Lights! Camera! Iowa Energy!11/2/2016
A decade of D-League basketball in Des Moines. A look back. And the vision forward.
It may be hard to believe, but it has been a decade since the Iowa Energy surged onto central Iowa’s basketball scene.
During the summer of 2016, the Energy — guided by General Manager Chris Makris — hired a new head coach in Matt Woodley. Together the dynamic duo is the driving force behind the city’s NBA Developmental team.
Can this pair of talented young guns get the Energy back to a championship level? Des Moines is chomping at the bit to find out.
GENERAL MANAGER CHRIS MAKRIS
Makris is a Des Moines transplant. He may have started as an outsider to central Iowa, but the fellow Midwesterner — he grew up in Wisconsin — has logged nearly half his life in the metro area. The 37-year-old first came to town as a Drake Bulldog.
“I was a finance major,” he recalled. “And I played football.”
After graduating, Makris worked in the financial world but says he missed the competition of athletics. He attended San Diego State and attained an MBA, and when he was finished, the Energy job was open. He applied, and 10 years later, here he is.
“I’ve been here since Day 1,” he said. “My title originally was, ‘assistant general manager.’ But there was no general manager. So I’ve pretty much had the same position for all 10 years.”
Makris says the public’s perception of the team has changed with time. When it was first introduced, some people were skeptical because minor league basketball doesn’t have a rich history in the capitol city.
“I’m proud to be a part of something that has been here for 10 years and will be here for a very long time,” he said. “It’s neat overall, and it’s a testament to our ownership group, our employees, everyone who has been a part of it, and, of course, to our fan base. We have really passionate fans and people who love our product.”
Passion is a product of success. In seven of the Energy’s nine seasons, the team has finished above .500, winning four division titles, including a D-League championship in 2011.
“And we’ve given back to the community, which I think is a huge part of our story,” Makris said. “We’re not here just to play basketball.”
He lists the community efforts the team has been involved in such as the Read to Achieve program with the local schools or serving meals to the homeless. He adds that the team donates free tickets to many non-profits.
“Those are the reasons we are here — to give back to the city, make Des Moines a better place and to hopefully make a difference in people’s lives and in children’s lives as they grow up,” Makris said.
“I would say so,” he says. “I mean, it’s never done, because there is always more we can do. We can always get out in the community more, and give back more, sell more seats. The owners never started this team to make money. They didn’t want to lose money, but it was to give back.
“I would say we’ve done a fabulous job. We probably don’t toot our horns enough, because that was never the goal. But when you really dig into it and see the impact that we’ve made in this community, I think it’s tangible, and I think people are benefitting from the Iowa Energy being in Des Moines.”
NEW HEAD COACH, MATT WOODLEY
Leading the 2016 version of the Energy will be Woodley, the new head coach and former Valley High School standout and Drake University alum who was hired on May 6.
He becomes the fifth head coach in the team’s history.
Woodley spent the last two seasons with the Energy as an assistant. Before that, he spent three seasons as head coach of the Truman State Bulldogs.
Woodley doesn’t plan on changing his coaching style.
“You need to be yourself,” he says. “I always want my teams to be hard-nosed and defense oriented. We want to be hard to score on. We will play with pace. And I like to shoot a lot of threes.”
Woodley replaces Bob Donewald Jr. who moved on after compiling a 52-48 record with the Energy during the previous two seasons. The squad went 26-24 last year.
Rosters in the D League are volatile, and carryover from year to year is generally small. The coach says teams in the D-League undergo massive personnel movement and roster turnover, so it’s hard to gauge the upcoming year based on the previous year’s results.
“There are a lot of guys coming and going, but it’s the same for everybody,” he said.
Woodley said the bar of excellence was set high early in the organization’s history, but each year brings a fresh challenge. The goal is to win and develop young players.
“We’re trying to put together the best team, not just a collection of talent,” he said. “You either adapt or die,” he says, referring to how analytics have changed the game, with more teams spacing the floor and shooting frequently.
He said he looks for tough players who are good teammates and have high character.
“And I like players who can shoot,” he added.
Woodley said that coaches want upper management with similar goals and priorities. He and Makris have worked together for a while now, and each has the other’s trust and respect. He has confidence Makris will deliver what he needs.
“He’s the architect of putting those rosters together,” Woodley said of Makris’ role in constructing the Energy’s successful teams of the past. “Our relationship is really good. We’re aligned. Our goal is to win a championship. I feel fortunate to work with him.”
In his 17 years of coaching, Woodley has experience on many different levels of basketball, and he’s excited for a new challenge.
“I’ve always wanted to coach professional basketball. This is their (the players’) job,” he said. “This is their passion.”
Matt Woodley is the Energy’s fifth head coach. The local product was hired in May after spending the last two seasons with the team as an assistant.
Before joining the Energy, Woodley spent three seasons as head coach of the Truman State Bulldogs. He has also been an assistant for Washington State University (2006-2009), Middle Tennessee State University (2004-2006) and the University of Denver (2001-2004).
Woodley envisions a hard-nosed, defensive-oriented team that is hard to score on, plays up tempo and consistently nails three pointers.
He comes from a coaching family. His dad, Mike, coaches Grand View University’s football team along with his brother, Joe, who is the associate head coach. Matt’s other brother, Brian, coaches Johnston High School’s varsity football team.
Woodley replaced former coach Bob Donewald Jr.
WHAT IS THE D-LEAGUE, AND WHY DOES IT EXIST?
The NBA developmental league — or NBA D-League — tipped off in 2001. It serves as the NBA’s only official minor league, and its goal is to prepare players, coaches, officials, trainers and front office staff for the big time.
Woodley says the NBA experiments with rule changes, but for the most part, the basketball in the D-League is similar to the NBA.
“(The NBA-DL) is growing product and a good one,” said Woodley. “It’s great basketball.”
Two years ago, the original ownership group — an all-local group — decided it was time to pass the team on to someone who shared its passion for basketball, would keep it going and would keep it in Des Moines. That someone was Jed Kaplan.
Kaplan is a minority owner of the Memphis Grizzlies and the managing partner of the Energy. He sees potential in the NBA-DL, envisioning a full one-to-one affiliation similar to minor league baseball.
Makris says it was important to the original owners that the new owners keep the team in Des Moines. He thinks it’s even more important to Kaplan.
“He feels a sense of responsibility,” he said. “He sees the attendance we have, the passionate fans we have relative to other D-League cities and minor league teams, and he says, ‘Des Moines should forever have a D-League team.’ ”
Makris explains there are three ownership models for D-League teams.
The first is NBA-owned teams, such as the Windy City Bulls. In this arrangement, the ownership group controls the business operations as well as the personnel and player developments.
The Energy, however, is owned under what is called a “hybrid affiliation,” where the team’s business operations are run by its ownership group, which in this case is Kaplan and his investors. The basketball operations are run by a separate entity, the Memphis Grizzlies.
Makris is employed by the Grizzlies, and as the G.M., he technically works for the Grizzlies, but he also oversees the business operations for Kaplan.
“Both sides want to see each other succeed,” he said.
The third ownership type, which isn’t currently utilized, is an independently owned team. This arrangement allows the basketball and business to be owned and operated by the same entity that is not directly affiliated with a NBA organization. Teams of this sort maintain an indirect relationship with NBA franchises in order to acquire players. The Energy used to be this type of team, but Makris doesn’t envision this as a viable vehicle in the future.
“That ownership situation, we’ll probably never see again,” he said.
Makris said it is technically available, but too many NBA teams prefer placing players with organizations under their control and who run the same system with the same terminology, philosophy and training regimens.
“The league has 22 teams now,” he said. “We’ll get to 30 in a couple of years. When we get to 30, there will be that one-to-one affiliation like you see with the I-Cubs and Chicago Cubs.”
PROMOTIONS AND OTHER FUN TIMES…
Woodley said basketball fans should check out the Energy.
“You’re seeing NBA players in your town for a very affordable price. If you are a fan of basketball, you can see the future stars of the NBA.”
What about for non-basketball fans?
Woodley has four kids, and he says they love attending Energy games, even though they don’t know who is playing on the floor, he laughs.
Besides a fun brand of up-tempo basketball, the Energy treats its fans to a plethora of fun promotions, including autographs after the game, ladies’ night, guys’ night, the High Voltage Dancers and the Spark Plugs along with the team’s mascot, Surge.
ONE STEP FROM THE NBA
D-League rosters generally contain players at various stages of their playing careers. According to dleague.nba.com, about 40 percent of NBA players have NBA D-League experience.
Player acquisitions unfold via a variety of ways.
In addition to a six-round draft, organizations attain up to four “affiliate players” from parent NBA teams through local tryouts and free agency.
With the addition of five new teams in 2016-17, the league now has 22 teams.
Teams in the NBA-DL are stocked using a variety of mechanisms. Players may traverse many different paths. Familiar faces from big-time colleges come in to hone skills, as do small-school lesser-knowns and undrafted players hoping to raise eyebrows.
The Energy’s affiliation with the Grizzlies means that the NBA parent team may send any player it deems worthy to Iowa.
Makris said the eight NBA teams without affiliates may potentially send players to Iowa under the “flex-assignment system.”
“But they aren’t necessarily running their NBA parent club’s NBA offense, defense or using its terminology,” he said. “So there is a huge benefit to the teams who have invested in the D-League.”
He explains that the parent clubs need players to be game ready when called up. Makris remembers one such instance with current NBA player, Hassan Whiteside.
“He was playing for us on a Thursday night,” he remembered. “And then I think he was on TNT (in the NBA) on Saturday blocking 10 shots.”
According to Makris, the Grizzlies set an NBA record last year by suiting up 28 different players because of injuries, an all-time NBA record. ♦
Great story on D-league and Iowa Energy. Nick Nurse, Iowa native from Carroll and UNI
basketball standout, did the legwork in establishing the Iowa franchise, then won a D-league
title as a coach in Des Moines. True to its purpose of pro player, coach, ref development,
Nick, former Grand View U. head coach, is in 2nd year as assistant coach with Toronto
Raptors in the NBA. Give him a couple more years and he will be a great candidate for an
NBA head coach. I’d bet on it.