Drive have plan for life after agreement with Pistons expires


The investors refused to move.

SSJ Group LLC, owners of the Gatorade League professional basketball team Grand Rapids Drive, decided to remain in the city where the team originated five years ago, after its NBA affiliate, the Detroit Pistons, wanted the team to move to the Motor City.

The SSJ Group is made up of almost 30 investors led by Steve Jbara. Jbara said 98% of the investors are from West Michigan and about 75% are Grand Rapids natives.

They have no intention of supporting a team based on the east side of the state, he said.

Last year, former NBA Detroit Pistons champion Ben Wallace was added as an ownership partner and, according to Jbara, he will continue in that capacity in the future.

“We like it here in West Michigan, and there are only so many franchises,” he said. “If we relocated or we did something else, there would really be no chance of getting (a team) back. So, we are going to (stay) here. The team is community built, we got investment from the community and people leaned in, really, when this team and this league had no credibility. The history of basketball in Grand Rapids wasn’t that strong. So, people really leaned in, and we were able to keep going.”

With the Drive’s refusal to move almost 160 miles east, the Detroit Pistons announced plans to bring their own G League team to Detroit and play in a new arena at Wayne State University, which is less than 2 miles from both Little Caesars Arena and the Henry Ford Detroit Pistons Performance Center, a newly built state-of-the-art practice and administrative facility for the team.

The Pistons and Drive recently extended their hybrid operating agreement through the 2020-21 G League season. Beyond that, the situation is less certain.

According to the Pistons organization, discussions with NBA G League officials regarding an expansion franchise and the Grand Rapids Drive are ongoing.

However, if talks break down, Jbara said he and the investors have two options.

“We have made our decision to stay put, so we’ll have our own franchise and operate our team, but we’ll have to find maybe another NBA team to pair with. Or, we have the option of running independently in this league and kind of be our own basketball entity,” Jbara said. “We’ll go one of those two routes after two years, but for the next two years, we are in terms with the Pistons.”

There are 27 NBA G League teams and at the start of the 2019-20 season, there will be 28 teams with the addition of the College Park Skyhawks, an affiliate of the Atlanta Hawks. The Denver Nuggets and the Portland Trail Blazers currently are the only two teams without G League affiliations.

While there have been independent G League teams in the past, Jbara said if current ownership decides to go that route, the Drive would be the only current independent franchise.

There are NBA teams whose G League affiliates are in different states. The Miami Heat’s affiliate is the Sioux Falls Skyforce in South Dakota, and the Philadelphia 76ers’ G-League affiliate, the Delaware 87ers, is located in Newark, Delaware, to name a couple.

The Drive played 24 home games at The Deltaplex Arena last season and have averaged about 85,000 fans per season since their inaugural 2014-15 season. Although the team’s number of players called up to the NBA is decreasing due to the NBA’s additional two-way roster spots, Jbara said, historically, the team has averaged two call-ups during the 50-game season. Lorenzo Brown, who played with the Drive during the 2015-16 season and part of 2017, is the only Drive player that went straight to the Pistons roster. 

Jbara said three to four Piston roster players play with the Drive intermittently throughout the season. When Grand Rapids players go to the Pistons, they usually play two to three NBA games before they return to Grand Rapids.

“We are all invested into the West Michigan community, and our investor group is one in the same,” he said. “We think Grand Rapids is a great market to have a team like this and a league like this. We like what we are doing here, we’ve enjoyed it and it is great for the community. We still feel like we can be successful in both the business and the basketball side regardless of the partnership.”

The team has played in two away playoff games in its existence.

Grand Rapids Drive records through five seasons

2014-15 record: 22-28

2015-16 record: 21-29

2016-17 record: 26-24

2017-18 record: 29-21

2018-19 record: 28-22 (Central Division champs)

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