Click here to Skip to main content

Steve Aschbruner

Kurt Rambis (l) and assistant Dave Wohl check out video on a train trip earlier this month.
David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Coaches pull out new tricks to try to solve old problems

Posted Oct 15 2010 11:37AM

Kurt Rambis was explaining to a cluster of reporters in a Target Center hallway Tuesday night the distinction between having a playbook and distributing a playbook.

His way, the Timberwolves always have a steady supply of new on-court maneuvers to learn and master, while Rambis always has a resource, compiled over the years, to which he can refer. The other way, something gets left in a hotel room or a bus, only to wind up being discussed on a sports talk show in a rival city.

Almost on cue, though, a Minnesota staffer came down some stairs and walked past the coach into the locker room with a stack of sleek, state-of-the-art handheld digital devices sheathed in black velvet.

The Timberwolves were getting their iPads! Who needs a stinking paper-and-ink playbook in some archaic three-ring binder?

"We gave them iPads, yes. But that's more to show them edits," Rambis said. "I don't know anything about computers. 'Here's some edits. Watch them.' We have a video department. They handle that."

The days of an NBA team "film session" actually being on film, with the whirring of a projector as soundtrack, are over. So are those nights when players would head home with "videotape" to break down. It's a Bluetooth and 4G league these days, with team executives and head coaches welcoming almost any high-tech tool, stat or study to wring a little extra potential out of their players and maybe eke out the slightest competitive edge.

A year ago, for instance, the Washington Wizards issued iPod touches to the players loaded up with training videos of opposing clubs and individuals. This year, coach Flip Saunders has upgraded to iPads, giving his guys a library of hoops video that can be constantly updated, in a larger, sharper format on a cooler gadget that they can study and review in their hotel rooms.

When they're not using them for YouTube or tweets, that is.

That's true, though, for whatever technology or tool a coach might embrace, in any era. Guys back in George Mikan's day might have stared out the window when they should have been studying coach John Kundla's chalkboard. Plenty of players have nodded off in darkened film rooms through the years. A DVD of the Grizzlies' pick-and-roll defense surely gathered dust because the disc drive in somebody's laptop was busy with Saw II.

That doesn't mean teams are going to give up trying to fine-tune the multimillion-dollar assets they employ, or stop advancing with the gadgetry available to their scouts and coaches. Knowing that someone else -- and often everyone else -- is moving forward can push a general manager or coach in that directon even if he otherwise wouldn't feel very pulled.

"When you look at the game, we've all got the same plays. We all have great athletes," Toronto Raptors coach Jay Triano said. "Technically and tactically, there's not a lot of variance in what teams do. So the other part of the game is the sports science part, where teams can really close the gap on other teams.

"Every year people are finding ways to create an advantage over somebody else. People are delving into statistics more, they're looking into sleep patterns, they're looking into nutrition, they're looking into sports psychology. It's 'Whatever you can find to give you an edge.' Because it's extremely competitive and everybody's looking for that same edge."

Said Dallas coach Rick Carlisle: "The changes have been massive over the 25 years since I've been involved as a player and a coach. When I got into coaching in 1989, with New Jersey, we did not have an editing device for video. It was still VCR-to-VCR, all done manually. ... Now everybody digitizes video and captures things in real time, which allows you to pull things up instantly -- which is extremely valuable."

Carlisle's boss, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, is a zealot for all things technological. A member of Carlisle's staff, Tom Sterner (now scouting for Philadelphia), helped to develop coaching software more than a decade ago. Portland coach Nate McMillan is a strong believer in the value of proper rest. Boston's Danny Ainge embraced the concept of "brain typing" years ago as a way to search for players with, if not Michael Jordan's physical gifts, at least something close to Jordan's drive and instincts.

Teams throughout the league subscribe to the Synergy Sports analytics created and refined by former Phoenix Suns video coordinator Garrick Barr. For some, "advanced coaching tools" means employing an extra assistant or two to give special attention to certain players or aspects of the game. For others, it's the growing use of the Moneyball-type stats that swept through baseball.

Every NBA team does something, or at least has an opinion about it, as I learned when talking with Triano, Saunders, Rambis, Carlisle and other head coaches during their recent stop in Chicago for an annual coaches meeting:

Tom Thibodeau, Chicago Bulls

The job has changed quite a bit over the years. Staffs have gotten bigger. Technology has really improved. There's a lot more information available -- at times, you might have too much information and you really have to pare down what you think is pertinent. But by having so much information available, it allows you to prepare better. So each game is similar to a playoff preparation.

Jay Triano, Toronto Raptors

I like the stats that we use now. I'm not going to base judgments [solely] on them, but they can back up some of the thoughts that you've already had. I won't say I use the stats to dominate what we do, but they do provide a good support system. You can measure a lot of things but you can't measure a person's heart or drive.

[With sleep patterns], 82 games is tough to monitor and it takes some time, I think, for people to find the right mix of rest and recuperation and practice time. [With psychology] I think we will be working with someone this season who's more 'hands-on and preventative,' rather than dealing with someone after something happens.

Stan Van Gundy, Orlando Magic

Like everything, it's how you use it. For me, probably the technology of what we can do with game footage now is really helpful. For me to be able to go in and, at the touch of a button, pull up all of Boston's pick-and-rolls, something like that, without having to search through the tape, that's really a time-saver and allows you to focus your work.

Film is something the players really like. First of all, the film doesn't lie. You can tell a guy something and he may not agree with you, but you show him the film, where he can see it, I think that's a big help.

