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NBA PM: The Life of an NBA Trainer

Dan Barto gives a behind-the-scenes look at life as an NBA trainer and what the job entails.

Alex Kennedy

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The Life of an NBA Trainer

On July 4, 2007, Dan Barto went on a life-changing trip. He was heading to Las Vegas for six days to train five of the top 11 picks in that year’s NBA draft. He would be working under Joe Abunassar of Impact Basketball and Barto would help work out Yi Jianlian, Corey Brewer, Joakim Noah, Acie Law and Spencer Hawes – preparing them for pre-draft workouts, tweaking aspects of their game and ensuring that they were in the best shape of their lives. He even got to spend two days working with Kevin Durant, although his time with the future superstar was limited.

Barto was thrilled about the opportunity. Few people can say they’ve trained a handful of lottery picks. Perhaps most impressive about Barto’s opportunity is that it came very early in his career. Two years earlier, Barto was working as a bartender and coaching a girls’ middle school basketball team in Pittsburgh.

He had come a long way; all of his hard work had paid off and he was finally living his dream. Even looking back on his career today, he says this was one of the best groups of prospects he’s ever trained. The week went extremely well and Barto returned home on cloud nine. He would continue working with Abunassar and Impact Basketball, and it seemed everything was finally going right for him. He couldn’t wait to tell his roommate everything that happened and further break down each player’s game.

However, the moment he walked up to his Florida condo, he knew something was wrong. A lockbox was on the door. His key didn’t work. His roommate’s phone was disconnected. The best week of his life quickly turned to one of the worst, as the condo had been foreclosed.

Chasing his dream had caught up with him. He struggled to pay his mortgage since he was constantly traveling to Las Vegas and Los Angeles to train players. When he rented a room in the condo, he put down three months of rent and now that was gone too. Desperate, strapped for cash and technically homeless, Barto made his way to a nearby Holiday Inn. Shortly after, he found an apartment on the border of Compton. But he was still almost entirely out of money, so he says he spent much of the next two years saving money by living off of EAS shakes and bars.

“By day, I was the man; I was training some of the best athletes in the world,” Barto told Basketball Insiders. “But by night, I was broken. I was depressed, out of money and praying for a solution. I was too proud to ask for help, and I was too obsessed with my work to slow down and balance my life.”

He worked with NBA players and big-time agents, all of whom had no idea what he was going through. They would invite him to swanky restaurants in Malibu and Laguna Beach, but he always turned them down. If they insisted, he prayed they’d pick up the check.

While Barto loved his time with Abunassar and Impact Basketball, he realized he was in over his head and took two years off from working with NBA players. He says that “giving my notice to Joe was one of the hardest things I ever had to do,” but he felt it was necessary.

*****

Today, Barto is no longer in a dark place and has come a long way in his career.

DanBArtoInside1He is now the Head Skills Trainer at the famed IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL. He started as the head coach of IMG’s Post-Graduate Team, but worked his way up and now is in charge of training IMG’s NBA players. Fortunately, he no longer struggles from paycheck to paycheck or dreads those dinner invites from players and agents.

He still coaches various high-school-level teams at IMG, but his offseasons are spent with pros. Throughout his career, he has worked with over 100 current or former NBA players, barking at them in his raspy voice.

At IMG, Barto has worked extensively with a wide range of players, from veterans like Jimmy Butler, Iman Shumpert, Moe Harkless, Michael Beasley, Larry Sanders and Glen Davis to recent first-round picks like Cameron Payne, Rodney Hood, Shane Larkin and Kendall Marshall. He has played a role in the comeback stories of Hassan Whiteside and Shawne Williams. He has also worked with a number of overseas stars, such as Aaron Jackson and Alex Tyus.

Most NBA fans don’t know much about trainers, but they play a crucial behind-the-scenes role in the basketball world. Barto and the IMG team can help a prospect skyrocket up draft boards by preparing him for team workouts and tweaking aspects of his game (just ask Shumpert, who was projected to go undrafted or late-second round entering the pre-draft process but climbed all the way to the 17th pick in 2011). Barto can also help a player resurrect their career by fixing parts of their game and getting them in excellent shape so they can impress executives at free agent workouts.

Whenever you step into IMG’s basketball facility (which includes multiple gyms, a 10,000-square foot weight room, the Gatorade Sports Science Institute and more), you’ll see a mix of recently drafted prospects looking to make their mark in the NBA and veterans hoping to stay in the league. Barto’s goal every summer is to get players drafted, signed and prepared for the upcoming season.

But getting into the gym and putting a player through a workout is tougher than it sounds. If a trainer isn’t doing the job correctly, not only will the player fail to improve, all of that hard work they’re doing can actually be counterproductive and hurt their career.

