When the Pistons announced Wednesday that they were moving their Gatorade League affiliate to Detroit, Steve Jbara wasn’t the least bit surprised.
Jbara, co-owner of the Grand Rapids Drive, the Pistons’ current affiliate, knew for months that the final word was coming, but the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement on a path forward.
Pistons owner Tom Gores doesn’t own the Drive franchise; the Pistons have a hybrid agreement with Jbara’s ownership group, which now must figure out what its future will be. The Pistons and Drive have a two-year agreement through 2021, which is when the new affiliate will begin play at Wayne State’s new basketball facility after it's completed.
“We have a great working relationship with those guys and they’ve talked about it for a while. Everybody knows Tom’s goal is to continue growing the Pistons’ presence in the Detroit market,” Jbara told The Detroit News. “We knew that was on their radar and they were waiting for the best opportunity, which Wayne State ended up being.”
That’s when things get tricky.
The Pistons want to have their affiliate closer to Detroit — and what’s almost certain is that the Drive will not be moving east from Grand Rapids to Detroit.
“We’re committed to the west side and we like it here and we have a fantastic market here that the Tigers and Red Wings are seeing,” Jbara said about the West Michigan Whitecaps and Grand Rapids Griffins. "From our end, we’re going to roll the dice and see what kind of team we can put together in two years. For now, it’s business as normal.
“We’re better together than we are apart, if it can work out. Wayne State is not going to be done for two years and Grand Rapids is probably a better option than they would come up with short term. We’ll have the Pistons on board as long as we can. We’ll extend it until they’re ready in Detroit.”
Wayne State’s Board of Governors approved a plan Wednesday to build a new $25-million facility and the Pistons will have a 30-year lease agreement for their new expansion team in the G-League. That leaves the Drive searching for a path forward, which could be as an independent or possibly as an affiliate for another team.
The Nuggets and Trail Blazers are the only two NBA teams currently without a G-League affiliate and the Drive would be the only independent team in the G-League. The appeal for the G-League is having bigger-name two-way players who would be shared with the NBA team. Without an affiliation, the Drive wouldn’t have that benefit. More NBA teams are moving to a proximity model and getting their affiliates closer to them, but there are outliers.
The Miami Heat’s affiliate is in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and the Houston Rockets’ is in Edinburg, Texas.
“There may be an opportunity for us to house two-way guys off the NBA teams that don’t have affiliates (Portland and Denver),” Jbara said. “There are a lot of teams that are a few hours away: Sioux Falls is the Miami Heat team and they love that relationship. Rio Grande Valley is the Houston Rockets’ team and that’s three or four hours away.
“A lot of teams do make it work but it’s a different mindset where they’re away from the team and not necessarily part of the organization. The affiliation piece with another club is probably a long shot but the benefit we have is that we’re fully (operational) and it would be plug-and-play for a year or two.”
Jbara said beyond the G-League, there is no other viable option for the Drive, so their likely path is either as an independent or affiliate. They’ll also look into moving from the DeltaPlex in Walker, Mich., to Van Andel Arena, home of the Griffins in the American Hockey League.