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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.

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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.

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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.

Even Stevens

When Larry Bird won his 1st NBA championship with the Boston Celtics in 1981 at the beginning of the “Bird Era,” there was a young 5 year old boy in Zionsville, IN who was watching taped Indiana Hosiers basketball games before he would go to Kindergarten. That boy’s name was Brad Stevens.

Fast forward the clock 20 years, Stevens had just finished a college career at Division 3 school, DePauw University; a 4-year varsity letter-winner, 3-time Academic All-American, Team Captain, and recipient of the Coaches Award given to the most selfless, team-oriented player.

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Stevens was the 6th man at Division 3 Depauw University, where he was given the Coaches’ Award his Senior Season, given to the team’s most team-oriented player. 

Stevens graduated with Honors from DePauw with a degree in Economics and an excellent job at the prestigious global health care company Eli Lilly.

Only a year into his first job out of college, the Indiana native realized something was missing … and that something was basketball. He quit his job and became a volunteer assistant in the Butler University basketball office. Butler quickly gave Stevens a low paying administrative basketball operations coordinator position. One year later, Stevens was promoted into a full time assistant role, where they would go 131-61 over the course of the next 5 years, before Stevens took over the Head Coaching job and became the second youngest Head Coach in Division 1 college basketball.

In his first season as a head coach, Stevens set a Butler school and Horizon League record, rattling off 30 wins, as Stevens was a finalist for the Jim Phelan National Coach of the Year award. His next year, despite losing 4 starters and projected to finish 5th in the Horizon League, the mid-major school went to the Big Dance once again, with Stevens being named Horizon League Coach of the Year and once again earning several finalist votes for National Coach of the Year.

In his third season as the Head Coach (2009-10 season), Stevens became the second youngest head coach to lead his team to a National Championship where they narrowly lost to Duke 61-59 on a narrowly missed half court heave from current Celtic Gordon Hayward.

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Stevens and the Butler Bulldogs went to two back to back National Championship games, being the only ever mid-major team to make back to back title game appearances. 

The very next year, Stevens somehow managed to bring the mid-major team all the way back to the National Championship, this time losing to UConn. Back to back national championships are unheard of in today’s college basketball world, let alone from a mid-major school.

Fast forward the clock to July 3, 2013 when Brad Stevens was signed on as Head Coach of the Boston Celtics. In his second season as Head Coach, Stevens led a rebuilding Celtics team to the Eastern Conference Playoffs as the 7th seed. One year later, the Celtics returned to the playoffs, this time finishing 5th in the Eastern Conference. And in 2016-17, Stevens brought the Celtics all the way to the top of the Eastern Conference, finishing 1st in the Eastern Conference.

This brings us to now … the 2017-18 season. With a team that had been steadily building to contend to bring Boston it’s 18th banner. 6 minutes into the season, the team lost their 2nd best player in Gordon Hayward; followed only a few months later losing their best player in Kyrie Irving. The team has been inundated with extended injuries to key players like Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris.  And yet it appears Stevens has pressed every right button through the course of what was an extremely challenging season in regards to injuries.

This Celtics team won eight games in which they trailed by 15 points, the third-highest single-season total since 1996. This team has seen the emergence of former role players like Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown along with the emergence of Jayson Tatum to produce the Eastern Conference’s 2nd best regular season record.

Terry Rozier, Jaylen Brown
Stevens has pulled all the right strings on an unlikely group led by the emergence of players like “Scary Terry” Rozier (12) and Jaylen Brown. 

How? Stevens’ believes all his players on his roster can fit into their sets and run the offense. His belief in Rozier and even Larkin to run the point has been well documented. When Hayward went down, Tatum became the starter in his “Next Man Up” philosophy.

Stevens actions on the sidelines are cool and collected, earning him the nickname “Even Stevens.” He analyzes the game and watches intently from the sideline. Make no mistake about it, Stevens gets animated about bad calls occasionally, but picks those spots wisely. His composure has seemingly carried over to his teams’ resiliency in coming back this year.

Nurturing such a strong culture while returning only 4 players from last year’s team is an enormous challenge. It starts with Danny Ainge drafting tough players (Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier, Jayson Tatum). Ainge picks the players but Brad Stevens is the arbiter of playing time. His stoic demeanor and play-calling genius is what he is known for, but make no mistake about it, Stevens is an all school hard-ass … if you don’t play hard, you come out.

