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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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Reviewing the Nurkic Trade: Denver’s Perspective

The Denver Nuggets have been on a miraculous run this postseason, but that doesn’t mean that they’re infallible. Drew Maresca reviews the 2017 trade that sent Jusuf Nurkic from Denver to Portland.

Drew Maresca

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The Denver Nuggets are fresh off of a 114-106 win over the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, pulling within three wins of the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals. But what if I told you that the Nuggets’ roster could be even more talented by acting more deliberately in a trade from three years ago?

While Denver won on Tuesday night, they lost a nail bitter on Sunday – for which most of the blame has been pointed at a defensive breakdown by Nuggets’ center Mason Plumlee, who was procured in the aforementioned 2017 trade. What did it cost Denver, you ask? Just Jusuf Nurkic and a first-round pick.

Nurkic was a 2014-15 All-Rookie second team member. He played 139 games over 2.5 seasons in Denver, averaging 7.5 points and 5.9 rebounds in approximately 18 minutes per game. He showed serious promise, but Denver had numerous reasons to pursue a trade: he’d suffered a few relatively serious injuries early in his career (and he’s continued to be injury-prone in Portland), butted heads with head coach Michael Malone and – most importantly – the Nuggets stumbled on to Nikola Jokic.

The Nuggets eventually attempted a twin-tower strategy with both in the starting line-up, but that experiment was short-lived — with Jokic ultimately asking to move to the team’s second unit.

The Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Portland Trail Blazers in February 2017 (along with a first-round pick) in exchange for Plumlee, a second-round pick and cash considerations. Ironically, the first-round pick included in the deal became Justin Jackson, who was used to procure another center, Zach Collins – but more on that in a bit.

As of February 2017, Plumlee was considered the better player of the two. He was averaging a career-high 11 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists through 54 games – but it was clear that at 27, he’d already maximized his talent.

Conversely, Nurkic was only 23 at the time of the trade with significant, untapped upside. In his first few seasons with Portland, Nurkic averaged 15 points and 9.8 rebounds per game, while establishing himself as a rising star. As noted above, injuries have continued to be a problem. Nurkic suffered a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula in March 2019, forcing him to miss a majority of this current campaign. The COVID-19-related play stoppage in March gave Nurkic extra time to get his body right, and he returned to action in July inside the bubble.

And he did so with a vengeance. Nurkic demonstrated superior strength and footwork, and he flashed the dominance that Portland hoped he would develop, posting eight double-doubles in 18 contests. He averaged 17.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game and while his play dipped a bit in the playoffs – partially due to a matchup with first-team All-NBA star Anthony Davis – he still managed 14.2 points and 10.4 rebounds in the five-game series. So it’s fair to say that Nurkic is still on his way toward stardom.

But the Nuggets are in the conference finals – so all’s well that ends well, right? Not so fast. To his credit, Plumlee is exactly who Denver expected him to be. He’s averaged 7.5 points and 5.5 rebounds per game in three seasons with Denver since 2017 – but to be fair, Plumlee is asked to do less in Denver than he had in Portland. Still, it’s fairly obvious that they’re just not that comparable.

Plumlee is a good passer and an above-average defender that’ll compete hard and isn’t afraid to get dirty – but he has limitations. He doesn’t stretch the floor and he is a sub-par free throw shooter (53.5 percent in 2019-20). More importantly, he’s simply not a major offensive threat and his repertoire of moves is limited.

High-level takeaway: Defenses tend to game plan for opponents they view as major threats – Nurkic falls into this category. Other guys pack the stat sheet through putback attempts, open looks and single coverage alongside the guys for whom opposing defenses game plan – that’s a more appropriate description of Plumlee.

On to the wrench thrown in by Zach Collins’ involvement. Statistically, Collins is about as effective as Plumlee – he averaged 7 points and 6.3 rebounds through only 11 games in 2019-20 due to various injuries – and he possesses more upside. The 22-year-old is not as reliable as Plumlee but given his age and skill set, he’s a far better option as a support player playing off the bench. He stretches the floor (36.8 percent on three-point attempts in 2019-20), is an above-average free throw shooter (75 percent this season) and is a good defender. Looking past Nurkic for a moment, would the Nuggets prefer a 22-year-old center that stretches the floor and defends or a 30-year-old energy guy?

