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Ben_Slingerland

The Business of Sports

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NBA Draft

The Draft Came and Went … and the C’s are Still Confused

Rewind the clock 365 days … the Celtics were a team that was one game away from the NBA Finals (despite playing without their best player and another All-Star). With the loan pick of their 2018 draft used to secure big man depth with Robert Williams, the Celtics (on paper) were poised to runaway with the East. My my, do things change quickly.

An All-NBA Point Guard in Kyrie Irving, two proven NBA All-Stars in Al Horford and Gordon Hayward, two of the biggest emerging young talents with Jayson Tatum and Jaelyn Brown, a deep bench, a Head Coach/GM combo that many would say is the best in the league, and future draft picks that would even make a trust fund baby excited … a birth in the finals or bust was the expectation of Titletown USA for the 2018-19 Celtics season. Spoiler alert: it was a bust.

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Head Coach Brad Stevens (left) had pressed all the right buttons up until this last year for the Boston Celtics. Danny Ainge (center) has been heralded as the best GM in the NBA today. Yet with star PG Kyrie Irving (right) seemingly out the door, Ainge and Stevens are focused on re-tooling for the 19-20 campaign in a more challenging fashion then originally anticipated. 

Finishing 4th in the East, and a near sweep in round 2, the Celtics vastly underachieved. That much is not up for debate. With the World Series and Super Bowl trophies in hand, and one game shy of the Stanley Cup … the spoiled Boston fandom, while disappointed in the C’s season, still seemed to have an unwavering trust in the Ainge & Stevens team. Names like Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler, Kristis Porzingis had danced in Celtics fans’ heads as the future draft picks accumulated. Danny Ainge had the keys to the Ferrari … while Celtics Nation feverishly awaited the master plan.

But as visions of cherry-plums transformed into these nightmare headlines, the tune in Titletown took a shift:

“The Celtics belief they can re-sign their All-Star point guard [Kyrie Irving] has “eroded” amid increasing speculation he wants to join the Brooklyn Nets” (Bleacher Report).

“Contract talks have now apparently shifted toward Horford exiting Boston as news of Horford’s imminent departure from the Celtics was also reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski as well.” (ESPN)

“I put up with a lot this year. I said what I said after the season, and I think we all know that I’m not trying to step into that again” (Terry Rozier).

With what originally looked like a potential dynasty to run the East for many years to come, the Celtics all of a sudden headed into draft night like a lost puppy … as an organization looking for an identity. 3 first round picks, a 2nd rounder, a 2020 Memphis 1st rounder, and a roster riddled with talent … it seemed like a blockbuster deal was inevitable … but it never came. And so this is how the anticlimactic draft night unfolded for the Celtics:

#14: Romeo Langford (SG, Indiana) – An oversized 2 that has drawn comparisons to Evan Turner … likely a role player in year 1, that has a high ceiling.

Lanford
The Celtics selected SG Romeo Langford from Indiana University with their first selection at #14. 

*Two-for-One: Celtics trade pick #20 to the 76ers for picks #24 and #33

#22: Grant Williams (PF, Tennessee) – The two-time SEC Player of the Year, Williams is an undersized PF, yet freakishly strong. Highly intelligent, Williams has been compared to P.J. Tucker and seemingly would fit well as a role player within the Celtics current roster.

*Bye Baynes: Celtics deal Baynes to the Suns in exchange for the Bucks 2020 1st Round Pick (1-7 protected)

#33: Carsen Edwards (PG, Purdue) – Undersized at 6 feet, Edwards still was one of the nation’s top scorers with 24 ppg. Despite being limited defensively, Edwards does provide depth at what could be a very empty point guard position come free agency.

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#51: Tremont Waters (PG, LSU) – See Edwards’ description above. Battle with Edwards to see who gets a roster spot.

In a draft that is drawing immediate comparisons to the underwhelming Fab Mello (RIP), Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk, and James Young draft … this draft was largely disappointing for the Celtics, especially given the plethora of picks and the lack of addressing immediate needs. Having said that, you now have a Boston team that has the potential of 25-26 mil in cap space heading into free agency. The most rumored target at the moment is the first time All-Star, Orlando Center Nikola Vucevic.

Best Guess 2019-20 C’s Depth Chart:

PG: Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, Carsen Edwards

SG: Jaylen Brown, Romeo Langford

SF: Gordon Hayward, Grant Williams

PF: Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris, Daniel Theis

C: Nikola Vucevic, Robert Williams

 

If you’ve read my writing before or you know my general outlook, I’m relentlessly optimistic … and that optimism holds true with this roster. Listen, on paper, this is a team that is less talented than the 2018-19 roster, there is no question about that. However maybe not as much as people think. You replace Al Horford with another All-Star Center who is younger if we can pull off the Vucevic signing.