“Science, periodization and methodology are so important,” Barto said. “I have watched trainer after trainer not be able to balance training load and actually hurt players or peak them in the summer only to have them burn out once the season starts. Over the last five years, we have used our system of Hybrid Analysis and Mode-Move-Finish methodology to develop and kick start the careers of many players.”

Also, the life of an NBA trainer may not be what you expect. While working with some of the best athletes in the world is thrilling, there are a lot of side jobs that come with being a head trainer.

“It’s not all fun and games,” Barto said. “Very few NBA players pay to train, and the retention of paying players is not great. This means most trainers must coach kids as well, which is great but very demanding and involves a lot of creativity. This is why I work with IMG’s prep teams. We’ve had over 150 Division I players go to IMG, as well as the first Indian-born NBA player Satnam Singh.”

Trainers also have to deal with all of the people in each player’s life. Barto must appease agents, family members, friends and others, otherwise he could lose a player. Sometimes, dealing with those around the player can be the most difficult part of the job.

“I’ve had an agent threaten me because a fan secretly video-taped his player in a workout and put it up on a website in China, where the player was very famous,” Barto said. “Another agent once called me repeatedly and left me 52 voicemails because their players looked bad in an open workout. There have also been times where I’ve had to work out the family members of players to keep them happy. I spent 30 hours training one player’s girlfriend last year.”

Barto tries to keep players out of trouble, but at times has to clean up their messes (sometimes literally).

“Cleaning out the off-campus apartments where the players can stay while training is the worst,” Barto said. “One time, a player had 200 empty Natural Light bottles assembled into a beer bottle pyramid during pre-draft training (when a player is supposed to be on their best behavior). I’ve found a gas mask with a six-foot hose attached. I once found a pet iguana that a player forgot about and left behind.

“Then, there was the time I had to go help the police settle a dispute with a player and a Craigslist ‘massage specialist,’ who thought the agreed price was higher. These are some of the crazy things you get to deal with when you aren’t on the court working with the players.”

Hearing Barto tell stories about his job, it’s clear that a trainer must wear many hats when working out a player. You aren’t just working them out. You may get random calls asking for completely unrelated things.

“One time, I had to help a player try to retrieve his debit card because he shoved it into a parking pass key reader,” Barto said. “One time, I took a player to Walmart and watched him spend $800 [on items for training] and then leave the next day never to return.

“One time, I was training a player while our campers were watching and they start yelling, ‘You just got traded!’ That’s how the player found out. I’ve almost gotten injured trying to break up fights between enormous players during pick-up games. There are plenty of strange, but entertaining, stories that come with this job.”

While it may seem like Barto goes above and beyond for his players, that’s because he considers them close friends and will do whatever he can to help them succeed – in their career and in life. Also, there’s nothing more rewarding than helping a player accomplish his life-long dream.

“The relationships with players and things I do for guys are why, I believe, I have trained so many players and people genuinely say good things about me,” Barto said. “The cutthroat trainers usually do not last.”

Barto has managed to last, even though he struggled early in his career. Each year the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago, you’ll hear players crediting Barto for elevating their game and preparing them for the pre-draft process. He has helped IMG Academy become a destination for NBA players and overseas stars. And while he may have to put up with some unusual things that aren’t part of his job description, he absolutely loves his job.

“When you’re doing skills training with pros, it’s a drug,” Barto said. “Hearing the words, ‘I never did a workout like that before,’ or, ‘Man, I wouldn’t be where I am without you,’ is the greatest high one can feel in this line of work.”

You can follow Dan on Twitter (@DanBarto_IMG) and IMG Academy on Twitter (@IMGAcademy).

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: DPOY Watch — 2/25/20

Robert Covington’s off-ball disruption, the Philadelphia 76ers’ revamped rotation and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s unsurpassed individual dominance highlight this edition of Defensive Player of the Year watch. Jack Winter dives in.

Jack Winter

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The regular season is over two-thirds finished, and the playoffs start in 53 days.

Unsurprisingly, the front of the Defensive Player of the Year race has remained largely stagnant as 2019-20 enters its final stretch. But there’s ample time for movement among the obvious top-four candidates, with factors like injuries, lineup changes and even overall team performance poised to play a large part in the inevitable shuffle.

Here’s where Defensive Player of the Year watch stands as spring quickly dawns.

Notable Defenders

Robert Covington – Houston Rockets

The league’s stingiest small-ball lineups have never played all that small.

The bygone Golden State Warriors, at least before adding Kevin Durant, routinely doled out crunch-time lineups absent a defender taller than 6-foot-8. The length and physicality of Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson allowed the Warriors to switch across positions with near impunity.

