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October 28, 2012
Minor League Fantasy

by Bradford Doolittle


Every fall, the D-League sends out a press release that announces the number of its alumni that are participating in NBA training camps. Needless to say, the number has grown over time. This season, it's at 123. When the NBA's opening night rosters are announced later this month, the D-League will send out another release about how many of those players made the cut. It will also be an impressive figure.

We ran a five-part series on the D-League's evolution into a baseball-style minor league. By and large, I think, we showed that this will be a good thing for the NBA and, more importantly, for basketball fans. Simply put, you'll see a higher quality product. Teams will be able to develop players to fit specific roles. You'll have fewer guys learning the game at the NBA level. Injury replacements will know what the heck they're doing. And so on.

To bookend that series, let's pose a hypothetical question: How would a team composed of players listed on that D-League press release fare in the NBA?

How did this team come into existence? Do we really need to ask? On that show "Life After People," we don't ask what happened to all the people. We just marvel at what happens after they're gone.

OK, we'll make something up. Isiah Thomas has purchased a team. We'll call them the "Charlotte Bobcats." He has traded away every draft pick the Bobcats had despite provisions in the collective bargaining agreement preventing him from doing so. Only Isiah could pull that off. Obviously, he has maxed out on payroll and burned through every cap exception.

So far, it sounds pretty realistic, at least to New York Knicks fans. Now, every player Isiah has signed has been injured, and no veteran free agent will return his calls. His only avenue to field a team is to raid the D-League. For some reason, every player who has played in the D-League is still there. What would Isiah's roster look like?

To answer that question, I employed the machinery of the SCHOENE projection system. I picked what amounts to an All-D-League team and made them the Bobcats. I took Charlotte's existing roster and swapped those players to the teams that lost a D-League alum. So the Pacers suddenly own Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Brendan Haywood is in Phoenix, and Kemba Walker is running the Houston Rockets.

Here are the new Bobcats, whom I'll now call the D-Cats:

First unit

Marcin Gortat: Gortat is easily the best center on the list. He played 139 minutes for the Anaheim Arsenal in 2007-08 and put up an 11.3 PER. He has gotten a lot better since.

Jeremy Lin: The D-League's most famous alum played 20 games for the Reno Bighorns in 2010-11 and had a robust PER of 21. He also played one game for the Erie BayHawks last season, put up 28 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists, then went to New York to give birth to Linsanity. It was the greatest Big Apple pilgrimage since Bob Dylan.

Avery Bradley: Boston's defensive wunderkind put up an 18.1 PER in nine games for the Maine Red Claws, which have since become the dedicated affiliate of the Celtics. He tied a D-League record with nine steals in a game. At the time, Boston was trying to turn Bradley into a pure point guard. They're aren't doing that anymore.

Gerald Green: Green is a classic example of what the D-League can do for a player. He entered the NBA out of high school and was nothing but a dunk contest participant. Then he went away, and we forgot about him. Somewhere along the line, he learned how to play basketball. He entered the D-League last season and put up 19.1 PER for the Lakers' affiliate and landed a deal with the Nets. He played so well for New Jersey that the Pacers gave him a three-year, $10.5 million contract over the summer.

Ersan Ilyasova: Ilyasova was only 18 years old when he played 46 games for Tulsa in 2005-06, and his 13.3 PER was evidence that he was not NBA ready. The Milwaukee Bucks gave him a shot the next season anyway, and he was very raw. Ilyasova went back overseas for a few years. Last season, Ilyasova's third since returning to the NBA, he might have been the most improved player in the league.

Second unit

Kosta Koufos: Koufos' stock has been on the rise as a top backup pivot. He played 453 minutes in the D-League during his first two professional seasons for Utah's team-owned affiliate, putting up an excellent 25.4 PER.

Jose Barea: Before Barea became a top change-of-pace backup for the Dallas Mavericks, he posted a 28.5 PER in eight games for their dedicated affiliate in Fort Worth, which happens to be owned by Dallas general manager Donnie Nelson.

Alonzo Gee: Gee averaged 21.3 points for the Austin Toros in 2009-10 after going undrafted out of Alabama. That earned him a shot with three NBA teams, including Austin's parent club in San Antonio. Eventually, he stuck with the Cleveland Cavaliers, signing a three-year, $9.75 million contract.

Danny Green: Green represents another perfect use of the D-League. After going in the second round to Cleveland in 2009, he struggled to get on the court for the Cavs or, later, San Antonio. So he went to the Bighorns and got better. In 19 career D-League games, Green had a 19.6 PER and shot 45 percent from 3-point range. Last season, he played in all 66 games for a San Antonio team that tied for the best record in the league and shot 44 percent from deep.

Amir Johnson: Johnson was a preps-to-pro player who was saved by the D-League. After going at No. 56 to Detroit in the 2005 draft, he played more than 1,200 minutes in the minors over the next two seasons. The D-League was Johnson's college. He has gone on to earn about $22.5 million in the NBA through last season.

The results

OK, so there is our roster. After making the necessary arrangements with SCHOENE, I posted the new projected team win baselines into my simulation engine with the 2012-13 schedule loaded into it and ran the season 1,000 times. In previous sims, the real-life Bobcats were forecast to go 19-63. Would Isiah's D-Cats fare better?

D-Leaguers Assemble!

Based on 1,000 simulations of the 2012-13 NBA season:

Team   AvgW  PL  R1 R2 R3 R4
D-Cats 43.4 738 210 66 20  4
PL: made playoffs
R1: won first round
R2: won second round
R3: won conference finals
R4: won championship

The answer is a resounding yes. The D-Cats averaged 43.4 wins in the simulations. They made the playoffs 738 times, won the Eastern Conference 20 times and the Finals four times. The D-Cats ranked sixth in Offensive Rating with Lin running the show but were 27th on the defensive end.

Lin led the way with 9.8 WARP, averaging 16.4 points, 7.4 assists and 2.9 steals. Green was the top scorer at 18.4 points per game, while Gortat (9.1 rebounds per game) and Ilyasova (8.4) led the team on the boards. In fact, the D-Cats finished second in the league in offensive rebound percentage.

So there you go. In a parallel universe, Thomas put together an NBA roster with a 0.4 percent chance of winning a championship. It's much better odds than in real life, and he has the D-League to thank for it. Apparently, there are some guys there who can play.

Check out our Pro Basketball Prospectus 2012-13 homepage for more details and to order our annual guide to the NBA, available now in both PDF and paperback format.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

Follow Bradford Doolittle on Twitter.

Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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