MISSISSAUGA— Tucked into a courtside seat at the Hershey Centre in Mississauga, Ont., Allan Houston, who helped lead the New York Knicks to the NBA Finals in 1999 under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden, is watching his current team, the Westchester Knicks, warm up for a game at the NBA G League Showcase.
The NBA G League is well known for its ability to incubate players at different stages of their career. Danny Green, Shaun Livingston and Hassan Whiteside serve as examples of players who put in time in what was then known as the NBA Developmental League, before impressing an NBA team enough for the senior franchise to take an educated gamble on them.
Now, Houston and other former NBA veterans like Elton Brand and Anthony Parker are proof that the league is providing an opportunity to impress in positions off the court as well.
The former two-time all-star is not only the assistant GM for the NBA club, he’s also the general manager of the Knicks’ G League team, albeit with a bit less at stake and greater margin for error. Juggling phone calls with other executives and scouts, he recalls that this executive life wasn’t in the periphery during his playing days.
“It was never something I aspired to do when I was playing,” Houston says. “It was really coaches and GMs towards the end of my career who I leaned on for advice who encouraged me to stay in the game and offer what I had received.”
Larry Brown, former coach of the Detroit Pistons, Philadelphia 76ers and Knicks was first to plant the general manager seed in Houston’s head, while 11-time NBA champion Phil Jackson suggested a coaching career may be on the cards.
Though Houston initially retired due to injuries in 2005 with a couple of years remaining on his contract, he attempted a comeback late in the 2006-07 season, and again at the beginning of the ‘07-08 season. That’s when new GM and President of Basketball Operations Donnie Walsh stepped in and implored Houston to help out in the front office.
Houston served as a special assistant to Walsh, before taking on his current roles to further his executive education. “There’s a lot of things that take place where you have to learn quickly, make adjustments, and there is a lot to be said for the environment for development here,” he says.
Brand, a former 17-year NBA veteran who spent the majority of his career with the Los Angeles Clippers and Philadelphia 76ers, is the GM of the Delaware 87ers (the 76ers affiliate), and is amazed at how much work there is on a daily basis for a front office employee.
“As a player, you have a great day if you put in five hours five or six times a week,” Brand says as he stirs his umpteenth coffee on the fourth consecutive day of non-stop G League Showcase action. “With management, you leave after five hours and they’re wondering where you’re going!”
Brand is now in charge of deciding who gets a parking pass, how many minutes the Sixers players play when they’re assigned to the G League team, their housing, press releases, relationships with agents and more.
He’s also a consultant with the Sixers, which means around this time of the year he’s involved in discussions about potential trades and the draft almost every day.
The G League’s role in developing players is growing. In years past, a player could be snapped up by an NBA team that isn’t affiliated with the G League club, meaning the team he was playing for would lose out on a talent that they’ve already put in the time to develop.
But the recent introduction of two-way contracts allows NBA franchises to essentially add a 16th and 17th spot to their roster and maintain control over a player they have interest in. As the league continues to expand, the value of synergy between the parent club and their affiliated team has become crucial and teams see the value in having a former NBA player bridge the two sides.
There are no shortage of examples. Former Toronto Raptor Anthony Parker is the GM of Orlando’s Lakeland Magic, former Vancouver Grizzly Shareef Abdur-Rahim and another former Raptor Darrick Martin are GM and head coach, respectively, for the Reno Bighorns (Sacramento’s affiliate). Other former players in the coaching ranks include Coby Karl, Anthony Carter, and Keith Bogans.
Malik Rose, a 13-year NBA veteran and champion with the San Antonio Spurs was named general manager of the Erie Bayhawks after working with the Atlanta Hawks in basketball operations, and he acknowledges the importance of trusting the process in aspiring to get to the big stage.
“I want to be a GM at the NBA level,” Rose says, “but I know, having been a part of the process and having been in the NBA for as long as I have, you can’t skip steps. A lot of our younger talent that comes in, be it players, coaches, front office or whatever, they want to spend a week here and then go and do the job at the NBA level. There’s work you have to put in, so many things you have to learn, and it takes time. You have to temper guys’ expectations, remind them to keep hammering away and get better everyday.”
You’d be hard pressed to find a franchise more committed to those values than the Toronto Raptors. They have made the Raptors 905 a priority, emphasized winning at the G League level, and their players and coaches have benefitted from it as a result.
Norman Powell, Delon Wright, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet have all put in time with the 905 in the early stages of their career, and that has allowed them to make big contributions at the NBA level this season. Siakam and VanVleet, in particular, both played a role for the 905 during their championship run last season, with the Cameroonian winning Finals MVP.
This year, Lorenzo Brown and Malcolm Miller have slowly started eking out a few NBA minutes for themselves, most noticeably on national television in the United States when the Raptors trounced the Cleveland Cavaliers by 34.
905 head coach and former NBA all-star Jerry Stackhouse couldn’t help but look on with pride as someone who helped them get to this point.
“It was a big day for the organization,”he said, “I know Masai (Ujiri) had to be proud. His vision of having a G League team and having those guys come in and develop. It’s hard to develop when you’re not playing and I think that’s what the G League does. It gives these guys an opportunity to get on the court, get real playing time, make mistakes and learn.”
The G League is about acquiring skills that are transferable when it’s showtime. But with just 30 NBA teams, it means opportunities are limited. There are 30 GM jobs, just as many head coaching positions, and 450 full-time NBA contracts.
Whether it’s a suit or a uniform, it’s no wonder that former players have kept their edge in that environment.
“We’re competitive,” Brand says. “Malik Rose wants to kick my butt, and I want to kick Allan Houston’s butt, and we all want to beat Jerry’s team every time we play them.”