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Sons Of Liberty: Thinking Outside of the Box

Should Year Two of the Delaware 87ers be the same as Year One, or should the Philadelphia 76ers' D-League affiliate take a radical approach to developing basketball strategy?

Roy Burton - Liberty Ballers

Last Friday, the Philadelphia 76ers tabbed Delaware 87ers assistant coach Kevin Young to man the bench for the team's NBA Developmental League squad. Young will assume the reins from former Sevens head coach Rod Baker, who was "called up" to a scouting role with the big club earlier in the week.

Young, who spent much of last year working with Thanasis Antetokounmpo, appears more than capable of handling the job. That said, if the second season of the 87ers' existence will adopt the same ideology of the first, it's fair to wonder: Are the Sixers using the Sevens right?

The 76ers are one of 17 NBA teams who have one-to-one affiliations with a D-League franchise. Given this luxury, there are two theories as to how the team can best utilize their minor league offshoot.

One school of thought is that the two teams and coaching staffs should mirror each other as much as possible. Synergy between related organizations is always a good thing, and when players are called up (or, for that matter, sent down), the resultant learning curve is less steep.

A more radical idea would be to use the D-League affiliate as a laboratory of sorts: A testing ground for experimentation that simply isn't possible in the NBA. The growing analytics movement has led to plenty of avant-garde thinking in front offices around the league, but it's often hard to sell unproven, leading-edge theories to head coaches who are fighting to keep their jobs.

Last year, it was obvious that the Sixers were proponents of the former strategy. Not only was Baker a fixture behind the 76ers' bench after the 87ers' season ended in early April, but it was clear that the former Sevens coach was a devotee of Brett Brown's "pace and paint" doctrine. During their inaugural season, the Sevens averaged 104.6 possessions per game (4th in the D-League), and less than 15 percent of the team's field goal attempts came from mid-range.

"Brett and I talk an awful lot," said Baker in an interview with Liberty Ballers back in December. "The talent level is a little different on both ends, but I think that we understand what they do... the synergy between us is pretty good."

However, a case can - and should - be made for thinking outside of the box a bit.

Back in February, Grantland's Jason Schwartz referred to the Rio Grande Valley Vipers - the Houston Rockets' D-League affiliate - as "Daryl Morey's Lab Rats." But the Houston GM has done more than mandate an analytics-heavy approach: the Vipers experiment with inbounds/ATO plays as well as defensive alignments that could potentially be adopted by the parent club.

"It allows us to create a competitive advantage for the Rockets and the Vipers," said Morey in an interview with The Monitor back in the summer of 2009. "We can bring our latest thinking to the Vipers and at the same time work on new strategies and learn about players and learn about potential future staff."

The latest iteration of the Rio Grande offense may be a bit excessive - just 5.15% of the team's 602 playoff field goal attempts came from mid-range - but it's hard to argue with the results. Since the Rockets assumed control of the team five years ago, the Vipers have won two titles (2010 and 2013) and lost in the D-League Finals in 2011.

Former Grinnell College associate head coach David Arseneault Jr. was recently named head coach of the Reno Bighorns - the D-League affiliate of the Sacramento Kings. If his name or former employer sound familiar, it's for good reason: David Arseneault Sr. is the architect of "The System": A controversial offensive concept that catapulted Grinnell to the national spotlight after then-sophomore guard Jack Taylor scored 138 points in a single game back in November 2012.

The Grinnell offense is far too extreme for the D-League to adopt completely, but the hiring of Arsenault is just the latest example of the evolutionary - and possibly, revolutionary - approach to basketball being tested by the NBA at the semi-pro level.

It's one thing to use a D-League affiliate to kick the tires on a few fringe prospects: 28 players suited up for the 87ers last year, and it appears likely that the team will adopt a similar philosophy this season. But thought should be given to a bit of exploration at the macro level as well. Sam Hinkie, Ben Falk and Co. spend hours of their respective work days devising new techniques and basketball strategies: There's no reason why the Sevens couldn't serve as a workshop for those methods in the hopes that one day, they could ultimately give the Sixers a competitive advantage.

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