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Birmingham Squadron: A look at what to expect from the Pelicans G-League team

It’s all about development and fun!

Birmingham Squadron

Welcome to G-League life, Pelicans fans!

Since the team was initially announced in November 2018, basketball fans will soon be able to watch pros play in Alabama for the first time in a long time — it’ll be the first-ever NBA-affiliated team in the state. And as announced in late July, we’ve got a name: the Birmingham Squadron.

The name connects to both the local market and the parent club — and you’ve got to love the connection to the greek god of fire, Vulcan. Great choice.

This also, of course, marks the first time the Pelicans will have their own minor league affiliate, which represents a full-service upgrade to the franchise as a whole.

29 teams will compete in the league next year, nearly matching a 1-for-1 fit with the 30 parent NBA clubs. It’s been years in the making to get to 29 teams; just 10 years ago, many of the, say, 20 or 22 or 24 teams were independently owned but had basketball operations relations with, sometimes, as many as four NBA clubs.

Birmingham Squadron

The Squadron are owned by the Pelicans, providing a clear line of responsibility from Gayle Benson to David Griffin to Trajan Langdon, who will act as the new club’s top basketball decision maker from the parent club; Marc Chasanoff and Billy Campbell will run basketball ops from Birmingham. David Lane, the general manager of business operations, will focus on ticket sales, game day experience, communications and all other non-basketball related tasks.

Randy and Me

Randy Livingston is almost certainly the greatest high school basketball player in New Orleans history; the hype and performance from those 1990s Newman state-winning teams was iconic in the Crescent City then and fondly remembered now.

Honestly, just google the guy: he’s a legend. Livingston is now the head coach at Newman and expects his team to compete for a state title as soon as this year.

I worked with Randy when he was the head coach of the Idaho Stampede from 2010-12 (since renamed the SLC Stars and moved to Salt Lake City as the affiliate of the Jazz). He was also a player for the Stampede earlier in his career, leading the team to the D-League Championship in 2008, a team coached by back-again assistant Bryan Gates, who, coincidentally, is replacing Willie Green on Monty Williams’ bench in Phoenix.

“The relationship with the owner was important back then [The Stampede were independently owned by a collection of about 10 local businessmen. They *could* at times have influence on the roster. Other teams were run similarly back then.]. For most teams now, it’s the relationship with the GM or basketball operations of the parent club,” Livingston said. “It’s a bonus to win a championship, but at the end of the day, the orders that come down from the parent club are about development. Maybe a rookie needs minutes, or they want to see certain things on the floor, there’s guys on 2-way contracts or exhibit 10 contracts.”

There’s also development of coaches, front office folks, ticket sales people, or heck, even the mascot. Livingston noted recent G-League coaches like NBA champion Nick Nurse, OKC’s Mark Dagnault, former Pels man Chris Finch and recently fired Nate Bjorkgren. There’ll be more in the future. So be sure to look at the full roster and front office when examining who may be called up.

One of Livingston’s most talked-about moves was bringing in former NBA All-Star Antoine Walker to Idaho, which helped bring a veteran presence to support younger players trying to make a name for themselves.

“The league is predicated on young guys,” said Livingston. “You need a balance of veterans and young guys trying to get called up. Sometimes, NBA teams need a veteran who can play in the stretch run or even in the playoffs. But if you’ve got a roster of 12 players, probably eight could be young.”

What matters: Families, Beer, and Money

Here’s a duh for you: The primary goal of every NBA franchise is to win the NBA championship. Outside of tanking teams, every team wants to win every game.

Trajan Langdon and Birmingham GMs Mark Chasanoff and Billy Campbell would love to win a G-League title, but the Birmingham team exists to enable New Orleans to flourish.

“The G-League is different now,” Livingston told me. “You’re playing for development now. When I was playing, it was for development, but it was also for competitive spirit and winning and setting a winning culture. Development is probably the first priority of the parent club.

“There’s more opportunities to be exposed to high level basketball in the region,” said Livingston. “Locals, or players from LSU, UNO, or Tulane all have somewhere to go look at what professional basketball is like. Maybe it’s not the NBA, but an opportunity is all it takes, and you get a 10-day contract and the next thing you can turn that into a $50M contract.”