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Danny Ainge (middle), deserves equal praise to Stevens as he has become one of the League’s most respected GM’s. This year he traded out of the #1 spot to take Duke’s Jayson Tatum at the #3 spot while picking up a 2019 1st round draft pick. Tatum has vastly outperformed both Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball, who were taken before him in this year’s draft. 

The players still feel Stevens is with them, even as he holds them and himself to almost impossible standards, which is an almost impossible balance to strike. Stevens, Ainge and the veteran players have created a culture of serious, consistent tough work. Toughness and mental strength without talent don’t get you very far in the world’s best league, but when you combine all of them you get a team that punches above their weight. Boston just makes fewer mistakes than any rival. It starts on the defensive end, they are ultra switchable on defense, always moving on a string. Their greatness on defense lies in the absence of spatial mistakes. A team this big and this attuned can close windows faster than anyone else. They show a similar composure in tense moments; game 7 against the Bucks, 3 close games against the 76ers, culminating in an almost perfect final 90 seconds to close out Game 5.

Brad Stevens didn’t receive a single vote for this year National Basketball Coaches Association trophy, which was awarded to Toronto’s Dwane Casey (who has since been fired after getting swept by the Cavaliers last round). When the Red Auerbach Trophy as the NBA’s Coach of the Year award is announced next month, expect Stevens to be at the top of the list.

Stevens’ ability behind the helm has started to draw comparisons to that other coach in Boston, Bill Belichick. And while the red-hot Lebron and the Cavs seem to pose a formidable challenge in the upcoming Eastern Conference Finals, don’t bet against Stevens and the C’s.

It’s not always the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of fight in the dog.

The Stars Are Aligning in Boston

6 minutes into the 2017-18 season, it seemed like all was lost. Danny Ainge’s master plan of stock piling assets since the departure of Pierce, KG and Allen, to assemble Boston’s next big three was gone, or at least temporarily put on hold until next season.

Hayward Injury
Just like that, 6 minutes into the 2017-18 season, the Big Three became the Big Two in Boston when Gordon Hayward gruesomely fractured his ankle. 

The C’s $127 million dollar man, Gordon Hayward, was done for the season after his lower left leg gruesomely snapped on national television in one of the league’s more anticipated season openers in recent history. And with the injury, it seemed like the Celtics would likely have to wait another year to seriously contend for an NBA Championship.

Not so fast.

Fast forward to today, and the Celtics have the best record in the NBA at 7-2. They’re the first team in NBA history who have started out a season 0-2 and then have gone on to win their next seven games. After being down 18 points on the road last night against what many believe to be the best “big three” in basketball in Oklahoma City’s Westbrook, George and Anthony, the C’s came back to win by 7 … and in many ways, legitimized their current 7-game winning streak. They are the first Boston Celtics team, since 1950 to keep opponents under 95 points for 7 consecutive games.

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(Left to Right) Gordon Hayward, Al Horford, and Kyrie Irving were supposed to be Boston’s first Big 3 since KG, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.

Kyrie Irving and Al Horford look like they’ve been playing together for years. Jayson Tatum is the early season favorite to win the Rookie of the Year. Jaylen Brown is playing like the break-out all-star all in Boston had hoped, averaging 16 ppg and 7 rpg. Aron Baynes and Daniel Theis have emerged from nowhere, to be significant contributors. Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier are playing better basketball than they ever have and are providing depth in the backcourt. They just got back Marcus Morris back for the first time this season last night. And the man behind the curtain, Brad Stevens, seems to be pulling all the right strings at the right time.

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Jayson Tatum (left) has been playing like the front-runner to win Rookie of the Year in Hayward’s absence, and Jaylen Brown (right) has been playing like an All-Star through the first 9 games. 

Sport, in general, has a funny way of providing unscripted entertainment. Needless to say, no one in Boston could’ve predicted Gordon Hayward’s season ending injury 6 minutes into the season. Nor, could anyone have predicted the Celtics having the best record in the NBA 9 games following that injury. Despite only having 4 members of last year’s Celtics team return this year and a lot of new faces, there is an undeniable chemistry thus far with this group. In many ways, it seems as though the Hayward injury has brought the group closer.

 

Kyrie wanted to be the man … and he has been exactly that through this 7 game winning streak. His play combined with the fact that Isaiah hasn’t played a minute with the sub 500 Cavs, makes Ainge and the Celtics look like the clear early winners of the Kyrie/Isaiah trade. And also, a realistic shot of winning the Eastern Conference.