Vucevic
All-Star Center Nikola Vucevic of the Orlando Magic seems to be the new prized target for the Celtics Free Agency. 

You have a “changing of the guards” at point with Irving being replaced by Rozier. The C’s played better with Rozier running point, as many believe he deserves an opportunity to show the league he is an elite starting PG (the insurance policy was drafted tonight with Edwards and Waters). Most importantly, you maintain your best youth talent in Tatum and Brown.

Looking at Brad Stevens, he has always over-achieved with less talent … between bringing mid-major Butler to two National Championships and transitioning that ability to the NBA in bringing a Irving/Hayward-less C’s team to game 7 of the Eastern Finals in 2018.

Is this best case scenario, probably … is it unlikely though, I’m not sure it is. If this team gels like they did two years ago in the front half of next year (and with appealable trading assets in hand), this team could be one deal away from being a title contender again as soon as the trade deadline of next season.

In Danny, We Trust

Three months after meeting in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Cavs and Celtics completed an unprecedented swap of All-Star Guards, sending Kyrie Irving to Boston and Isaiah Thomas to Cleveland. And while the Boston faithful had been asking General Manager Danny Ainge to pull the trigger on a deal for quite some time with the accumulated assets the franchise had, the blockbuster trade received some mix reviews. But in looking at Ainge’s track record and fully dissecting the deal itself, I firmly believe Danny and the C’s franchise have just struck gold … once again.

Let’s look at Danny Ainge. In a ranking of the NBA’s top General Managers and Presidents, ESPN gave Ainge a score of 8.54 out of 10 – third best only behind the Spurs’ President and GM combo of Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford and Golden State Warriors GM Bob Myers. Ainge is best known for landing Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in the summer of 2007, essentially building a championship team overnight and paving the way for their 17th NBA Championship. Most recently, he assembled a treasure cove of draft picks in the Brooklyn Nets 2013 trade, sending Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and D.J. White to the Nets in exchange for Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, Keith Bogans and their unprotected first-round draft picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018. Ainge proceeded to slowly rebuild the Celtics into a contender through a series of shrewd deals, most notably adding Jae Crowder in December 2014 and Isaiah Thomas in February 2015. Fast forward to the 2016-2017 season, and the Celtics finished first in the regular season Eastern Conference and held the first overall pick entering the 2017 NBA Draft.

Ainge-Stevens
Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens are rated by ESPN as the 3rd best GM and Head Coach in the NBA respectfully. While Ainge has been a mastermind in maneuvering the Celtics’ roster, Stevens has proven that he can take whatever personnel in front of him and deliver results. 

Danny has held the keys to the Ferrari for a little while now. He had built a top 5 team in the NBA on the floor while behind the scenes maneuvering his roster to build enough cap room to sign 1-2 big free agents and masterfully stockpiling enough draft picks to single handedly draft an NBA All-Rookie team. Now the 2017-2018 Celtics team features 10 new faces and only 4 returners, with many projecting a starting line-up of Irving, Hayward, Brown, Morris and Horford.

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With a top 10 (arguably top 5) NBA player in Kyrie Irving, another versatile All-Star in Hayward, 2 above-average bigs in Horford and Morris who both averaged above 14 ppg last year, two of the best youth talents in the game with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, and a deep backcourt with Rozier and Smart backing up Brown and Irving, this team in most people’s opinion is an improvement from last year’s group.

While the odds didn’t change who the favorite is to win the East in 2018 (Cavs 4/1 and Celtics 10/1), the trade made sense for the Celtics on almost every level.

First, the Celtics needed a super-star … and they got one in Kyrie Irving. While Kyrie’s and Isaiah’s number were very similar last year (Kyrie – 25.2 ppg, 5.3 apg, 2.8 rpg / Isaiah – 28.9 ppg, 5.9 apg, 2.3 rpg), Kyrie was doing that with the NBA’s best player beside him taking the majority of shots. In the NBA Finals and much of the playoffs, many felt Kyrie Irving outperformed Lebron James.  3 years younger than Thomas, Irving has already been named the Rookie of the Year, an All-Star 4 separate times (including winning an All-Star Game MVP) and winning the most important accolade of them all, an NBA Championship.

Second, Isaiah has plateaued. While Isaiah surprised a lot of people averaging 29 ppg, he was more of a source of entertainment than a legitimate centerpiece to help a team win a NBA championship. Don’t get me wrong Isaiah will be forever remembered in Boston for his contagious smile and courageous swagger. He went from being the last pick in the NBA draft to a name that was uttered in MVP conversations. Having said all that, Isaiah was a huge liability on the defensive side of the ball, and is considered one of the weakest defensive point guards in the NBA. Moreover, we have likely seen the best of Isaiah Thomas due to his season ending torn labrum injury that has been the source of a lot of discussion. In fact Isaiah’s injury almost killed the deal as it has been rumored that he is suffering from arthritis and loss of cartilage that it will impact the rest of his career.