Birmingham Squadron

David Lane, GM of business ops, sees things as others in minor league sports do: “We’re all trying to sell tickets and popcorn, and create a first-class experience for fans and sponsors.”

As a former G-League (D-League, at the time, actually) employee, I can attest: employees on the ground in Birmingham want to gain attention, sell tickets, get butts in seats, and ensure that their game day experience brings fans back year after year. Winning makes every part of every day better, but rosters change so much between — and even during — seasons, that play can be uneven. One day, your best three players are riding a hot streak; the next, they may all get called up to various NBA teams (or overseas), and games could be lost. But as long as the fans (families!) love the mascot, dance team, and lower-than-NBA prices; sponsors and high rollers have fun (beer!) at games; and the city supports (money!) their success, that’s the real win for the franchise. Halftime shows are often just as good as the ones you see at NBA games.

Whoever sold the most tickets is the real MVP. Special jerseys might depict something unique like Star Wars, Seinfeld, or Barack Obama.

“Make no bones about it, I am not the general manager for basketball,” Lane said to clarify his role. “At our NBA draft watch party, I’m asked, ‘Who are we gonna draft? Do I have any insight?’ No. No, I do not {laughs}. Smarter folks on the basketball side will bring the players here.

“We’ll make a first class experience for all our fans from day one in Legacy Arena. I want our fans to have a great time. All the game experience could allow them to go and have a great time and at the end of the night, they don’t even know who won the game. We want to throw 24 parties for 24 home games. We think that’ll keep people coming back, by bringing them something unique and memorable.”

Terminology

Down: Assignment; Up: Call-Up

Unless a player is currently signed by an NBA team and “sent down” to the G-League (or “assigned,” as the league prefers), that player remains under control of the mothership. So, if we see a 2021 NBA draft pick playing for BHam, no worries folks, he’s still ours.

BUT, any G-League player not under a regular or two-way contract with an NBA team can be called up by anyone. So, when you’re rooting on the Squadron, many of those guys could end up playing for any NBA team next week.

Any other questions? The G-League has an excellent FAQ page here: https://gleague.nba.com/faq/.

Who ARE These Guys?

Look up some recent NBA G-League rosters and you’ll basically recreate the old Deadspin feature: “Let’s remember some guys.”

Did you know former No. 2 overall pick Hasheem Thabeet played nine games for the Fort Wayne Mad Ants in 2019-20? Or that former Hornets legend Emeka Okafor played 26 games for the Delaware Blue Coats in 2017-18? I definitely remember Antoine Walker playing two seasons with my Idaho Stampede in 2010-12. What about Andre Ingram, Renaldo Major or Blake Ahearn? My personal favorite is Morris Almond. Guys. Every last one of them is a guy.

They come from everywhere: thousands graduate from college with dreams of making the NBA, but of course, only about 400 or so play at the top level each season.

Fans should expect more than 20 players to rotate through the roster each season, with little to no carry over year to year. 20 players this year, maybe another 20 the next. As with any minor league team, it’s hard for fans to latch on to guys who show up year after year, hence the emphasis on game day experience and culture of basketball development.

“Birmingham is a growing city with good financial stability,” said Livingston. “Fans are going to want to see those games and want to see them supported and remain financially stable. It’s really exciting.”

US Census Bureau information shows Birmingham city slightly losing population over the years, while nearby suburbs and satellite towns growing. Soon, Birmingham is likely to drop from its long-held position as the most populous Alabama city; this seems to be more about the stupendous growth in Huntsville rather than an exorbitant number of Birminghamers leaving.

Birmingham Squadron

Said Lane of the market, which shows growth when including suburbs and surrounding communities, “There’s a lot of businesses moving downtown. We’re seeing more and more traffic, buzz. UAB will be playing at the new football stadium being built now, which will seat 45,000. Legacy is $123M, so that is part of more than $400M going into just this part of downtown. We’re bringing people downtown.”

So, Birmingham and all surrounding regions: stand up, buy tickets and enjoy Squadron ball!

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @Trabeta.