players sinking dunks and three-pointers, and cheering fans in face paint.
Off the court, it’s a different story. The players ride a bus or fly coach to away games. They buy their own sneakers. There’s no weight room at the Kaiser Permanente arena, so they work out in a hallway, doing pull-ups from a beam in the ceiling.
Life In The D-League
But no matter who you ask, most players would change one thing:
“The pay,” Moe Baker said. “The pay.”
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Baker is a guard in his eighth year in the NBA Development League. Baker’s salary has topped out at $25,000 for a six-month season. Rookies make $13,000.
“The money you make in the D-League season, you can survive off of it, but it’s gonna run out real quick,” Baker said.
Baker said he’s earned more playing abroad in the Philippines, Turkey, and France.
“Some guys can make a D-League salary in one month, goin’ overseas,” he said.
Despite the difference in pay, though, some players prefer to play for D-League teams like the Santa Cruz Warriors. Baker said what the D-League offers is the chance to play regularly in front of NBA scouts.
“Here, every night, it’s NBA scouts in the building,” he said.
When NBA teams see something they need, D-league players get a “call-up,” a 10-day contract to play in the NBA. A few, like Jeremy Lin and Chris Andersen, have gone on to become NBA stars. That outcome is pretty rare. So Santa Cruz coach Casey Hill said players weigh other factors too.
“The decision really ends up coming down to, am I comfortable going to play in a foreign country [where] they don’t speak my language; I don’t know if they’re gonna pay me,” Hill explained. “There’s so many unknowns with going overseas that guys just kinda get scared away.”
Even for players without NBA prospects, Hill said playing in the D-League can be a useful bargaining chip.
“They’ll play a year in the D-League, to get that on their resume, to get their numbers up, and then they’ll use those numbers to get a good deal in Europe,” Hill said.
Some analysts are more cynical. Jonathan Givony owns the basketball site DraftExpress.com. He said there are only so many spots on European teams.
“80 to 90 percent of the players that are in the D-League are in the D-League because they have nowhere else to be,” he said.
Givony said the D-league’s focus on call-ups hurts the quality of play.
“It’s the only league in the world that I know of where wins and losses isn’t really the goal,” he explained. “In the back of the players’ heads, they’re sayin’ like, I’m here to get noticed.”
Givony said that leads to poor defense and extremely high scores. Still, more D-League players are getting noticed. The number of call-ups has grown from just a handful in the league’s first year to more than 30 last season.
And it’s not just players: D-League president Dan Reed said more than half of NBA refs were hired directly out of the D-league.
“The NBA D-league is a platform for coaches, for players, for referees, for dance team members, for front office executives, for salespeople, for broadcasters,” he said.
Reed said one reason for that is that the NBA actually owns the D-League.
“We’re the only minor league that is actually controlled by the major league,” he said.
And that relationship is only growing closer. More and more NBA teams are starting to manage affiliates in the D-League directly. In Santa Cruz, the Golden State Warriors decide everything from the plays coaches run in practice to who ends up on the training staff. In the twilight of his playing career, that’s the kind of opportunity Moe Baker is hoping for.
“I built a lot of relationships with the Golden State Warriors people,” Baker said. “So, you never know, I might be able to help them out on coachin’, scout–do something helping out the team.”
In the weeks since we spoke, Moe Baker was waived from the Santa Cruz roster. Baker said he’s looking forward to the next phase of his basketball career, as a new guard steps up for a shot at the NBA.