In trading down from the #1 overall pick to #3, Ainge made a very ballsy decision, betting what might eventually be his legacy as the Celtics President of Basketball Operations. Ainge felt like Duke’s Jayson Tatum, who they picked at #3, was the best player in the draft and realized they could still get him at #3. In sliding down two spots, Boston also received an additional future draft pick; either the Lakers 2018 draft pick (if it falls between 2-5) or Phialadelphia’s or Sacramento’s 2019 first round pick, whichever is higher.

 

And so far, Ainge has been right.

The #1 pick, Markelle Fultz went to the Philadelphia, and has injured his shoulder almost immediately into the season and is out indefinitely, joining Ben Simmons and Joel Embid as heralded Sixers draft picks who have missed significant time during their rookie seasons due to injury. Lonzo Ball, taken at #2 by the LA Lakers, has received lots of early season criticism and is averaging only 8.8 ppg. Meanwhile, Jayson Tatum has found himself in Boston’s starting 5 earlier than expected with Hayward’s absence and is averaging 13.7 ppg and 6.6 rpg, and is the early season favorite to win Rookie of the Year.

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There was disagreement amongst Boston, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles’ front offices as to the order of these three players (left to right: Jayson Tatum, Markelle Fultz, and Lonzo Ball) in the 2017 draft class. 

With the 6th youngest roster in the NBA with an average age of 24.5, the Celtics are widely believed to have one of brighter, if not the brightest, future amongst NBA franchises. And while Hayward’s injury caused initial doubts about this season, it seems to have brought this team closer and provided opportunities for others, namely Jayson Tatum, to shine.

It might be early, but it seems as though the stars are aligning in Boston.

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.

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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.

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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 Greatest Dynasty of All Time

sports dynasty is defined very concisely as a “team or individual that dominates their sport or league for an extended length of time.” Or more broadly defined by Merriam’s Webster Dictionary “a powerful group that maintains its position for a considerable time.”

The very nature of a dynasty evokes a physiological sense of envy. If you’re looking up from the bottom, “they’re cheaters!” … and if you’re at the top looking down, “they hate us cuz they ain’t us.” This lofty term could not ring any more true than it does with what now can be considered as one of the greatest professional sports dynasties in the modern  sports era … the New England Patriots.

Their story is one from a fairy tale … their star QB Drew Bledsoe going down against their hated rival (the New York Jets) in 2001, only for their 2nd year, 6th round draft pick QB Tom Brady to survive a snowstorm and invent the “Tuck Rule” against Oakland and go on to lead his team to their first ever Super Bowl win in 2001 as a -14 point underdog to the St Louis Rams. Since then, they have not had one losing season, they’ve won 15 divisional titles and played in 12 AFC Championship games, been to 7 Super Bowls, and are attempting to win their 5th Super Bowl title next Sunday. They’ve won 196 times (average of 13.75 wins per season) in the regular season since 2001 (next closest is the Colts with 166). In the playoffs, they have 24 victories (9 more than the next closest in the Steelers).

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Brady celebrates after defeating Oakland. The birth of the “Tuck Rule” allowed the Pats to maintain the football on a critical drive, setting the stage for Adam Vinatieri and the Patriots to win their first ever Super Bowl Title.

Undoubtedly, there has been controversy … whether it was “Spygate” in 2007 where Head Coach Bill Belichick was disciplined by the league for videotaping the Jets’ defensive coaches’ signals from an unauthorized location, or it was “Deflategate” in 2015 where Tom Brady was accused of tampering with footballs in the AFC Title game against the Colts. $1 million dollar fines, loss of draft picks, and the suspension of their superstar players.  Most recently, there was a rule change surrounding Belichick’s deceptive offensive substitution methods which “unfairly” confused defenses. Oh and mixed in there, one of their star players was charged with murder and sentenced to life.

Before we digress any further, what this conversation should naturally lend itself to is the discussion of whether this Patriots franchise is truly the greatest dynasty in the history of sports or, perhaps more specifically, of the modern sports era?

Comparing dynasties is hard because you’re not comparing apples to apples … and thus there is some wiggle room based on how you evaluate league structure, salary cap constraints, league competitiveness and a number of other variables relative to the number of titles won over a period of time.

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Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs are probably the most comparable modern sports dynasty (5  Titles in 17 years from 1999-2014) to the New England Patriots.

