New Wolves on the block11/1/2017
“One pack, all in” and big changes for the 2017-2018 season with Des Moines’ rebranded NBA affiliate
Des Moines was recently named the No. 1 Minor League Sports Market by the SportsBusiness Journal. In the history of the rankings, Des Moines is the first to have a team in four sports. One of those sports is basketball, and the local team is the NBA affiliate Iowa Wolves. Previously known as the Iowa Energy, the team will be completely rebranded in the 2017-18 season.
Des Moines first gained an NBA Development League (D-League) — the NBA’s minor league, established in 2001 — team in 2007. While eventually settling on the team name of Iowa Energy, the naming process initially kicked up controversy when the proposed names were made public in June 2007: Des Moines River Rats, Iowa Corncobs, Iowa Maize, Iowa Scarecrows and Iowa Thoroughbreds. After an overwhelmingly negative response from the public, each of these names was scrapped. The team’s owners later decided on the Iowa Energy; with a superhero-esque character named Surge as the mascot.
The Energy played its first home game at Wells Fargo Arena on Nov. 26, 2007, with the Energy defeating the Albuquerque Thunderbirds 101-98. Former University of Northern Iowa basketball player Nick Nurse was the head coach. Then-Iowa Governor Chet Culver sat courtside, and so did Casey Blake — an Indianola native, who at the time was a third baseman for the Cleveland Indians and was a season ticket holder. The paid attendance total for the home opener was 8,842 and set an NBA D-League single-game record.
Then-NBA D-League President Dan Reed was also present and took the court in the third quarter to inform the crowd of the record they had set, The Des Moines Register reported.
“The D-League is very happy to be here in Des Moines. Give yourselves a hand,” Reed said.
Nurse would prove to be the franchise’s longest tenured coach and held the position until 2011, ultimately finishing with a 132-85 record in Iowa. During Nurse’s fourth and final season, the team won the D-League championship. The 2011 title is the only one in franchise history. Nurse left in 2011 to take the head coaching position at fellow D-League team Rio Grande Valley Vipers in Texas. He is currently an assistant coach for the Toronto Raptors.
In the beginning, the Energy franchise was independently owned. As a result, it had a plethora of different NBA affiliates. In its first season, the team was affiliated with the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls. Subsequent seasons also saw affiliations with the Phoenix Suns, Washington Wizards, Denver Nuggets and Charlotte Hornets. The multiple affiliations caused confusion amongst casual fans.
The Memphis Grizzlies partnership in 2014 gave a little more clarity by becoming the Energy’s only NBA affiliate. Grizzlies minority owner Jed Kaplan also became Iowa Energy managing owner and he helped build a more solid relationship between the two clubs, which also forged a more solid NBA connection during the next three seasons.
A NEW ERA
When the Grizzlies partnership ended with the conclusion of the 2016-2017 season, the Minnesota Timberwolves saw an opportunity. Wanting to own and operate a minor league affiliate, the organization did just that and announced the purchase of the Iowa Energy on May 10, 2017. Many NBA teams had already gone the route of single-affiliation teams, making the Timberwolves the 25th team to do so. Of the 30 teams in the NBA, currently 26 have single-affiliation teams.
The new ownership and rebranding has seen an abundance of changes, the biggest and most obvious is the name change from the Iowa Energy to the Iowa Wolves. The new name comes with new Timberwolves colors and team jerseys — making the uniform switch from Adidas to Nike. Look for a new Iowa Wolves branded basketball court as well, something previous incarnations of the team have never had.
The changes are more than cosmetic. Major staffing changes have occurred with the coaching and front office staff. In July, Johnston resident Ryan Grant was announced as the new president of business operations.
“I’m excited to be a part of it,” Grant says.
Originally from Fort Dodge, Grant has worked in the Des Moines area since graduating from Iowa State University in 1995. He is familiar with the Iowa sports scene and worked for the Iowa Barnstormers as director of ticketing and sales.
“I’ve seen Des Moines grow from when I started here in ’95 with the Iowa Barnstormers,” he says. “Working downtown back in ’95, and now I’m back downtown in 2017, there’s been so much growth and so much development. I’m really proud of the community. We have a lot to talk about.”
Also joining the Wolves’ staff is new head coach Scott Roth. Roth was previously working as a scout for the Minnesota Timberwolves and is making the move south to coach, but this isn’t his first foray into coaching. He has a long and impressive basketball resume. Roth has coached four national teams and brings more than 23 years of experience in the NBA, including 11 years of bench coaching — the majority of which was under the NBA’s winningest coach, Don Nelson.
Roth began his career as a three-year starter at the University of Wisconsin and was a two-time All-Big Ten selection before graduating and entering the NBA draft in 1985. Drafted by the San Antonio Spurs in the fourth round, Roth went on to play for the Utah Jazz and Minnesota Timberwolves. His season with the Timberwolves coincided with Tom Thibodeau’s (current Minnesota Timberwolves president of basketball operations and head coach) first year in the NBA as an assistant coach. Roth is intent on executing Thibodeau’s vision in Des Moines.
“The influence of the parent team is going to be a huge influence for us and how we do things in the coming months,” Roth says. “For us, it’s about creating synergy, creating a new culture and transferring down what Coach Thibodeau wants to do.”
Another change is the league itself. No longer known as the D-League, the upcoming season will be the first of the newly minted Gatorade League (G League).
“What it means is a lot more stability in our league,” Grant says. “The NBA is very committed to this league and making it a true developmental league.”
Part of the G League rebranding includes working with the Gatorade Sports Science Institute, which will involve trainers doing sweat testing on the players to determine how their bodies are affected and how to perform better.