Isaiahkyrie
IT captured Celtics fans’ hearts and earned the nickname “King of the Fourth.” Injured and having come off his best season ever, Isaiah found the fortune of his own fate as Danny Ainge capitalized at the perfect time to replace him with the league’s best one-on-one scorer and the C’s long awaited superstar in Kyrie Irving.

And lastly, what about the rest of the deal? The Celtics had to give up Jae Crowder, Ante Zizic, their 2018 Nets Pick and their 2020 Miami Heat 2nd round pick. Jae Crowder’s value immediately went down when the Celtics traded for Marcus Morris from the Detroit Pistons in exchange for Avery Bradley. Morris’ numbers were actually better than Crowder’s in 2017, and possesses a very similar type of physical game that compliments Horford’s finesse game well down low. Zizic is an unproven 7 footer commodity, who is at least 2 years away from making any sort of potential impact. And lastly, the draft picks. While the 2018 Nets pick is nice, the Celtics also have the Lakers’ 2018 pick, Memphis’ 2019 pick and the Clippers’ 2020 pick tucked away.

Most would argue that Danny is not done. This team currently assembled cannot beat the Warriors in the NBA Championship and may struggle with the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals. However, given the future picks and the available potential cap room, many believe bringing in a Kristas Porzingis from the New York Knicks or an Anthony Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans would be the final piece of the puzzle to make the 18th banner a legitimate possibility.

Porzingis, at over 7 feet tall and only 22 years of age, may fit the best. He is a phenomenal interior defender, efficient rebounder and can shoot the ball from beyond the arch.

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Kristaps Porzingis is a 22 year old Latvian forward who can shoot, defend and rebound. 

Meanwhile, Davis can do everything that Porzingis can do, but better. The 24 year old former Kentucky star averaged 28.0 PPG, 11.8 RPG, 2.1 APG, while shooting 50.5% from the field last year. This deal, if it were to happen, would likely come after the All Star break after the Cousins – Davis combo is given a little more time to develop and prove itself (although this experiment has not gone exactly as planned). Moreover, the Celtics would likely have to give up Horford, either Tatum or Brown and their 2018 Lakers pick which is certainly quite a bit. The last potential option that has made it’s run through the trade-mill is Marc Gasol of the Memphis Grizzlies.

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Anthony Davis is a human highlight reel, averaging a double-double last year with 28 ppg and 12 rbg. 

While Gasol is an aging 32 year old Center, and is owed an average of $22.6 million through 2020, the proven veteran (3x All-Star, 2x All-NBA selection, 2012-13 Defensive Player of the Year) is coming off career highs of 19.5 ppg and 4.6 assists. The Gasol deal would also make the 2019 Memphis pick more valuable and add a much needed veteran presence to what is otherwise a very young basketball team.

 

Ainge and the Celtics have started to move their chess pieces with the blockbuster Irving / Thomas deal. And while the consensus is they are one final move away from molding a team that could resemble the Celtics of the 80’s and 90’s, the Celtics’ faithful have every reason to be as excited as ever for the immediate future.

Needless to say, in Danny – we trust.

 

 

 

 

The Power of the Pre-Draft Pick

One “arena” of the sports business world that is often overlooked is the athletic training facility for professional athletes, specifically for the sports of football and basketball. Many of the high profile collegiate or amateur athletes who declare themselves eligible for the NFL or NBA drafts chose to do their training at a world-class sports training facility. With the NFL draft less than 2 months past, and the NBA draft only 5 days away, this seems to be a highly relevant topic.

I think it might be important to understand the dynamics of this business before diving into the details of it. While these training facilities exist for athletes across all sports, the training facilities that focus on athletes preparing for the NFL and NBA drafts are easily the biggest. That is because those two drafts are the biggest in magnitude. The MLB draft has 40 rounds and thus loses its luster. Moreover, many of those prospects spend several seasons in the minors or play college ball before seeing a major league roster. Similarly, the NHL draft does not give fans the immediate satisfaction of seeing players that are “NHL ready.” It takes most top picks in the NHL draft 3-4 years before they are actually playing in an NHL game. Conversely, the NFL and NBA drafts generate lots of buzz, interest, and excitement from fans because nearly all first round picks are just about guaranteed to make their teams the following year giving fans a reason to watch the event on TV.

The NHL Draft attracts very low attendance figures compared to the NFL and NBA Drafts.
The NHL Draft attracts very low attendance figures compared to the NFL and NBA Drafts.

