Doubling Down

news-3-warriors-casey-hillWhy repeat championships are even harder in the D-League than the NBA

With one NBA championship under their belts, the Golden State Warriors are dreaming of a dynasty. But despite their fast start (8-0 as of press time), every basketball fan knows how hard it is to win back-to-back titles in the NBA.

Still, compared to what their Development League counterparts on the Santa Cruz Warriors are up against in trying to repeat as league champions, it’s a cakewalk.

“It’s not just hard to repeat,” says Santa Cruz Warriors President Jim Weyermann, “the system is designed to not allow a dynasty at the D-League level.”

What exactly are the Santa Cruz Warriors up against, after clinching their first D-League championship last season? Well, for starters, there’s the fact that roughly 80 percent of last season’s team is currently playing overseas.

“Our whole freakin’ team’s over there,” says Weyermann.

That’s because D-League players, who earn relatively low wages while hoping to break into the NBA, can parlay the visibility and credibility of a D-League championship into a chance to play for some real money in a foreign league. They have to grab that opportunity while they have it, and no one in the Santa Cruz organization begrudges them for it. On the contrary, the team’s execs still maintain a relationship with those players, and often advise them on the best moves to further their careers.

But for the Santa Cruz Warriors’ new season, which starts Nov. 13 with a home game at Kaiser Permanente Arena against the Bakersfield Jam, it’s not so great.

“It’s hard because you don’t maintain your core,” says Weyermann. “We start every year essentially brand new.”

Unlike the NBA, there are no long-term contracts in the D-League. And all those new guys coming on to the team every year? They’re looking to fill up their stat sheets, since that’s the yardstick by which they’ll be judged by NBA scouts. (Oh, and in the NBA D-League, unlike minor leagues in other sports, scouts from other franchises can sign your players away.) Since individual play is what gets results for D-League players, they come in with very little motivation to prioritize the systems that create championship team play.

That’s where Weyermann says Santa Cruz Warriors coach Casey Hill has excelled.

“Casey getting our team to play as a team becomes a competitive advantage,” he says.

Hill’s strategy for winning another championship is particularly interesting: he doesn’t have one.

“I don’t expect to win a championship,” he says. With all the other pressures on D-League players, “I’m not going to put that on their shoulders,” he says. Instead, he emphasizes the player development for which the D-League is designed.

Yet he’s had enormous success with several Santa Cruz Warriors teams in this brutal, almost anti-team system. What’s his secret?

“The first thing we do is create a really strong culture,” he says. “Any new guys that come here, they aren’t bigger than that.”

But if he can see his players’ games and careers develop, get guys called up to the NBA, and then win a championship, well, that’s “a cherry on top of a very delicious sundae.”

Besides the coaching strategy and a few returning players, Weyermann says what gives a team like the Santa Cruz Warriors consistency is the quality of the scouting, always looking to the next year to reconstitute the team.

“Have you built a dynasty of basketball evaluators?” he asks. “Because that’s how you build basketball dynasties.”

Unfortunately for the Warriors, Weyermann announced last week that he’s removing himself from this potential dynasty at the end of the season. Famous for getting the Kaiser Permanente arena built in an incredible 78 days in 2012, and for challenging conventional notions about how the upcoming permanent arena project will be handled, he has been a tenacious fighter for both the Warriors and the Santa Cruz community, and it’s hard to imagine how he’ll be replaced. But he didn’t want to go through the arena process a second time, and felt he had to let the Warriors know that up front, even though he is committed to this season.

“I think everybody was a little jolted by the timing,” he admits. “But if you know me, it’s pretty consistent with who I am.”

Besides, he claims with a laugh, the biggest percentage of emails he got were asking if his girlfriend, local nonprofit angel Angela Chestnut, was going to be leaving Santa Cruz because of this.

“Please tell people: Angela Chestnut is not leaving Santa Cruz,” he says. “She’s the reason that I’m staying here.”

Indeed, he is looking at some local and regional projects that he describes as “wild.” And his advice for the planners on the arena project would probably come in handy for the two Warriors teams defending their championships, too: “People need to stop talking about it, and just go do it.”

HILL WEEK Coach Casey Hill (second from right) leads D-League champions the Santa Cruz Warriors when they open their season on Friday, Nov. 13, at Kaiser Permanente Arena.

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