Jennings also believes that the D-League's tight connection with the NBA is what lent his Red Claws bid some gravitas with the general public, including those who remember the failed attempts of the 1990s. "We had to prove that it was legitimate — the team was here to stay. Once we became the official minor league team of the Celtics, there was that interest." Indeed, the D-League benefits greatly from being associated with the NBA brand, both in terms of athleticism and money-making potential.
Being a Celtics and Bobcats affiliate means that those pro teams can send players down to the minor league for additional cultivation. So far, that's meant more practice time for younger, less-experienced players, such as JR Giddens, a Celtics guard who was briefly sent to the Red Claws in January before undergoing knee surgery. (It's unclear whether we'll ever see stars like Kevin Garnett or Paul Pierce at the Expo, as Sea Dogs fans saw David Ortiz in 2008.) More than 100 players have been assigned to their D-League affiliates over the last four years; 20 percent of NBA players on 2008-09 end-of-season rosters had D-League experience, according to D-League statistics.
Several NBA players have played for the Red Claws this season, and Ainge counts it as a great endorsement that "NBA teams feel confident to send their players to us."
He also points out that Red Claw guard Mario West was called up, to the Atlanta Hawks, in January (players can be called up to any team, not just to their affiliates). West played two 10-day contracts and was signed for the rest of the season on Monday; 89 players have been called up to the NBA in the D-League's nine-year history. West's call-up is evidence, Ainge says, that at least part of the Red Claws' success can be credited to the "talent level that people aren't used to seeing in such an intimate setting."
Indeed, while the team struggles with rebounding and sometimes loses focus or becomes "complacent in the second half," as Sedenka puts it, "scoring wise, they're very deep. There may not be one player who's going to score 40 points a night, but this is a team that can bring in bench players."
"A lot of the people in this area have never seen the quality and athleticism of this basketball — slam dunks and three-pointers," Sedenka adds.
Many of the Red Claws have previous professional basketball experience, with other D-League teams, in NBA team training camps, or as part of other minor leagues. The players (who make anywhere from $12,000 to $25,000 per season and live together at a local residential hotel) come to the team through one of several avenues — league allocation, yearly D-League draft, tryouts, or assignment from an affiliate team. Unlike in the NBA, the players' contracts are with the league itself, not specific teams. This leads to frequent roster-shifting and can make team continuity a hard thing to come by.
So far, that hasn't detracted from fans' enjoyment.
"The game was excellent," says Portland resident Eli Cayer, who attended the sold-out New Year's Day game. "Fast-paced and exciting . . . I am definitely gonna go again. The energy of the crowd is contagious."
Not to mention that $5 seats are cheap entertainment for families and kids.