Let’s start with the NBA. You have the Boston Celtics who won 11 NBA Championships in the span of 13 years from 1957-69 led by Red Auerbach and Bill Russell. You have MJ’s Chicago Bulls who won 6 titles in 8 years (1991 – 98). And most recently the San Antonio Spurs, who have taken 5 NBA Championships in the last 17 years (’99, ’03, ’05, ’07 and ’14) under Tim Duncan. The difference between basketball and football is there are 5 players playing at one time for a team versus 11 in football. Historically it has been a sport that has catered to superstars being able to carry their team and thus much easier to dominate, just ask Lebron, MJ, Russell or Magic.

 

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Red Auerbach, Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics won 11 NBA Championships in 13 years from 1957-1969.

The MLB of course belongs to the Bronx Bombers, where the New York Yankees rattled off 16 World Series from 1936-64 in what started with the rise of Joe DiMaggio and ended with the twilight of Mickey Mantle. The caveat here was there weren’t any playoffs back then; rather, it was simply the team with the best record who went right to the World Series.

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Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle and the New York Yankees won 16 World Series titles from 1936-64.

The NHL’s best dynasty was the Montreal Canadians who won 16 Stanley Cup Finals from 1951-1979 … although at the time there were only 6 teams in the league and thus simply not comparable.

Two of the greatest dynasties in sports came from college basketball. John Wooden led the UCLA Bruins to 13 Final Four appearances and won 10 national titles from 1962-76,  and on the women’s side, Geno Aueriemma has led the UConn Lady Huskies to win 11 of the last 21 national championships. The Lady Huskies have been to nine straight Final Fours and have two separate win streaks of 90 or more games. While these are respectable in their own right, college athletics is simply not comparable to professional sports. The NCAA actually lends itself to “dynasties” by its very structure. There is no draft or salary cap, and so when a team wins a championship, they’re able to attract the best recruits in the country and consequently you see “rich get richer” phenomena … look at John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats and Nick Saban’s Alabama Tide.

 

The salary cap, the draft, numerous penalties (loss of draft picks, fines, suspensions), countless personnel changes … and through it all Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have built, what should be considered the greatest sports dynasty of the modern era.

If you live outside New England you hate them – the star QB is a little too perfectly polished, he’s a little too pretty, he has the supermodel wife, and has been accused of facilitating the deflation of footballs in one game; while the mastermind coach wears ragged hoodies, says absolutely nothing to the media, and has been accused of filming opposing coaches to gain a strategic advantage.

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, one cannot ignore the magnitude of what this New England Patriots team has accomplished over the last 16 years. An empire, a dictatorship, a dynasty …  you can call them whatever you want. They win.

And while their diehard fan-base loves coining commandments like “Do your job”, “In Belichick, We Trust” and “The GOAT” … if in fact this Patriots team does beat the Atlanta Falcons and Roger Goodell has to hand them their 5th Super Bowl trophy in 16 years next Sunday, there will be little doubt that this dynasty is the “Greatest of All Time.”

Historic Month of April Basketball

On Wednesday, the nation witnessed the most historic last day of the NBA regular season in its 70th year of existence. Not only did Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors break an NBA best regular season record with its 73rd win to top the 95-96 Chicago Bulls 72 win season, but Kobe Bryant dropped 60 points in his last ever basketball game. Oh and if that wasn’t enough action, the Boston Celtics overcame a 26-point deficit in a playoff-impacting game against the Miami Heat.

 

Not many people believed that the Golden State Warriors were going to top the season they had last year … well that’s exactly what they did. They added the exclamation mark on Wednesday by surpassing Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls with the best ever regular season record of 73-9. Steph Curry hit yet another milestone, hitting 10 three-pointers to cross the 400 mark … the first player to ever do that. While Curry is the engine that makes the Warriors go, the other half of the “Splash Brothers” duo, Klay Thompson, finished the year with 276 of his own threes, giving them the best two shooters in the league.

 

There is a saying that goes “records are meant to be broken.” Well, many experts thought that 72-10 record held by the ’95-’96 Bulls was one of those records that never was going to be broken. The fact that the Warriors did it in their last game, at home, made it all that much more special. Any sport fan, basketball fan or not, should appreciate the level of which Steph Curry and the Warriors are performing … it has never been done before and may very well, never happen again.

 

On the very same night, Kobe Bryant, the Black Mamba, ended his career in historic fashion, dropping 60 points on the Utah Jazz. Easily considered one of the best ever to play the game, Kobe played 20 great seasons, all with the Los Angeles Lakers. Announcing his retirement prior to the season, every game was a farewell to Kobe when he travelled to opposing arenas. Wednesday was the epic finale to the season-long Kobe farewell in true LA / Hollywood fashion. Twitter blew up with Kobe appreciation tweets, SnapChat had a geo-filter announcing it Black Mamba day … StubHub was selling tickets at $27,500 (and $900 to just get into the stadium).

 

Kobe’s career was eventful to say the least. From being one of the first players to be drafted right out of high school, to being accused of sexual assault, to winning 3 consecutive NBA championships, to being named an 18-time NBA All-Star … Kobe Bryant made a name for himself. He certainly had his critics who spoke out against his sexual assault allegations, to the way he conducted his retirement announcement, and even saying his 22-50 shooting performance in his last game was average. No matter what your view of Kobe Bryant is, what cannot be disputed is his impact on this generation of basketball fans, as he will forever be remembered as one of the best to ever play the game.

Kobe Bryant said good bye to the Los Angeles faithful, after completing his 20th and final NBA season on Wednesday night. He went on to score 60 points on 22-50 shooting.
Kobe Bryant said good-bye to the Los Angeles faithful, after completing his 20th and final NBA season on Wednesday night. He went on to score 60 points on 22-50 shooting.

Needless to say it’s been a very exciting month for basketball fans everywhere, as the college basketball season ended in dramatic fashion on April 4th, when Villanova upset UNC on a buzzer beater 77-74 in what was considered one of the best NCAA Championship finals ever. And today, the highly anticipated NBA playoffs begin.

 

While it is hard to imagine the NFL being replaced as the most popular league in this country, the NBA is certainly on its heels.

Why America Loves Steph Curry

I remember it like it was yesterday. I was sitting in my college dorm room at Georgetown, watching this slender, baby-faced sophomore put a cinderella #10 seeded Davidson team on his back and upset my #2 seeded Georgetown Hoyas in the 2nd round of the NCAA tournament in 2008. Stephen Curry scored 25 of his 30 points in the second half and rallied little Davidson from 17 points behind, past the Hoyas. While this upset would start a trend of early NCAA tournament heartbreak exits for the Hoyas, never would it be done in single-handed fashion as Curry managed to do it against JT III’s group in 2008.

 

A star was born.

Davidson's Curry celebrates after a three-pointer against Wisconsin during their NCAA basketball game in Detroit
Overlooked by each ACC school, Curry was given a shot by Davidson and he went on to break virtually every single NCAA 3-point record while leading Davidson to the Elite 8 in 2008.

Stephen Curry was overlooked by just about every power conference school in the country. Many ACC schools would not even invite him to walk on to their rosters, and Virginia Tech (where both of Steph’s parents excelled as student-athletes) didn’t even take a look at him. The beanpole guard out of Charlotte Christian School (NC) went on to Davidson, who took a chance on him. He proceeded to become the all-time leading scorer in Davidson basketball history (in just 3 years), was the 2009 NCAA Division 1 scoring leader, and the year before, broke the NCAA record for most 3-point field goals in a single season with 162.

 

People finally knew who Stephen Curry was.

StephCurry1
Steph Curry ended a 40 year NBA championship drought for Golden State after having an MVP season for the Warriors in 2014-15. 

Taken 7th by the Golden State Warriors in the 2009 NBA Draft, Curry has electrified the NBA. Obviously his MVP and title-winning season last year followed up with unworldly 24-0 winning streak to begin this 2015-16 NBA season has highlighted his unprecedented NBA career. Yesterday, Steph Curry was named the 2015 Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year, beating double major winner Jordan Spieth and Triple Crown Winner American Pharoah.

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American Pharoah (top) and Jordan Spieth (bottom), were the runner-ups in the 2015 AP Male Athlete of the Year voting after their own respective record breaking years.

While his stats, records and awards document his greatness, his immense popularity is far less tangible. Unlike most NBA greats (Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Lebron James) who commonly rely on their height and athletic ability, Curry’s game relies on skills that he has developed: shooting, dribbling, and passing. His underdog story of not receiving any major scholarship offers coming out high school, being the third point guard taken in the 2009 draft, and a below-market contract extension three years ago, speaks to his perseverance and grit.

 

America likes rooting for the underdog.

 

His jersey is now the bestseller in the league. His team’s games get record television ratings at home and in opposing markets. He has built Under Armour into a $3 billion sportswear company. His 3-year-old daughter, Riley, has become a star in news conferences. As ESPN analyst Jalen Rose puts it, “Steph allows us into his living room. [America] is watching him on a national stage be a son, a dad, a husband, a father, a brother. And he does all of it while continuing to improve.”

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Steph Curry and his 3-year old daughter, Riley, at a playoff postgame press conference. 

Steph Curry is human and that is why America loves him.

Adidas Loves the Beard – Rockets’ Harden Inks $200 Million Endorsement Deal

Adidas has lured Houston Rockets guard James Harden away from the Swoosh with a 13-year, $200 million offer that was announced yesterday.

 

Right now, Harden will average $16.78 million on the final three years of his deal with the Rockets and $15.38 million annually. However, if Harden reaches certain benchmarks, it’s entirely possible that he will earn from Adidas than he will from the Rockets.

 

Adidas was in significant need of signing a marquee player. Under Armour has Stephen Curry, Nike has LeBron James and now Adidas has James Harden … all 2014-15 All-NBA first team selections. Nike claims approximately 95% of the U.S. basketball sneakers, while Under Armour is very quickly expanding its own line of products and passed Adidas last year as the second-largest seller behind Nike. In the first six months of this year, Adidas sold fewer shows in the U.S. than Skechers and New Balance. Part of Adidas’ underwhelming basketball brand performance can be attributed to big injuries to two of their main stars, John Wall and Derrick Rose.

Adidas' new superstar James Harden faces off against the face Under Armour's brand, Steph Curry.
Adidas’ new superstar James Harden faces off against the face Under Armour’s brand, Stephen Curry in last year’s NBA Playoffs.

Earlier this year, Adidas chose not to renew a deal with the NBA that had established it as the official outfitter of the league and in came Nike with an 8-year partnership that is worth roughly $1 billion. Moreover, Under Armour announced its own global marketing partnership with the NBA, which positions the brand as a title partner and outfitter of the NBA Draft Combine, presenting partner of the Junior NBA program in the U.S. and allows Under Armour to work with the league to launch an NBA FIT mobile app.

Nike and the NBA agreed on a league wide partnership worth about $1 billion last month that will make Nike the official jersey provider.
Nike and the NBA agreed on a league wide partnership worth about $1 billion last month that will make Nike the official jersey provider.

Adidas foresees Harden making a big splash in China, as the Rockets have remained a fan favorite in the Far East since the days of Yao Ming. The deal will feature a signature Harden shoe, his own apparel line, as well as Harden traveling on extensive brand tours in Europe and Asia. Additionally, Harden has started dating Khloe Khardashian who is a marketing machine herself and will undoubtedly raise his visibility into other demographics. Nonetheless, Harden’s jersey sales were only 14th in the league last year behind players like Damian Lillard, Dirk Nowitzski and Chris Paul. Adidas is expecting the deal to help move his merchandise sales upwards.

James Harden and TV personality, Khloe Kardashian, have started dating.
James Harden and TV personality, Khloe Kardashian, have started dating.

Harden’s endorsement deal with Adidas, which will officially begin on October 1st of this year, speaks to the increased value placed in brand marketing. Harden, who was not that long ago a sixth man for the Oklahoma City Thunder, will now be making more money from this deal than what seven-time NBA All Star Tracy McGrady and eleven-time NBA All Star Allen Iverson made throughout their respective careers from on-court earnings. In basketball and major U.S. sports in general, a highly marketable player and personality like a James Harden can earn more money by pushing a brand than his performance on the court. While on court performance and off-court marketability are highly correlative, Harden’s Adidas deal speaks to how marketability is valued more so now than ever.

James Harden will earn more money in his new deal with Adidas than either Tracy McGrady or Allen Iverson earned for their on-court performance in their entire careers.
Harden will earn more money in his new deal with Adidas than either Tracy McGrady or Allen Iverson earned for their on-court performance in their entire careers.

One thing remains the same, Nike is still firmly established as the dominant shoe and apparel company in basketball, as they hold long-running endorsement deals with the three most globally popular (active or former) players in the world in LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Michael Jordan. And so they have the luxury of being able to allow MVP runner-up and All-NBA mainstay James Harden bolt to their three-stripe rival without much fuss. Nike had the option to match Adidas’ offer but chose not to, perhaps because of their recent large investment in getting the NBA league wide deal.

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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