Skyforce, NBA set league standard for affiliated partnership

Feb. 12, 2020

This paid piece is sponsored by the Sioux Falls Skyforce

Earlier this season during a panel discussion on ESPN’s “NBA: The Jump,” the group sorted out differences of opinion on the issues of the day but settled in on this consensus:

The G League has a lot of talent and no NBA organization utilizes that talent more, or uses its affiliated team more effectively, than the Miami Heat and the Sioux Falls Skyforce.

“It’s always nice to be recognized by people who have been in your business,” said Skyforce president Mike Heineman.

“Minor league basketball is tough. It’s tough as a player, it’s tough to succeed as team – we’ve seen so many teams come and go – and it’s tough to develop a good relationship with an NBA team. We’ve been able to succeed in all three of those categories.”

As the hosts on “The Jump” acknowledged, the relationship between the Skyforce and the Heat is unique. The organization sends established players to Sioux Falls who need additional minutes and also uses the team for long-term development of younger players.

Evidence of the benefits of that relationship will show up at the NBA All-Star Game on Sunday  in Chicago. Derrick Jones Jr. will be in the dunk contest, and Duncan Robinson has accepted an invitation to compete in the 3-point contest. Both now contribute for the Heat and have spent time in a Skyforce uniform.

“That’s so cool,” Heineman said. “I was watching the Heat play the other night, and Gabe Vincent and Chris Silva were both in there. Well, they were playing for us on Saturday and the Heat on Monday. We’ve gotten to the point where guys are literally playing for both teams. We’re very proud of that.”

It started with Amir Johnson, who played for the Skyforce during the 2006-07 season and is still playing professional basketball. Since being linked with the Heat, getting Skyforce players to the NBA has been the rule.

“It’s not like we can take credit for everything they’ve done, but we helped them with becoming pro basketball players,” Heineman said. “Now they’re making significant money and playing significant minutes on winning teams. We’re talking about big-time things on the biggest stage. We’re still a part of that. We’re helping develop these players into what they always hoped they would be.”

In 2013, the Miami Heat entered into a single affiliation partnership with the Skyforce. In 2017, the Heat bought controlling interest in the team from the Heineman family with the local management staff remaining in place.

The Heat would not have made the jump to ownership unless the franchise felt good about the facilities. That includes the accompanying Sanford Health training staff, along with the Pentagon, which is considered the best venue in the G League. The organization, under the direction of Pat Riley since 1995, has been robust in its interaction with the minor league affiliate.

“They were among the first to really buy into assigning players to the minor leagues,” Heineman said. “I’m not sure why that was. They knew nothing about us. It was just ‘Hey, you’re going to work with Sioux Falls.’ ”

The Heat began sending Octavio De La Grana, now an assistant coach for the Heat, to Sioux Falls on scouting trips. He took note of how well the organization was run and that word got back to Miami. When organizations began forming exclusive partnerships with CBA/G League franchises, it added some urgency to the Heat finding a partner. The fact that Sioux Falls is a long way from Miami was an obstacle but obviously not an insurmountable one.

“We said right from the beginning that if this was going to work, we were going to have to trust each other,” Heineman said. “We were going to have to be honest with each other. We’ve continued to try to do that from day one. That’s what has made this successful.”

The first official visit for the Skyforce staff to Heat headquarters was a memorable one for the Heineman family. The tour was to include the opportunity to say hello to Riley, one of the league’s most iconic figures.

“It was my dad and me and our coaches at the time,” Heineman said. “He could have given us 10 minutes, and we’d have been fine with that. Instead, we talked to him for an hour and a half. We talked about hunting and basketball and pretty much everything else under the sun. He was a guy I idolized growing up, and he treated us like equals. There are a lot of people with big egos in the NBA, but then you meet Pat Riley and he treats you like an equal. That’s pretty amazing.”

It has been like that from the top on down, Heineman said.

“There’s a humbleness to the whole organization,” he said. “It’s quite a story. We’re proud that we’re still able to tell it.”

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Skyforce, NBA set league standard for affiliated partnership

From ESPN kudos to player appearances at the upcoming NBA All-Star Game, the Sioux Falls Skyforce have a lot to celebrate.

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