But a quartet of like-sized defenders didn’t give the Death Lineup its name or defensive effectiveness. Golden State’s ability to compensate for limitations provided by the presence of Stephen Curry and a collective lack of height is what made the team’s closing five special, a reality best explained by the off-ball genius of all-time defenders like Green and Iguodala.

The Houston Rockets, embracing small-ball like no team ever before, don’t possess a single defender at that exalted level of historical greatness. Just two of Mike D’Antoni’s top-eight players, in fact, are considered an objective plus on that side of the ball irrespective of surrounding circumstances. But the Rockets’ downsized defense has held up well thus far regardless, and Robert Covington’s rare, all-court impact as a help defender is arguably the biggest reason why.

Covington, 11th in deflections per game this season, was credited with three blocks in his new team’s convincing road win over the Utah Jazz on Saturday. The film reveals just how large those blocks loomed to the game’s outcome — and how unlikely they would have been for most any other 6-foot-8 wing challenging Rudy Gobert at the rim.

Covington is often mislabeled as a traditional stopper. He’s certainly a better option checking superstar alpha dogs than an average wing and boasts the versatility to guard pretty much anyone without being consistently exploited.

The real scope of Covington’s influence extends to All-Defense levels, though, because of his imminent penchant for disrupting action away from the offense’s initial point of attack. That’s a trait especially valuable for a team like Houston, whose switch-heavy scheme inevitably lends itself to double-teams and a losing numbers game on the backside of the play.

Through six games, the Rockets’ defensive rating with Covington on the floor is a team-best 102.5, a hair worse than the Milwaukee Bucks’ league-leading mark. They’re allowing nearly 20 points per 100 possessions more when he sits, easily the highest discrepancy on the roster.

Those numbers portray Covington as a more valuable defender than is realistic. Not even basketball’s best rim-protectors make that big a singular difference all by themselves. Still, they’re telling of Covington’s unique defensive worth to Houston and indicative of the game-changing off-ball plays – whether highlight-reel or barely-noticed – he makes on a nightly basis for basketball’s smallest defense.

The Philadelphia 76ers’ New Rotation

Good on Brett Brown for making the necessary change that confirms Philadelphia’s odd-ball offseason was a mistake.

There might be a world in which Joel Embiid and Al Horford thrive playing together, owning the paint on both ends, exploiting mismatches from the inside out and affording ball handlers ample space to operate with canny screens and dribble hand-offs. But this one definitely isn’t it, not with Ben Simmons cramping the floor by refusing to shoot outside the paint and Horford’s three-ball falling at a rate well below career norms.

The theoretical silver lining, even if it’s one you have to squint to see, is that the Sixers aren’t taking anything off the table by moving one of their best players to the bench. Embiid is almost a top-five defense unto himself. The hope is that negative fallout defensively from replacing Horford with a wing like Furkan Korkmaz or Glenn Robinson III proves minimal, while additional spacing and off-dribble dynamism on the other end juices an offense that’s lagged far behind its talent level all season long.

Fortunately for Philadelphia, there’s ample evidence supporting the viability of those assumptions. The Sixers have defended at a league-best level with Embiid on the court whether Horford plays next to him or not, surrendering equal effective field goal percentages of 50.2. Their offensive rating spikes from a putrid 98.9 to an average 108.8 when Embiid mans the middle sans Horford, with the former’s true shooting percentage bumping nearly four points to just below the hallowed 60 percent threshold. Philadelphia remains elite defensively with Horford at center, too, surrendering 104.8 points per 100 possessions, a number that would rank third in the league overall.

Obviously, the real test for the Sixers’ revamped rotation – which is still very much in flux even before accounting for Simmons’ back injury, by the way – will come in the playoffs. But this team was always built more for the postseason than 82-game grind, and Philadelphia proved last spring that it’s more than comfortable knocking jaws in a half-court series.

Should that prove the case again, don’t be surprised if Brown reverts to relying on units featuring both Embiid and Horford. Either way, what a luxury that the Sixers’ in-season about-face prompts little to no concern about their ability to hold up defensively.

Giannis Antetokounmpo – Milwaukee Bucks

The Bucks don’t play a single negative defender.

Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez deserve All-Defense consideration. No team in the East has a better collection of versatile, experienced wing defenders than Khris Middleton, Wesley Matthews and Marvin Williams. The defensive bona fides of George Hill, Robin Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova need no explanation. Donte DiVincenzo has quietly become one of the most disruptive perimeter defenders in the league. Pat Connaughton’s 2.5 percent block rate this season ranks sixth among all guards since 2010.

