Grand Rapids Drive balk at proposed move to Detroit

James Hawkins
The Detroit News
Former Piston Stanley Johnson played with the G-League Grand Rapids Drive in 2016. The team released a statement Wednesday saying it has no interest in relocating to Detroit.

Detroit — The Pistons are planning to bring a G-League team to Detroit in 2021.

But that team likely won't be their current affiliate — the Grand Rapids Drive.

The Pistons announced on Wednesday they entered a partnership with Wayne State University, and the organization’s G-League team will play in the new $25-million arena that will be built for the college’s men’s and women’s basketball programs.

Following Wednesday's news conference, the Drive released a statement indicating the team isn't interested in moving to Detroit.

"We are deeply committed to our fans and love being part of the sports landscape in the community that we’ve called home since 2014," the Drive said in a team statement. "This team has been community-built and supported for five seasons, and we are looking forward to continuing the growth of the franchise here in West Michigan.

"We have no plans on relocating to Detroit but (will) continue to have great communication and a positive relationship with the Pistons organization. We are solely focused on our sixth season this upcoming fall, in partnership with the Detroit Pistons and the NBA."

However, Pistons vice chairman Arn Tellem said the Drive’s fate has yet to be decided.

“We’re in discussions right now and I don’t know,” Tellem said. “We have a commitment that we can get an expansion team, and it may be an expansion team. We’ll see how our discussions are resolved as we talk with the NBA and the Grand Rapids team.

"I think we’ll have a clearer sense in the next few months."

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The Drive have been the Pistons’ affiliate for five years and currently play at the DeltaPlex in Walker, Mich. The Pistons recently extended their agreement with the Drive through 2020-21 and any change in a team’s G-League affiliation would require approval from the NBA.

The Drive is also a “hybrid” affiliation, meaning the Pistons handle the personnel and basketball operations while the Drive control the marketing and community relations.

Owner and president Steve Jbara heads the Drive’s ownership group, which also includes former Piston and four-time NBA defensive player of the year Ben Wallace.

“All we know is we're going to be bringing a team here for the 2021 season and we're in discussions now,” Tellem said. “I'm not sure what team it will be. All I know is there will be a team here."

The Pistons will have a 30-year lease agreement with Wayne State and the G-League team will play 20-plus games at the university's new arena each season.

From a basketball standpoint, Tellem said there are several benefits to bringing a G-League team to Detroit. The most notable will be the proximity.

The new facility would be roughly two miles away from Little Caesars Arena, where the Pistons have a lease agreement with the Red Wings and Ilitch Holdings, as opposed to two-and-a-half hours away. It will also be located near Midtown, not far from where the Pistons' new practice facility is nearing completion in the New Center district.

“There is a trend in the NBA that all G-League teams are within less than an hour drive of the parent club,” Tellem said. “There are some that are right in the practice facility. The reason is more and more G-League teams are becoming a true minor-league club where players are going back and forth all the time. In the past, and I think about Henry Ellenson (in 2017-18), only played two games in Grand Rapids. That's a crime.

“All of our young players, if they're not playing — like Khyri Thomas should be down there or Svi Mykhailiuk should be there developing. And here now they can practice at our performance center and just get in the car and go right to play. They can practice with the NBA team, be around NBA coaches, be around NBA trainers and then still go and play games here. It's going to be a huge advantage for us going forward.”

Tellem noted the G-League is only going to become more important with the NBA proposing to lower the draft-eligible age from 19 to 18 years old.

“(With) more younger players coming in, it's going to be important to have them being able to play and being monitored, mentored and developed by the parent club,” Tellem said. “That's why it's so important to have this arena less than a half a mile from our performance center. It's a big basketball advantage."

The G-League, formerly known as the Development League (D-League for short), began in 2001-02 as the NBA’s official minor league system to develop players. NBA G-League players sign standard one-year deals with the league, not individual teams.

There were a record 27 G-League squads this past season, each singly affiliated with an NBA team (22 are fully owned and operated by their parent club). The only pro teams who don’t have an affiliate are the Denver Nuggets, New Orleans Pelicans and Portland Trail Blazers.

"The G-League can be a very powerful tool for player development and having your affiliate nearby and accessible is the best way to maximize the impact," Ed Stefanski, senior advisor to Pistons owner Tom Gores, said in a statement.

"Young roster players, rookies and players on two-way contracts can shift back and forth efficiently, and rehab assignments for veteran players are easier to manage."

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins