Culture is as highly valued in basketball as any intangible quality. Good culture is cited when teams when championships, and bad culture is blamed when teams spend years stuck in mediocrity.
The Los Angeles Lakers' D-League affiliate, the Los Angeles D-Fenders, have developed the former type of culture under head coach Casey Owens. This positivity and selflessness was on display both during and after the team's 127-116 win over the top-seeded Reno Bighorns in their first game of the postseason.
It's easy for teammates and coaches to be happy with each other after a win, but the D-League is a slightly different dynamic than an NBA team. With players and coaches all working with the hope of a far more lucrative call-up, the temptation for selfishness is high, but it's one the D-Fenders have resisted. This habit starts at the top.
If one only listened to Casey Owens talk, they would think he was coaching one of the greatest basketball teams ever assembled rather than a collection of talented but flawed players who have banded together to cover for each others weaknesses. Maybe that's part of the point.
To Owens, the D-League's leading scorer Vander Blue, who led the D-Fenders with 43 points on the night, is "far more talented" than many of the players called up before him this season. "That's an NBA player out there," said Owens.
In the mold of his head coach, Blue credited his teammates for keeping him focused after a poor first quarter and allowing him to score 18 points in the second. Rather than discuss his scoring though, Blue wanted to talk about the contributions of one of those same teammates that helped create the driving lanes he used for so much success all season long.
"Andre [Ingram] is our best shooter," said Blue. "We expect him to be a leader and just come in and keep everything together."
If there is a position more thankless than being a D-League spot-up shooter that mainly helps create space for higher scoring teammates, it has to be "D-League assistant coach." That's also exactly where Ingram said much of the responsibility for his 17 points on 7-9 shooting belonged.
Ingram is mostly known as a three-point shooter (3-5 from behind the arc against Reno), but he also hit a few floaters on Thursday night. He said it was thanks to the idea of D-Fenders' video coordinator and special assistant Will Scott.
"[He] pulled me aside and said 'hey I noticed you getting these types of shots during the game, why don't we practice it more?'" said Ingram. With news Jabari Brown will miss the rest of the season, the D-Fenders would need more action going to the basket.
So Ingram and Scott spent significant time working on the shot during Los Angeles' shootaround and pregame, and it paid off when the sever-year veteran nailed a few of them in the first game of the postseason.
If Ingram was reticent to credit himself for his big night, his head coach was more than happy to do it for him.
"Andre is our rock," said Owens. "He's the one guy that played in all 50 games, we know he's the best shooter to ever play in the D-League."
Another player that's been a rock for the D-Fenders has been Ryan Gomes, who chipped in 26 points, 15 rebounds, and 5 assists in the win.
"He's a leader on the floor, off the floor, and in the locker room. Intellectually as a player he's like having another coach," said Owens. "He's 33-years old but that guy can still play. He has a lot left in the tank. We knew that he was a high character guy coming in. There was no question about that. What we didn't know, because he hadn't played in almost two years, was if he still had it. He's got it. That guy can help an NBA team."
Gomes, who doesn't even have his picture on his player page on the D-League website, knows he's looking at one of his last shots at the NBA, and that it may come as a mentor for younger players.
"I love the game so much I wouldn't mind doing that," said Gomes of taking on the role of a veteran leader at the next level. "But I wanted to come out here and show people, they have video, they have tape, they can watch things and see if I'm suitable to help a team in any way shape or fashion."
Gomes demonstrated that his urge to help even extends to those covering the team when he ended his postgame interview by checking to make sure one reporter had their tape recorder on and offering to stay and answer more questions (they did, so thankfully Gomes didn't have to make good on his offer).
The only thing the D-Fenders pass around more rapidly than the ball is praise and aid for each other, and if the team can get one win out of their two games in Reno over the next week, the lovefest can continue for at least one more playoff round.
All quotes obtained firsthand. You can follow this author on Twitter at @hmfaigen.