Mike Budenholzer and his staff deserve immense credit. No defense in the NBA is more connected than Milwaukee’s, moving in perfect sync on the flight of the ball and letting questionable shooters launch wide-open from deep while protecting the rim at all costs.

But the above personnel’s unrelenting symbiosis and commitment to scheme isn’t what takes the Bucks’ defense from the top of the league to historical greatness. Giannis Antetokounmpo, of course, owns that distinction all by himself.

It’s not always easy for the naked eye to deduce Antetokounmpo’s defensive value. He’s rarely tasked with shutting down his team’s top offensive threat, instead primarily used as an omnipresent deterrent away from the ball. But no matter who Antetokounmpo is guarding, they’re noticeably hesitant to attack him.

Gobert leads the NBA in contested shots per game with 20.5, while Pascal Siakam ranks 20th by averaging 14.4 contested field goal attempts. Jonathan Isaac, another multi-positional defensive monster, is 52nd in that category. Antetokounmpo, by contrast, finds himself outside the top-100 in contested shots per game.

Don’t be fooled by his lackluster standing there relative to other dominant defenders, though. As the New Orleans Pelicans’ young franchise players learned earlier this month, going at Antetokounmpo is such a losing proposition that it’s best avoided altogether.

Is any other player in basketball capable of meeting Zion Williamson at the mountaintop and coming down left standing, let alone completely swallowing Brandon Ingram one-on-one in the same game? No way.

Antetokounmpo is a shoo-in for his second consecutive MVP. The case for his first Defensive Player of the Year award is nearly as strong, even if it’s much less discussed.

Defensive Player of the Year Rankings

5. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers

4. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers

3. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Honorable Mention: Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers; Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics; Robert Covington, Houston Rockets; P.J. Tucker, Houston Rockets; Bam Adebayo, Miami HEAT; Toronto Raptors – Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, O.G. Anunoby

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NBA Daily: The Young, Western Conference Bubble

The race for the West’s final playoff spot may seem crowded, but the last two months make it clear that two teams are already ahead of the pack.

Douglas Farmer

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We all jump to conclusions too quickly, this space and this scribe most certainly included. Three months ago, five weeks into the NBA season, the Western Conference playoff bubble looked like it would be a race between the Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves. That has assuredly not become the reality.

While the Kings and Suns can claim to still be in the playoff race, they would have to not only make up five-game deficits, but they would also each have to jump over four other teams to reach the postseason. The Timberwolves would delight at such challenges as they initiate a not-so-subtle tank with franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns sidelined for at least a few weeks with a fractured wrist.

Instead, the race to be swept by the Los Angeles Lakers has come down to a pair of up-and-comers, a perpetual deep threat and the NBA’s most consistent organization. Of all of them, it is the youngsters who are both currently playing the best and have the most control of their playoff hopes relative to their competition.

Between the current No. 8-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, the Portland Trail Blazers (3 games back), New Orleans Pelicans (3.5) and San Antonio Spurs (4), the next six weeks will feature eight key games. Five of those will include either the Grizzlies or the Pelicans or, in two instances, both.

That pair of matchups is still a month out, but they warrant circling already, nonetheless. Memphis and New Orleans have been playing at a high level for two-plus months now, and by the time they play two games within four nights in late March — when the basketball world is largely distracted by the NCAA Tournament — the two inexperienced teams may have completely separated from Portland and San Antonio.

After starting 1-5, 5-13 and then 10-19, the Grizzlies have gone 18-9 since Dec. 21. The Pelicans have matched that record exactly, down to the date, since starting even worse than Memphis did, bottoming out at 7-23 before finding an uptick long before Zion Williamson found the court. Winning two-thirds of your games for two months is a stretch with a sample size large enough to make it clear: Neither Memphis nor New Orleans should be dismissed in this playoff chase.

Their early-season profiles were examples of young teams sliding right back into the lottery — and there was absolutely no indication a surge was coming.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 106.4 – No. 23 106.8 – No. 21
Defensive Rating 111.7 – No. 23 113.5 – No. 27

Through Dec. 20; via nba.com.

Then, for whatever reason, things changed. They changed in every way and in ways so drastically that one cannot help but wonder what could come next for the teams led by the top-two picks from last summer’s draft.

Grizzlies Pelicans
Offensive Rating 111.9 – No. 15 115.1 – No. 4
Defensive Rating 109.3 – No. 11 110.3 – No. 13

Since Dec. 21, through Feb. 23; via nba.com.

In a further coincidence of records and timing, the Blazers and Spurs have both gone 13-16 since Dec. 21.