Jim O'Brien, Indiana Pacers

When I came into the league at the end of the '80s as an assistant coach with the New York Knicks, we were just starting to get into the video aspect of it. Now, I spend a great deal of my day on video and also marrying up the video and statistical information. About halfway through any NBA season, I like to say statistics -- because of the 48 minutes that you play and the 24-second clock and number of possessions -- rarely lie. You can use those as fool-proof gauges of what an opponent's doing, what an individual is doing.

Sure, on a regular basis, you [trust your eyes more]. For instance, when you're done coaching a game, you have your viewpoint on how the game went, the combination of players who did or did not work well together. Sometimes when you look at the statistics, they'll tell you a different story than you may have first thought. But usually the statistical information will match up pretty much with what you're seeing on video.

Nate McMillan, Portland Trail Blazers

We are basically a society that is always looking for ways to push the envelope. How to get better. Looking for change. Change is not bad, but you have to really evaluate who you are, your situation, and try to make the adjustments for your particular team. As opposed to, say, always having an assistant for every player.

We started [studying sleep patterns] a couple years ago. We were looking for the best way to help our players recover fast. So we looked into sleep, travel, food. What do you do in-between games? That's very important how you prepare, mentally as well as physically. For us, it's making sure that our guys get eight hours of sleep. You can adjust your travel for that. We try to stay within [the same] time zone whenever we travel.

Rick Carlisle, Dallas Mavericks

Statistical analysis has gone two or three generations and now it's at an extremely high level. So more teams are using that for everything, from performance of combinations to individual performances, to probability of injuries and everything else you can possibily imagine. It's unbelievable. At a certain point, it's making sure you don't have too much information.

In most cases, what you believe in your gut is 80 percent right. There might be another 20 percent where the data will make you say, 'Hmm, I didn't realize that.' Whatever that might be. Sometimes it's a subtle thing, sometimes it's pretty severe.

Scott Skiles, Milwaukee Bucks

If you think you're qualified and you have any sort of philosophy at all, you follow your eyes and ears. You look and ask, 'What am I really seeing with this guy?' You talk to people, you do your background. All these tools are great, but you've still got to trust what you're seeing. If you tell me, 'So-and-so is really fast with the ball' and then I watch him play 45 times and I don't see it ... I didn't see it!

If you are into the numbers -- which I am -- and you say, 'The guys who have been one of the top three rebounders in the ACC the past seven years have been top rebounders in the NBA within three or four years,' well, that's a great thing to look at. But when I watch him play, I have to see if that bears itself out. Is he going after the ball with two hands? Is he boxing out? Is he aggressive? To get a full picture, you use all that stuff. There isn't just one magic thing.

Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat

I come from a background of crunching numbers to make a case. Really, it was just a responsibility that coach [Pat] Riley gave me over the years. I found it fascinating. I use the normal plus/minuses that people use. I love the defensive numbers that are specific to our system -- we have a whole grading chart on our defense, and that's usually the first one I look at. We have a series of 50 categories and grades that I look to after each game back in our 'dungeon.' I think more than anything, that's comforting for me.

I usually give myself about an hour in the morning to go through all the data and try to be as disciplined as I can not to give all that information to the players. A lot of it is not necessarily getting the answer, but it might get you to have a little deeper thought about a certain event that happened in a game or a dynamic with your team.

Scott Brooks, Oklahoma City Thunder

One old-fashioned thing is defensive field-goal percentage, I really believe in that. Offensively, it's turnovers -- taking care of the ball, that's a pet peeve of mine, being a point guard. But I've always felt those were some of the most critical stats. 'Real field-goal percentage,' I like that one because it helps the 3-point shooters. You're weighted on those shots because you're getting that extra point on your makes. But plus/minus or unit plus/minus, I don't know, that just confuses me. If Kevin Durant has a bad plus/minus, I'm still going to be playing him.

You can't be so hard-headed to think that, 'This is the only way to do it because it's been done like this for 40 years.' If that were the case, point guards wouldn't be allowed to score. When I first came into the league, backup point guards weren't allowed [by some coaches] to shoot but once a quarter or once each time they got into a game. Now, you want your backup point guard to provide some sparks offensively.

Jerry Sloan, Utah Jazz

I can't keep up with it. I don't have a computer. I don't mean to say, 'I'm right and they're wrong' or 'I'm wrong and they're right.' Everybody's got their system for doing things. I depend a lot on our assistant coaches. They do an awful lot with our team. Statistics can make you 'win' [when you've lost], if you look at 'em hard enough. I want to look at the bottom line: Did we win or lose?

George Karl, Denver Nuggets

I can't deny, before a game, with Elias [Sports Bureau], our PR director will get some special stats on the matchups that we have. I like those things. But sometimes when I get flooded by stats, I walk away from them. Because I don't trust them. I don't have a good trust in statistics as much as I trust my feel and my instincts. Stats [can argue both sides.] I see that more than I would like to see. Agents are fighting you sometimes. Your general manager might be fighting you with stats to play someone. I've heard some crazy stuff where I say to them, 'I'm sorry. I can't even identify what you're telling me.'

I read [ analyst John] Hollinger's stuff, I think he's good. I think is good. When I have time, I check out that stuff. I'm not sure I listen 100 percent to any of it, but if it reaffirms something that I'm thinking that I haven't gone to yet, it might push me to go to it.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

Copyright © NBA Media Ventures, LLC. All rights reserved. No portion of may be duplicated, redistributed or manipulated in any form. By accessing any information beyond this page, you agree to abide by the Privacy Policy / Your California Privacy Rights and Terms of Use. | Ad Choices Ad Choices is part of Turner Sports Digital, part of the Turner Sports & Entertainment Digital Network.