March 26, 2016

22 And Counting

These 2015-2016 Washington Wizards just don't seem to want to be playing in the postseason. Last night's double overtime loss to the woeful Minnesota Timberwolves means that the Wizards have now lost to two of the three worst teams in the Western Conference at home. They are now 3-1/2 games behind the Detroit Pistons for the eighth spot and seem to have about as much chance of making it as our starting shooting guard did of making a bucket in the second half last night. You can't score if you don't try, folks.

So with all that said, it's time to think about potentially happier times in the future, albeit something else the Wizards are sort of bungling at the moment.

At the beginning of the 2015-2016 season, there were 19 teams in the NBA Development League, the NBA's minor league of sorts that is rapidly morphing from a series of independently owned franchises with loose ties to the big leagues into a bona fide farm system. This season is the first year that all the D-League franchises have a single affiliation with an NBA team. That means the 19 NBA teams which have signed up for this deal get to assign younger players to a team where they can play which is also operated with the exact same defensive sets and offense schemes as they run in the show.

The Wizards, in true franchise underperforming seemingly always behind the times character, are not one of the 19 teams with this unique development advantage. That means they can't send someone like Kelly Oubre, Jr. anywhere to get him more playing time which reinforces what the Wizards are doing on NBA courts. They have to rely on meaningful in game situations for short spells or relatively meaningless end of game blowout win or loss scenarios where Kelly inevitably fouls too much and shoots too much or too poorly or both. The rest of the time, he's riding the pine watching and practicing with the big boys. Not saying that isn't valuable but it's not real playing time.

Next year, the NBDL will expand to 22 teams. Of course, the Wizards aren't one of those teams who are expanding. Our hometown franchise seems to be content to wait until the team's new practice facility is complete which should be 2018, barring construction delays. That means the earliest the team would field a D-League team is for the 2018-2019 season. That's two more years at least of being underserved in this department.

Rendering of the Wizards new practice facility.
The NBDL played it's inaugural season in 2001-2002 and was located entirely in the southeast of the United States. The league operated franchises in Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama and nowhere else. The league could realistically be viewed as a complementary league to the now defunct Continental Basketball Association which stretched across the Midwest of the country and followed similar regional basketball leagues that had existed for decades.

The teams in those two leagues had some crazy names: Greenville Groove, Roanoke Dazzle, Mobile Revelers, Flint Fuze, Dakota Wizards, Gary Steelheads. Some of the team nicknames were tailored to have regional relevance and others weren't. What you ended up with was a set of teams with names that existed pretty much nowhere else in professional sports and this has always been one of the most fun aspects of minor league sports for me. I remember living in Cooperstown in the mid 1990s and checking out all the minor league caps for sale in town. The Chattanooga Lookouts and the Lansing Lugnuts were always my favorites.

Since the NBA's gotten more involved in the D-League, the names have been toned down a bit. Sure the Sioux Falls Skyforce still exists in the NBDL from the old CBA days but all the original D-League teams are relocated or gone and the only other CBA city other than Sioux Falls that still has minor league basketball is Grand Rapids. And only since 2014, when the Detroit Pistons bought and relocated the Springfield Armor from Massachusetts. The Pistons elected to call their new franchise the Drive, to align with their parent team branding, rather than go back to the old Grand Rapids Hoops, which I would have loved.

So let's say the Washington Wizards buy into the NBDL and start a team in 2018. What are they going to call it? Let's take a look at some possibilities based on the four existing examples set by the 19 current and three future NBDL teams.

Model One: Be Unique
This is my favorite category because the identity of the D-League team is totally different from the parent franchise. This allows regional identity to be expressed in the selection of the team's nickname which allows local civic pride to shine through. Instead of feeling like the team is owned by some larger, more profitable organization, the team feels like it's a part of the community where they play. Half of the 22 teams which will play in the league next season fall into this category and they all, with the exception of the Maine Red Claws, pre-date the current one to one alignment trend.

The Fort Wayne Mad Ants are named after General Mad Anthony Wayne (the city's namesake), the Rio Grande Valley Vipers are named after a local reptile and the Reno Bighorns are named after the elusive sheep that live in the mountains around the city. The Erie Bayhawks, Canton Charge, Iowa Energy, Sioux Falls Skyforce, Texas Legends, Bakersfield Jam and Idaho Stampede round out this category. Each name has nothing to do with the parent franchise. I love it!

Model Two: Use The Same Name
In 2012, the Golden State Warriors bought the Fargo, North Dakota based Dakota Wizards and shipped the team west to Santa Cruz. They re-named the team (are you ready for this brilliance?) the Warriors. Other than the coincidentally named Wizards who had no relationship to my beloved Washington Wizards, it was the first time an NBDL and NBA team carried the same nickname and it started a trend.

Starting with the 2016-2017 season, the Brooklyn Nets, Chicago Bulls, Golden State Warriors, New York Knicks, San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors will all be affiliated with a D-League team named the same as their franchise. The Spurs even renamed the Austin Toros to the Austin Spurs in 2014. There is generally no inventiveness here; the teams are just copying their names to spread brand identity and it's pretty obvious to me that's the intent. I don't like this except I think it's worth highlighting the Bulls and Raptors efforts here.