An even more impactful change this season is the implementation of two-way contracts for players. This allows players to make more money — up to $275,000, according to USA Today — and potentially see more playing time in the NBA. With the new contracts, a G League player could see up to 45 days of NBA play. Previous contracts didn’t allow for as much NBA time. The new perks will hopefully keep players stateside instead of going overseas, which is something the NBA is working to prevent. Each team is allowed to have two players on its 17-man roster signed under two-way contracts. One such Wolves player is Anthony Brown.
“It’ll be a good opportunity for me and the Wolves as well,” Brown says of the new contracts.
A Stanford graduate and the Los Angeles Lakers’ 34th pick in the 2015 NBA draft, Brown, 24, has become accustomed to the hustle needed to make it. He spent 29 games of his rookie season with the Lakers and most of last season with the minor league team Erie BayHawks. He also saw NBA time with the New Orleans Pelicans and Orlando Magic.
“It’s definitely an up-and-down grind,” he says.
THE NEXT LEVEL
Playing at the minor league level can seem like no man’s land, but more players than ever are making it to the NBA. Gleague.nba.com reports that at the start of the 2016-2017 NBA season, an all-time high of 135 players had minor league experience, accounting for 30 percent of the NBA’s players.
In turn, 92 NBA players were sent down to the minor league (known as being put “on assignment”) last season — another record high. This appears to be an indication that the talent gap is closing.
“There’s definitely a lot of talent in the G League; there’s a lot of talent in the world period,” Brown says. “There’s a lot of people that can be successful in the NBA, but timing and opportunity is everything.”
Household names like Jeremy Lin and Danny Green spent considerable time on minor league teams, and Brown says they are “absolutely” an inspiration to him and other players.
“Anthony is one of those guys who has been on the fringe last year that got called up to numerous teams, had a very good run while he was in the D-League. He’s been close, and we expect him to hopefully break through this year and get to a point where he’s actually on a roster the whole year. That’s our goal with him,” Roth says. “Hopefully the environment we create in Des Moines will help him and make sure when he does get a chance to go up, he stays up.”
The Iowa Wolves tip off the season with a home game at Wells Fargo Arena on Saturday, Nov. 4 at 7 p.m., facing off against the Lakeland Magic.
For all the new modifications, the high-quality fan experience will look similar to years past. The same popular promotions, entertainment and theme nights will be back.
“If you love basketball, you should come for that. If you love entertainment, you should come for that. It is an entertaining environment,” Grant says.
Even though the level of play is better than ever at the minor league, it’s about to get even better in Des Moines. The Timberwolves affiliation could mean Des Moines will see big-name players on assignment with the Iowa Wolves. Both Grant and Roth anticipate the Timberwolves 2017 first-round pick Justin Patton will spend time in Des Moines rehabbing a broken left foot.
For basketball fans who have yet to experience a game in Des Moines, there’s never been a better time to go. The elevated talent and all-around improved franchise are making the upcoming season one of the most anticipated since the team’s debut. ♦
HOME GAME SCHEDULE
11/4 vs. Lakeland Magic, 7 p.m.
11/15 vs. South Bay Lakers, 7 p.m.
11/19 vs. Santa Cruz Warriors, 4 p.m.
11/27 vs South Bay Lakers, 7 p.m.
12/3 vs. Oklahoma City Blue, 4 p.m.
12/5 vs. Austin Spurs, 7 p.m.
12/8 vs. Salt Lake City Stars, 7 p.m.
12/15 vs. Northern Arizona Suns, 7 p.m.
12/19 vs. Memphis Hustle, 7 p.m.
12/23 vs. Agua Caliente Clippers, 7 p.m.
12/29 vs. Delaware 87ers, 7 p.m.
12/30 vs. Greensboro Swarm, 7 p.m.
1/2 vs. Oklahoma City Blue, 7 p.m.
1/5 vs. Sioux Falls Skyforce, 7 p.m.
1/21 vs. Reno Bighorns, 4 p.m.
1/24 vs. Rio Grande Valley Vipers, 7 p.m.
1/27 vs. Texas Legends, 7 p.m.
2/3 vs. Oklahoma City Blue, 7 p.m.
2/6 vs. Memphis Hustle, 10:30 a.m.
2/23 vs. Rio Grande Valley Vipers, 7 p.m.
3/4 vs. Erie BayHawks, 3 p.m.
3/16 vs. Austin Spurs, 7 p.m.
3/17 vs. Salt Lake City Stars, 7 p.m.
3/20 vs. Sioux Falls Skyforce, 7 p.m.
NBA TEAM G LEAGUE AFFILIATE
Los Angeles Clippers Agua Caliente Clippers
San Antonio Spurs Austin Spurs
Cleveland Cavaliers Canton Charge
Philadelphia 76ers Delaware 87ers
Atlanta Hawks Erie BayHawks
Indiana Pacers Fort Wayne Mad Ants
Detroit Pistons Grand Rapids Drive
Charlotte Hornets Greensboro Swarm
Minnesota Timberwolves Iowa Wolves
Orlando Magic Lakeland Magic
Brooklyn Nets Long Island Nets
Boston Celtics Maine Red Claws
Memphis Grizzlies Memphis Hustles
Phoenix Suns Northern Arizona Suns
Oklahoma City Thunder Oklahoma City Blue
Toronto Raptors Raptors 905
Sacramento Kings Reno Bighorns
Houston Rockets Rio Grande Valley Vipers
Utah Jazz Salt Lake City Stars
Golden State Warriors Santa Cruz Warriors
Miami Heat Sioux Fall Skyforce
Los Angeles Lakers South Bay Lakers
Dallas Mavericks Texas Legends
New York Knicks West Chester Knicks
Chicago Bulls Windy City Bulls
Milwaukee Bucks Wisconsin Herd