Many of the top agencies will sign athletes right when they declare themselves eligible for the NFL and NBA drafts. Both the NFL and NBA have formal pre-draft combines that are essentially showcases for NFL and NBA management to examine players. They both happen 1-2 months before the draft and allow NFL and NBA GM’s, coaches, and scouts to see all of the athletes’ performance measurements (bench press, vertical jump, etc). Because so much weight is put into these athletic measurements, agents will pay top-dollar for their signed athletes to do their pre-draft training at the very best facilities in the world. With GM’s making million dollar-drafting decisions sometimes based upon a tenth of a second in a wide receiver’s 40-yard sprint, the return on investment for agents on sending their clients to the very best facilities is ever important.

This opens up a market space for facilities that specialize in training professional athletes. To begin with, it’s a very saturated marketplace with hundreds and hundreds of trainers and facilities doing various versions of the same thing. One of the biggest training facilities is EXOS, formerly known as Athletes Performance. EXOS was founded in 1999 by Mark Verstegen and has exponentially grown to where now they have facilities in Tempe (AZ), Phoenix (AZ), Carson (CA), San Diego (CA), Gulf Breeze (FL), Raleigh (NC), and Frisco (TX). They boast 523 players drafted, seven #1 overall picks and 105 first-rounders. Jadeveon Clowney, Greg Robinson and Blake Bortles all attended EXOS and obviously their hard work at these facilities paid off with big pay-days as the #1 overall pick in the NFL drafts.

Another top facility for NFL pre-draft combine training is IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL. The Academy started as a tennis academy with the one of the best tennis coaches of all time, Nick Bollettieri, who was responsible for training about half of the draw in the 1986 US Open. From there, the deep pockets of IMG (International Management Group) were able to take it from purely a tennis academy to a world class training facility for many more sports, football and basketball being two of them. Within the last 10 years or so, IMG has landed 86 first round picks, five #1 overall picks, including names like Cam Newton, LaDainian Tomlinson, Luke Joeckel, Luke Kuechly, Ryan Tannehill as well as Super Bowl MVP’s like Drew Brees and Eli Manning.

The #1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Jadeveon Clowney, trained at EXOS with Mark Verstegen.
The #1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Jadeveon Clowney, trained at EXOS with Mark Verstegen.

On the basketball side, there are a few workout facilities that stand out: Impact Basketball (Las Vegas, NV), Project Basketball (Oakland, CA), and Evolution Athletics (Chicago, IL). Impact Basketball began in 1997 when former Division 1 coach, Joe Abunassar, applied his unique approach to basketball development to guide the careers of several of the best NBA players. Today, Impact Basketball has three locations as well as programs running in over a dozen countries … they have laid claim to over 100 NBA draft picks in the last 7 years. Joe’s early group of clients was Kevin Garnett, Chauncey Billups, Tyronn Lue, Al Harrington, Tayshaun Prince and Dahntay Jones. From there, Joe was able to start the IMG Basketball Academy in Bradenton, Florida. He then added facilities in Las Vegas and Los Angeles that train over 200 professionals, men’s and women’s national teams, McDonalds and NCAA All-Americans, foreign professionals and young talented amateurs who train at his summer camps and his Impact Academy.

Joe Abunassar has done an incredible job growing his Impact Basketball Academy.
Joe Abunassar has done an incredible job growing his Impact Basketball Academy.

Jeff Pagliocca, with Evolution Athletics in Illinois, is a little newer to the game of combine training, although is quickly building an impressive list of alumni. Everyone from Luol Deng, to Will Bynum to most recently Frank Kaminsky as well as Aaron and Andrew Harrison have used Pagliocca and his staff to prepare for the NBA draft combine.

Virtually all of these training facilities feature cross-training components including mental conditioning, speed training, nutrition, and other components of how to be the consummate professional. In virtually all of these examples of world-class training facilities, the business model has started from a well-known coach or trainer being able to attract a few big name athletes. From there it becomes a snow-ball effect in large sense, where other young up-and-coming athletes want to train where the other best athletes are training. It is here where managing the relationships with the large agencies becomes crucial, as they are ultimately the ones spending the dollars. At this point it becomes a marketing exercise, where the coaches rely on a marketing and business development staff to generate the buzz of who is coming to train at their facility and to permeate that news to the youth athletes, the high school athletes, the college athletes and even the professional athletes.

IMG Academy does a tremendous job in leveraging their NFL Draft combine athletes to market some of their other training products.
IMG Academy does a tremendous job in leveraging their NFL Draft combine athletes to market some of their other training products.

The business is now off and running and new revenue streams open up for these facilities. With the ability to market these big names, the facilities generally then create youth summer camps, individualized private training sessions, team training, events, consulting and sometimes will even look to get into player representation and player endorsements. If executed properly, the pre-draft combine training niche marketplace can have a rippling effect over a potential very large business.

It is a very saturated market with lots of facilities trying to do similar things … and like anything else; the cream generally rises to the top.

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