Regardless of your answer to that question, it’s hard to argue that Nurkic should have returned more than Plumlee, definitely so when you factor in the first-round pick Denver included. There is obviously more at play: Denver was probably considering trading Nurkic for some time before they acted – did they feel that they could increase his trade value prior to the trade deadline in 2016-17? Maybe. Further, Nurkic and his agent could have influenced the Nuggets’ decision at the 2017 deadline, threatening to stonewall Denver in negotiations.

Had Nurkic been more patient or the Nuggets acted sooner before it became abundantly clear that he was on the move, Denver’s roster could be even more stacked than it is now. Ultimately, the Nuggets have a plethora of talent and will be fine – while it appears that Nurkic found a long-term home in Portland, where he owns the paint offensively. Denver can’t be thrilled about assisting a division rival, but they’re still in an enviable position today and should be for years to come.

But despite that, this deal should go down as a cautionary tale – it’s not only the bottom feeders of the league who make missteps. Even the savviest of front offices overthink deals. Sometimes that works in their favor, and other times it does not.

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NBA Daily: They Guessed Wrong

Matt John reflects on some of the key decisions that were made last summer, and how their disappointing results hurt both team outlooks and players’ legacies.

Matt John

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It doesn’t sound possible, but did you know that the crazy NBA summer of 2019 was, in fact, over a year ago? Wildly, in any normal, non-pandemic season, it all would have been over three months ago and, usually, media days would be right around the corner, but not this time. The 2019-20 NBA season is slated to end sometime in early to mid-October, so the fact that the last NBA off-season was over a year ago hasn’t really dawned on anyone yet. Craziest of all, even though there will still be an offseason, there technically won’t be any summer.

Coronavirus has really messed up the NBA’s order. Of course, there are much worse horrors that COVID-19 has inflicted upon the world – but because of what it’s done to the NBA, let’s focus on that and go back to the summer of 2019. It felt like an eternity, but the Golden State Warriors’ three-year reign had finally reached its end. The Toronto Raptors’ victory over the tyranny that was the Hamptons Five – as battered as they were – made it feel like order had been restored to the NBA. There was more to it than that though.

Klay Thompson’s and Kevin Durant’s season-ending injuries, along with the latter skipping town to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn meant two things.

1. Golden State was down for the count
2. Brooklyn’s time wasn’t coming until next year.

A one-year window was open. Even if neither Golden State nor Brooklyn posed the same threat that the former did when it had Kevin Durant, those were two contenders out of commission. If there was a time to go all in, it was in 2019.

Milwaukee certainly seemed to go all in. For the most part.  Malcolm Brogdon’s departure seemed a little odd since he was arguably their best non-Giannis playmaker when they were in crunch time. Not to mention there was nothing really stopping the Bucks from keeping him except for money. Detractors will call out Milwaukee for electing to cheap out by not keeping Brogdon and hence, avoiding the luxury tax. However, there’s more to it than that.

Milwaukee thought it had enough with the core it had on its roster. Coming off the best season they had put up since the eighties, they believed the franchise built the right team to contend. There was an argument that keeping Brogdon may have been overkill with their guard depth – let’s not forget that Donte DiVincenzo did a solid job in Brogdon’s role as the backup facilitator. This would have been more defensible had it not been for Milwaukee picking the wrong guy to let go. That was the indefensible part- electing to keep Eric Bledsoe over Brogdon.

Bledsoe wasn’t necessarily a bad investment. No one’s complaining about an almost 15 point average on 47/34/79 splits or playing individual defense tight enough to get named on the All-Defensive second team. By all accounts, Bledsoe earns his keep. That is until the playoffs. Bledsoe’s postseason woes have been a weight ever since he first entered Milwaukee, and this postseason was more of the same.

Bledsoe’s numbers dwindled to just 11.7 points on 39/25/81 splits, and Milwaukee getting ousted in five games at the hands of Miami made his struggles stand out even more than it had ever been. Bledsoe may be the better athlete and the better defender, but Brogdon’s all-around offensive savvy and his only slight dropoff defensively from Brogdon would have made him a bit more reliable.