If all four teams in the thick of things out west continue at these two-month winning rates for another month, then Portland and San Antonio will have drifted out of the playoff conversation before Williamson and Ja Morant meet for a second time. Of course, those rates would keep New Orleans a few games back of Memphis; the latter has 14 games, compared to 12, before March 21, so the gap in the standings would actually expand to an even four games.

If the Pelicans can just pick up a game or two before then, though, they have already beaten the Grizzlies twice this season. Doing so twice more that week would just about send New Orleans into the playoffs – at which point, perhaps Williamson could steal a game from LeBron James to put a finishing coda on his rookie season.

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NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southwest Division

David Yapkowitz finishes Basketball Insiders’ Stretch Run series with an overview of the Southwest Division.

David Yapkowitz

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We’ve hit that point in the NBA season approaching the final stretch of games before the playoffs roll around in April. The trade deadline has come and gone, the buyout market is wearing thin and most teams have loaded up and made their final roster moves in anticipation of the postseason.

Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re taking a look at each team — division by division– at what they need to do to get ready for the playoffs, or lack thereof. Looking at the Southwest Division, this was a division that used to be one of the toughest in the league.

It still is for the most part. The Texas triangle of the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs was no joke and hell for opposing teams on a road trip. Those are still a couple of formidable teams, but with the exception of the Rockets, it’s not quite near the level of yesteryear.

The Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans are a pair of young, up-and-coming teams that will give you 100 percent every night. While Memphis sits firmly in the eighth spot in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on the outside looking in. Here’s a look at how each team might fare in the stretch run.

The Houston Rockets have been the best team in the Southwest all season long, and all that remains for them is playoff positioning. They currently sit in fourth place in the West, giving them home-court advantage in the first round, but they could just as easily slip a bit with the Utah Jazz essentially tied with them record-wise in the standings and the Oklahoma City Thunder a mere two games back.

The Dallas Mavericks have taken a huge leap this season behind Luka Doncic, who is rapidly becoming one of the best players in the league. They currently sit in seventh place in the West and a return to the postseason is in the cards for the Mavericks.

The rest of the teams in the Southwest is where things get a little interesting. The Grizzlies have been one of the surprises of the season, as they’ve defied expectations and are firmly entrenched in the playoff race out West. They have a three-game lead on the Portland Trail Blazers and a four-game lead on the San Antonio Spurs.

Out of the Grizzlies’ final 26 games, 15 of them come against teams over .500, more than either the Blazers or the Spurs. 14 of those final 26 are also on the road, again, more than the Blazers or the Spurs. They also play both the Spurs and Blazers one more time this season. If the Grizzlies end up making the playoffs, it will be very well earned.

The Spurs are knocking on the door, and they have one more game against the Grizzlies which could prove to be very meaningful. This is a team that has been one of the standard-bearers in the league for success over the past decade. Their streak of playoff appearances is in serious jeopardy.

They’ve won two of their last three games, however, and out of their final 26 games, 15 of those are at home, where they are 14-12. Based on how the Grizzlies are playing though, a close to .500 record at home probably isn’t going to cut it. They’re going to need to pick it up a bit over the next month if they want to keep their playoff streak intact. A lot can happen between now and then, and the Grizzlies do have a tough remaining schedule, but it looks as if San Antonio will miss the playoffs for the first time in 22 years.

The final team in the Southwest is the Pelicans, boosted by the return of prized rookie and No.1 draft pick Zion Williamson. Prior to the start of the season, the Pelicans were looked at as a team that could possibly contend for the eighth seed in the West. Then Williamson got hurt and things changed.

But the team managed to stay afloat in his absence, and as it stands, they’re only three-and-a-half games back of the Grizzlies with 26 games left to play. Out of the bottom three teams in the division, it’s the Pelicans who have the easiest schedule.

Out of those 25 games, only seven of them come against teams over .500. They are, however, just about split with home and away games. New Orleans is 8-2 over their past 10 games, better than the Grizzlies and Spurs. If Memphis falters down the stretch due to its tough schedule, and the Pelicans start gaining a little bit of steam, things could get interesting in the final few weeks.

In all likelihood, the Pelicans probably won’t make the playoffs as not only do they have to catch up to the Grizzlies, but the Spurs and Blazers as well. But it certainly will be fun to watch them try.

There are some big storylines in the Southwest Division worth following as we begin the final run to the postseason. Can the young Grizzlies defy expectations and make a surprise return to the playoffs? Will the Spurs get their playoff streak snapped and finally look to hit the reset button after nearly two decades of excellence? Can the Pelicans, buoyed by Williamson’s return, make a strong final push?

Tune in to what should be fun final stretch in the Southwest.

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