Why the Cleveland Thunderbirds matter to Spurs fans

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The New Mexico Thunderbirds of the NBA’s D-League are now owned and operated by the Cleveland Cavaliers and will be playing ball in Canton, Ohio in the 2011-2012 season for the D-League.

Why does this news matter?

If you are a San Antonio Spurs fan and already experiencing the angst of the NBA lockout, this news, hardly seems relevant or encouraging as you consider the implications of a possibly non-existent NBA season.

But the D-League does matter, and this move by Cleveland also matters, especially to small market teams like San Antonio.

The Cavs joins the Spurs, Lakers, Thunder, and the Warriors as NBA teams with sole ownership of a D-League team.  This relationship between one D-League team and one NBA team benefits the D-League because the investment translates into long-term stability for the developmental league.  This relationship also is very significant for small market teams like Cleveland, and yes, the Spurs.

The Spurs’ brain-trust has been, in large part, brilliant when it comes to finding and developing talent. Names like Ginobili, Parker, Hill, Blair, Splitter and Neal immediately come to mind.

While there may not be a 2011-2012 NBA season, the D-League will go on and there are other names that Spurs fans should take interest in: Da’Sean Butler and Danny Green. Both are on the Spurs roster and both will likely play for the Spurs D-League affiliate, the Austin Toros.

In case you forgot, Butler was a finalist for the John Wooden award in 2010. As a senior, he was projected as a lottery pick in the 2010 draft.  He suffered a left knee injury in West Virginia’s Final Four loss to Duke that changed his trajectory in one horrific moment. Butler tore his ACL, sprained his MCL and suffered two bone bruises. His draft stock plummeted. Damaged goods. While still trying to recuperate from injury, the Heat took him in the second round. His stay was brief. Butler was simply not healthy or ready. After his release, the Spurs jumped on the opportunity to sign Butler in a low risk potentially high reward move. Butler spent the season rehabbing and learning the “Spurs Way.” He’s hungry and eager to prove he belongs, but he needs playing time and the Toros are the only way he’s going to get it.  

Green played for the Toros and the Spurs last year. In the D-League he averaged 20 points and seven rebounds a game. During his stint with the Spurs he showed high energy, a willingness to work hard on the defensive end and confidence on the floor.  Green is still raw, but the North Carolina product is long, athletic and has great upside. And like Butler, Green needs playing time.  

For small market teams like the Spurs, finding and developing talent is the great equalizer to the big market teams that can afford to spend the equivalent of the National Defense Budget on free agency.

The stability of the D-League is important because it allows teams like San Antonio to continue to find diamonds in the rough and the occasional player who will stick and produce. Cleveland’s investment in the Thunderbirds only strengthens the viability of the developmental league, and a strong D-league is important to the long-term success of the Spurs.

With the lockout and a couple of exciting prospects in Butler and Green, what happens an hour and a half north of San Antonio in the developmental league just got a lot more interesting.

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