As they hunt for a playoff spot, the Santa Cruz Warriors are traveling this week to rainy Mississauga, Ontario, a suburb just outside Toronto, where the skies are forecast to be just above freezing.
Needless to say, the squad, led by young players like point guard Phil Pressey, isn’t there looking for vacation weather, but for wins in their two games as part of the D-League Showcase, the annual basketball summit.
Over the course of 22 games, sports writers and scouts will descend on the showcase or watch it over Facebook Live to get a close look at the athletes one step from the NBA—most of whom play on a salary of $19,000 a year. It’s a number that sounds low to casual fans of the Development League, which is owned by the NBA, even though players are getting paid more on average than they were last season. While out of town, they’ll also be getting a per diem for meals. That’s a usual for road trips, and one of the perks that come with the job—not the least of which is an opportunity to follow their dreams. Even if a player only gets called up to big leagues once during a whole season, he can more than double his salary during that 10-day contract.
Hopes and aspirations aside, this money is modest compared to what an ESPN news junkie might imagine.
“It’s still quite a paltry amount of money to make to be a professional athlete,” says Santa Cruz’s Adam Johnson, editor of D-League Digest, a blog that covers the organization.
Generally, fans and players sometimes offer vague ideas about how the league can improve. Some of the more candid Warrior players even mulled over salaries aloud at the team’s media day in November. Shooting guard Cameron Jones, who had spent a couple years playing overseas, said that although he was happy to be back in Santa Cruz, it was difficult talking himself into what he knew would be smaller paychecks than the ones he cashed when in Russia, Greece and Israel.
“The D-League has so much potential. The players are good, but the travel and the pay—the NBA can do better,” Jones said, before quickly acknowledging he isn’t exactly sure how he would make changes. All-Star Carmelo Anthony said in October that the league needs to “rebrand” and do a better job of developing talent.
In the D-League there are two salary tiers—$19,000 and $25,000. Until last season, there was an additional lower tier of just $13,000 that has since been eliminated, bumping up the salary cap of each team. The D-League, instead of individual teams, pays all player salaries.
Chris Murphy, president of the Santa Cruz Warriors, says that although it is true these players aren’t going to get rich while in the D-League, money doesn’t tell the whole story. The Santa Cruz Warriors, he notes, have free lodging at a hotel on Beach Street, across the road from the ocean. They get fed after games and are given a few free meals a week through partnerships with local restaurants, not to mention health insurance.
“I’m not trying to justify the amount that they get,” Murphy says. “They’re here for five and a half months. I think everyone looks at things as an annual salary, and everyone sees the type of money that the NBA players make, so everybody just assumes that everyone makes a lot of money.”
On a Friday January night, sitting in the front row of Kaiser Permanente Arena, Johnson is carefully taking notes on a fast-paced, physical game against the Grand Rapids Drive, while keeping an eye on Twitter and working on articles for his website, a hobby he devotes himself to when he isn’t selling medical supplies for work or spending time with his two young sons.
One possible way to increase salaries, as Johnson has written about for the Digest, would be for the players to unionize. It might require help from the National Basketball Players’ Association, which so far has shown only tepid interest, at least publicly, in getting too deeply involved.
Still, Johnson says that eliminating the lowest salary tier was a step in the right direction—so too are the two-way contracts that found their way into the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players’ union. The new agreement allows NBA teams to create two new roster spots for less developed players—the types who would normally get cut from teams—who will make closer to $70,000 a year and split their time between their NBA team and its D-League affiliate.
The D-League has been growing steadily, having added three teams during the past offseason, and now boasts 22 total, enough that more than two-thirds of NBA teams have a D-League affiliate. Johnson suggests, however, that if the league continues growing without increasing pay, the talent pool might begin to dwindle.
But once the league gets to 30 teams, and each NBA team has an affiliate, Johnson hypothesizes it will suddenly become plausible for teams to start contributing to their players’ salaries because each franchise is making the same investment—thereby creating bigger paydays.
“Then every team can contribute their portion toward the D-League if they have to increase their salaries,” he says. “Meaning once everyone’s bought in, it’s an equal share to everyone that’s donating. When you don’t have everyone buying in, then not everyone’s contributing the same amount.”
Murphy is skeptical of such a path, noting that, with the way the league is set up, an NBA team can nab a player on any D-League team at any time—provided they’re not already under contract with another NBA team—and sign them. It would be heart-wrenching, for instance, if the Santa Cruz Warriors pay good money to a talented young guard for months, only to have him signed suddenly by the Los Angeles Clippers. He adds the Warriors are part of the majority of D-League teams that are not profitable.
Murphy thinks the organization can stay competitive, provided it grows slowly. That, he feels, will give players who would otherwise make more money overseas the chance to see that they could have big role in the D-League and have a more direct path to the NBA.
That’s probably why players like Jones, who wrestled over whether or not to get a bigger paycheck overseas, often end up opting for the D-League route.
Alex Hamilton, who’s had some impressive games as the Warriors’ backup point guard, said in November that he originally didn’t want to go into the D-League, mostly because of the pay. “As time went on,” he continued. “I really started to think about it. It’s not all about the money. You really have to put yourself in the best situation for you to succeed and take a bigger step.”
For information on how to watch games online, visit dleague.nba.com.