Florida Flame head coach Jeff Malone is like anyone else in the NBA Development League, hoping his D-League experience will move him to higher levels of basketball hierarchy.
He’ll keep his coaching options open this summer, but said that if he returns to the D-League, he wants to return to the Flame.
“I really enjoyed it here, working with the ownership, the front office and the community,” he said. “We had a great group of guys this year, and I have a lot of respect for how they stayed the course.”
Through all the roster moves, the bad breaks (and sprains and tears), and a rough late-season losing streak, the Flame made the playoffs for the first time in their two-season existence. A young team scrambled by injuries and roster uncertainties grew up in the regular season’s final week, something Malone said the team should be proud of.
“We lost those guys and went through our struggles,” Malone said. “But to make the playoffs the way we did was more satisfying to me than going 20-10.”
Through the draft and through the D-League’s new NBA affiliation system, Florida created one of the D-League’s best lineups. But there’s a downside to such dominance — the best players usually are the first ones plucked from D-League rosters.
Forward Dwayne Jones, the Flame’s best defender and a player assigned by the Minnesota Timberwolves, worked an NBA stint with the Wolves, then was traded to the Celtics and almost immediately brought up to their roster. Point guard Andre Barrett, one of the D-League’s best floor generals, signed 10-day contracts with the Phoenix Suns and Toronto Raptors before signing with Toronto to stay.
Rather than grouse, Malone, a D-League coaching veteran, and Flame assistant coach and director of player operations Terry Thimlar reminded themselves why teams like the Flame existed.
“We’re part of a minor-league system,” Thimlar said. “We have to be very open-eyed and open-minded to it and understand that’s the way it works. If you look at it any other way, you’re going to have a lot of sleepless nights.”
The injury bug bit hard as well. Florida’s top scorer, Minnesota assignee Bracey Wright, was sidelined for several games with a stress fracture in his left foot. Forward Theron Smith couldn’t shake a knee injury that ultimately led to his release. Add Hiram Fuller’s request for release to play in Europe and that star-making starting lineup became filled with supporting characters. It all added up to a streak where the Flame lost 11 of 12.
Rather than fold the tent, the Flame got Wright back and those supporting players embraced their starring roles. Florida won four of its last seven to make the playoffs. They were bounced by Albuquerque in the semifinals after Minnesota called Wright back days before the postseason began.
Malone, though, had several reasons to feel good as the season ended. He had called for his young players to grow up and did get his wish.
“Guys like George Leach, E.J. Rowland and Austin Nichols grew up,” Malone said. “They pushed us into the playoffs. We earned our way into the playoffs. People like it when you earn stuff.”
The D-League recently reduced its minimum age to 18, and also added six new teams for the 2006-07 season — the Dakota Wizards, Idaho Stampede, Colorado 14ers, Sioux Falls Skyforce and Bakersfield (Calif.) Jam, and a franchise in Anaheim, Calif. That will reduce the number of NBA teams affiliated with each D-League team from three or four to two or three.
Thimlar thinks those developments, along with the D-League’s evolving NBA affiliation system, will make the D-League, rather than Europe and other overseas leagues, the first option for young basketball players. That all should add up to a more popular league, Thimlar added.
“Expansion should make the league stronger, and more people will begin to know about it as it expands,” he said. “Once people see it, they’ll be totally impressed by the level of play, and people will return to a product if it’s a good product.”