Milwaukee guessed wrong when they opted to extend Bledsoe before the postseason last year when they could have waited until that very time to evaluate who to keep around. Now they face a hell of a lot more questions than they did at the end of last season – questions that may have been avoided had they made the right choice.

Now they could have kept both of them, yes, but it’s not totally unreasonable to think that maybe their approach with the luxury tax would have worked and maybe they would still be in the postseason right now had they gone with the homegrown talent. And just maybe, there wouldn’t be nearly as much of this Greek Freak uncertainty.

The Houston Rockets can relate. They got bruised up by a team that everyone thought Houston had the edge on going into the series and then crushed by the Lakers. Now, Mike D’Antoni is gone. The full-time small ball experiment likely did not work out. Since the Rockets emptied most of their assets to bring in Russell Westbrook and Robert Covington, there may not be a route in which they can become better than they presently are.

The mistake wasn’t trading for Russell Westbrook. The mistake was trading Chris Paul.

To be fair, most everybody severely overestimated Chris Paul’s decline. He’s not among the best of the best anymore, but he’s still pretty darn close. He deserved his All-NBA second team selection as well as finishing No. 7 overall in MVP voting. OKC had no business being as good as they were this season, and Paul was the driving force as to why.

For all we know, the previously-assumed tension between Chris Paul and James Harden would have made its way onto the court no matter what. Even so, Houston’s biggest obstacle in the Bay Area had crumbled. If they had just stayed the course, maybe they’re still in the postseason too.

To their credit, none of this may have happened had it not been for the Kawhi Leonard decision. Had he chosen differently, the Thunder never blow it up, and Houston might have very well been the favorite in the Western Conference. Instead, the Rockets took a step back from being in the title discussion to dark horse. But at least they can take pride knowing that they weren’t expected to win it all – the Clippers can’t.

Seeing the Clippers fall well short expectations begs the question if they too got it wrong. The answer is, naturally: of course not. They may have paid a hefty price for Paul George, but the only way they were getting Kawhi Leonard – one of the best players of his generation – was if PG-13 came in the package. As lofty as it was, anyone would have done the same thing if they were in their shoes. They didn’t get it wrong. Kawhi did.

On paper, the Clippers had the most talented roster in the entire league. It seemed like they had every hole filled imaginable. Surrounding Leonard and George was three-point shooting, versatility, a productive second unit, an experienced coach – you name it. There was nothing stopping them from breaking the franchise’s long-lasting curse. Except themselves.

Something felt off about them. They alienated opponents. They alienated each other. At times, they played rather lackadaisically, like the title had already been signed, sealed, and delivered to them. The media all assumed they’d cut the malarkey and get their act together – but that moment never really came. They had their chances to put Denver away, but even if they had, after seeing their struggles to beat them – and to be fair Dallas too – would their day of destiny with the Lakers have really lived up to the hype?

Even if it was never in the cards, one can’t help but wonder what could have happened had Kawhi chosen to stay with the team he won his second title with.

Toronto was the most impressive team in this league this season. They still managed to stay at the top of the east in spite of losing an all-timer like Leonard. That team had every component of a winner except a superstar. They had the right culture for a championship team. Just not the right talent. The Clippers were the exact opposite. They had the right talent for a championship team but not the right culture. That’s why the Raptors walked away from the postseason feeling proud of themselves for playing to their full potential while the Clippers writhed in disappointment and angst over their future.

In the end, everyone mentioned here may ultimately blame what happened to their season on the extenuating circumstances from the pandemic. The Bucks’ chemistry never fully returned when the Bubble started. Contracting COVID and dealing with quad problems prevented Westbrook from reviving the MVP-type player he was before the hiatus. As troubling as the Clippers had played, the extra time they would have had to work things out in a normal season was taken away from them.

For all we know, next year will be a completely different story. The Rockets, Bucks, and Kawhi may ultimately have their faith rewarded for what they did in the summer of 2019 – but that will only be mere speculation until the trio can change the story.

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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