You walk into State Farm Arena during an RGV Vipers practice and you probably won't see that many people there. For head coach Nevada Smith, that's quite all right.
Even though the Vipers didn't win the NBA D-League championship last year the franchise had one of the more memorable seasons in its short history. Then again, when you play basketball the way the Vipers did last year, you can't exactly expect that sort of thing to stay quiet.
In case you haven't heard, the Vipers shot a lot of threes last year. Last season the Vipers attempted 2,268 three-pointers. That translates to about 45 attempts per game (D-League season is 50 games). Forty. Five. Insane. To give you some context, the 1981-82 Denver Nuggets scored an NBA record 10,371 points; you know how many three point shots they attempted? 149... and that was over 82 games.
This kind of output is thought to be the highest clip of any basketball team in any league in the (recorded) history of the sport. You can't do something like this in the Internet era and expect to go unnoticed.
The Vipers were the recipients of some gushing coverage last year when word got out that Nevada had ordered his guys to basically abandon all game plans and launch as many threes as humanly possible. They were the subject of long, raving articles on ESPN and had an especially good write up on Grantland. Beat writers from all over the country crawled out of the woodwork to write about the Three Point Revolution that was ravaging the D-League. But for Nevada, that shit got tiring.
Sure, it was fun at first, Nevada said after a practice where it was quiet enough to hear the coach's whistle blow all the way to the parking lot, but after a while it just got increasingly more annoying to answer slightly different versions of the same questions. I suspect this is how James Harden feels whenever someone asks him about playing defense.
Now things are back to being quiet. There were only two other reporters at practice beside myself (note: describing me as a "reporter" is a huuuuuge stretch) and that's just fine for the second year coach. Things are quieter now, and that lets him work without the noise that comes with a pro-level gig.
Last year the Vipers finished 30-20 and were eliminated in the Western Conference Finals by the Santa Cruz Warriors (Golden State's affiliate). Most of those guys who played on that team are gone, but it wasn't a bad outing for Nevada. Although things have quieted, they have also changed. The general feeling around the league is that the stakes are somewhat higher. Not just for the Vipers, but for the league as a whole.
In the past, it was common for a guy to put up a triple-double one night then be back to sacking groceries the next day, never to play basketball professionally again. But the Vipers have been innovative in raising the profile of the franchise and the league as a whole. They were the first ones to develop an exclusive affiliation with an NBA franchise and as a result have somewhat formalized the business model of the entire league. Different franchises have taken to using the league more actively as a farm system and are more hands on in their team's development.
Seventeen of the league's 18 teams now have direct affiliations with an NBA franchise. And as long as you're in the league, the NBA could be just a phone call away, even if it's not with your team's affiliated franchise. The players are acutely aware of this and as a result the level of talent has taken a big step forward.
About five years ago, it'd be extremely uncommon (but not unheard of) for a guy to sign with a D-League team and make his way to the NBA. But now with NBA franchises are so involved with their D-League basketball operations that it's almost certain that the number of D-Leaguers that get called up will rise.
It's a good sign for the Rockets organization that Nevada was able to transition well to this level of basketball operations. Much was written about how the guy was coaching at a college so small he would do the team's laundry before he got the call from Dork Elvis to come coach the Vipers.
Now, with a year of the process under his belt, he has a much better grasp of the pace and flow of basketball at this level. He fully expects his philosophies to take a step forward regardless of who is on the team.
This is good considering that most of the team that was in place last year is no longer around. The most notable departure is Troy Daniels, who tied the single game D-League record for treys (10) but shattered the season record with 240 (the previous record was 153).
But this is the way things go at this level where players come and go faster than performers in the adult film industry. The Vipers have only two players coming back from last season's squad in Gary Talton and Tony Bishop Jr. It's perfectly ok if you have no idea who these guys are. But it doesn't mean they can't ball.
Talton, a second year point guard out of the University of Illinois-Chicago, got an offer to play overseas that would've given him more money but he turned it down to play for the Vipers, since players like Daniels have highlighted how likely it can be that you get the call to play in the NBA. Bishop? He good too.
One of the most interesting players on the roster is Earl Clark, a forward out of Louisville who, in a five-year pro career has received paychecks from eight different NBA franchises. Rumblings around the team indicate Clark is a sure bet to get a call up to the NBA. He's ranked number two in the league's "Prospect Watch" list behind former Viper/Rocket Robert Covington.
Covington is the reigning NBA D-League Rookie of the Year and is currently playing with the Grand Rapid Drive (Pistons affiliate) but ESPN's Marc Stein is saying that Sam Hinkie might offer him a four-year contract to play with the Sixers sometime this week. So odds are good that Clark may be getting a call-up as well. It'll be exciting to see how this season will play out for him.
Then there's Brandon Provost, who I hope makes the team if only because he played ball locally at the University of Texas-Pan American. He's already survived the first round of cuts and if he makes it past today he'll be on the team. When you're from the RGV, you root for anyone to make it big, so don't be surprised if these dispatches have a disproportionate amount of Provost.
Provost and the Vipers fared well in the team's first and only preseason game on Monday against Fuera Regian, an exhibition team from Mexico. We'll have a final roster sometime today.
The season begins tomorrow with two back-to-back games against the Austin Spurs (San Antonio's affiliate). We'll let you know how Clint Capela looks as he gets back to 100 percent from that groin injury.