The Bulls new D-League affiliate will play in Hoffman Estates, IL and they wanted I guess to keep the Bulls brand. Suffice it to say that they probably didn't want the Hoffman Estates Bulls so they rolled out the Windy City Bulls. I'm not thrilled but it's better than Hoffman Estates. It kind of makes it sound like there are two teams in Chicago named the Bulls though.

Toronto's D-League team, which began play this year in Mississauga, Ontario, has also elected not to use the place name in their team name. But unlike Hoffman Estates, the Raps have decided to use the area code to I suppose identify with a broader audience. They rolled out Raptors 905 (yes, that's the name of the team) last fall. While I don't like this whole overt identification with area codes trend, I'll give them some props here for doing it differently.

Model Three: Use A Related Name
The Philadelphia 76ers are named after the signers of the Declaration of Independence which was signed (in case anyone doesn't know) on July 4, 1776 in (yep, you guessed it) Philadelphia. When it came time for the Sixers to rename the Utah Flash, who they bought and shipped cross country to Newark, Delaware, they chose the name 87ers, to commemorate the first ratification of the United States Constitution, which was signed in (wait for it...) Delaware in 1787. Same theme, different place, different name. Get it? Good!

The 87ers aren't the only D-League franchise that is named along this theme. The aforementioned Grand Rapids Drive and the about to start playing Greensboro Swarm (owned by the Charlotte Hornets) are in this same category. I like this as a nice compromise between "you WILL use our name" and "do whatever you want." It ties back to the main franchise but also allows a completely unique nickname for fans of the minor league franchise.

Model Four: Same City, Different Name
In the 2016-2017 season, there will be two D-League teams that will exist in the same city as their parent club: the Los Angeles D-Fenders and the Oklahoma City Blue. And they both use the same city name as the major league team. They could have come up with a more imaginative solution here like the Bulls sort of did (admittedly not facing the same problem but the example fits) but they didn't.

The result for LA and OKC is pretty much just blah. The D-Fenders I guess is a play on the league's name but the Blue??? Really??? I get the dilemma a team could be in. Without thinking outside the box, you automatically name the team after the city where it's located and both the D-Fenders and the Blue play in their big brother franchises' cities. But you can't really name your NBDL franchise better than your main team, right? And both these teams have less than impressive names. I'm not suggesting that they deliberately picked mediocre names but, well, yes I sort of am doing that.

So all that begs the question, what will the Wizards do? Will we get Wizards 202? Or the Washington Red (please, no)? How about letting the Sea Dogs, that finished as runner up to the name the Wizards contest in the 1990s, finally see the light of day and let those fools who voted for that name at long last cheer for the Washington Sea Dogs. I'm pleading that it be none of these.

The Wizards clearly can't use the same nickname for their future D-League franchise if they also want the name of the city they are going to play in as the name of the team. That would yield the Washington Wizards and nobody really wants that at all. In fact, I'd steer clear of Wizards and anything Wizards related. No Ward 8 Wizards or DMV Wizards or Capital Wizards or any other Sorcerers or Spells or Necromancers or anything else magical. Although I'd consider Ward 8 momentarily before realizing it was incredibly narrow (albeit potentially powerful) in its breadth.

So what to do? Well in addition to the suggestions above that I've already thrown in the trash, I wouldn't use any of the names that lost the naming contest in the '90s. This would throw out Dragons (not close to Chinatown where it might make sense), Express (because it sucks) and Stallions (also because it sucks).

I don't think the team will use Washington Bullets for a couple of reasons: they've steadfastly refused to consider a name change for the Wizards and Washington Sports and Entertainment nixed the idea for the Arena Football League franchise they bought pretty quickly, although admittedly it could be because they are saving the name for the D-League. A few years ago, I thought it would be cool if the team put a NBDL team in Baltimore and called them the Bullets. I don't see it working in Washington, although it would sell a lot of merchandise I'm sure.

So where does that leave us? Washington Monuments? I wouldn't put it past the Monument obsessed ownership group but it's awfully difficult to chant that isn't it? I think it would be cool to borrow a former Washington sports team's name and use that. Professional teams played basketball in D.C. under the Capitols and Caps names in the '40s and '60s but clearly that wouldn't work. Other teams like the Senators (Major League Baseball), Lions (American Hockey League) and Diplomats (North American Soccer League) don't seem like winners either.

If it were me, I'd go with Capital Bullets. That would harken back to the 1973-1974 season for the current franchise and the only time the team used that name when they first moved to Landover in 1973. It would also have some more regional appeal and wouldn't be confused with the throwback Washington Bullets memorabilia that the NBA churns out. Plus maybe they could finally make that division champs banner that's missing from that's year's campaign (along with a couple of others) and hang it in the new building. Just my suggestion. I'm sure I won't be listened to.

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