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Thursday, 16 July 2015 11:04

Local teams part of R&D effort for top sports leagues

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Oftentimes, sports leagues use their minor league teams as guinea pigs to test new procedures, rules and equipment. For example, the American Hockey League, where the Grand Rapids Griffins play, piloted a new overtime format that eventually made its way to the National Hockey League. Oftentimes, sports leagues use their minor league teams as guinea pigs to test new procedures, rules and equipment. For example, the American Hockey League, where the Grand Rapids Griffins play, piloted a new overtime format that eventually made its way to the National Hockey League. COURTESY PHOTO

When fans attend an NBA Development League game, they aren’t just potentially seeing the next crop of NBA players. They’re also getting a glimpse of the coaches, refs, rules and even uniforms that might someday make it to the big stage.

But not all the aspects of minor league play will advance to the next level.

Just ask Steve Jbara about the D-League’s implementation last year of allowing coaches to challenge refs’ calls, similar to football and a handful of other sports.

“It was brutal — just the time it takes to review basketball plays,” said Jbara, president of the D-League’s Grand Rapids Drive. “In the NBA, you have maybe 16 cameras. We have four. It’s much tougher to get the angle. You can pretty much challenge anything. It takes four or five minutes but everyone is wondering what’s going on. We tried our best to make announcements about it.”

The D-League effectively serves as the research and development arm of the NBA, allowing the sports juggernaut a chance to test out new concepts in a lower-stakes environment.

“It really is a development league for everyone, not just the players,” Jbara said. “Around 42 coaches have been called up to the NBA — I think three or four head coaches. Every ref since 2002 started in the D-League.”

The NBA certainly does not shy away from using the D-League as its guinea pig. The league features modified rules for goaltending and allots each team one chance to advance the ball past half court without calling a timeout, an effort to keep games within two hours.

The upcoming season will see the Drive in a lighter fabric uniform. The D-League even uses unique equipment that monitors aspects of a player’s health, including blood pressure, heart rate and more.

But fans might wonder whether these marked differences change the spectator experience for a brand that prides itself on and sells itself as NBA-caliber basketball.

The answer, according to Jbara, is no.
 
“It’s interesting,” he said. “I don’t think anything affects it to the point where you’d be like ‘Oh, this basketball is different.’ No one really notices the goaltending stuff.

“The coaches challenge is the only thing that really stuck out. Other than that, it was pretty seamless.”

This dynamic is not one that is unique to the NBA D-League, either. The American Hockey League, which the Grand Rapids Griffins are a part of, has also faced modified rules.

Ryan Martin, general manager of the Griffins and assistant general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, pointed to the overtime rules that started in the AHL and eventually made their way to the National Hockey League.

The AHL piloted an overtime format that had teams play 4-on-4 for the first three minutes, and 3-on-3 after that, he said.

“It was being tested with the expectation that it would possibly be put into the NHL,” Martin said.

The test proved successful in the fact that, less than a month ago, the NHL’s board of governors approved a new rule for a 3-on-3 overtime for the 2015-16 season.

The rule change was a case study that showed how beneficial these lower leagues are to molding the way the game is played at the highest stage, according to Martin.

“Sometimes, until you see it play out in an actual game environment, it’s not really going to have the same impact,” he said. “It’s a great forum to try those things out.”

By comparison, most of Major League Baseball’s research and development happens at the AAA and AA levels. The West Michigan Whitecaps are Single A, while the Battle Creek Bombers and Kalamazoo Growlers are a part of an independent collegiate league called the Northwoods League, which is unaffiliated with the MLB.

Read 1897 times Last modified on Tuesday, 21 July 2015 09:53
Jayson Bussa

Staff writer/Web editor

[email protected]

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