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Vogel, Spoelstra Part of Growing Trend in NBA

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

June 3, 2013, 1:39 PM

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MIAMI – Frank Vogel and Erik Spoelstra, whose teams play for the Eastern Conference championship in Miami on Monday night, can trace their coaching paths to the same place. A dark, lonely, eyeball-burning place: the video room.

They're representative of a growing trend among NBA executives of hiring nerds to coach their teams, guys who didn't rise up from the college coaching ranks or descend from professional playing careers, but infiltrated the system from within, frame by frame. Once typecast as capable of being nothing more than assistant coaches, they are taking over teams – and usually succeeding. They aren't as intimidating as former NBA players or proven college coaches, but they know how to put together staffs that know how to prepare for opponents, and don't mind putting in the hours.

It's part of a tech-driven trend toward hard-core analysis and numbers. An NBA coach can no longer succeed by relying solely on motivation and leadership skills, he must be intimate with strategy and willing to constantly tweak his offense and defense to find an advantage against a particular opponent. It can also work for a coach to have assistants handle the heavy lifting of all those Xs and Os, as Larry Bird did with the Pacers, but not all head coaches are willing to delegate so often.

Vogel and Spoelstra have moved to the forefront of this new approach.

Vogel decided he wanted to learn from Rick Pitino, so he vacated his role as captain and starting point guard at Division III Juniata College in Pennsylvania and begged his way onto Pitino's staff at the University of Kentucky. He wound up helping Pitino's assistant, Jim O'Brien, in the video room, and road O'Brien's coattails all the way to the Pacers, where he replaced O'Brien as head coach in the 2010-11 season.

Spoelstra was a point guard at the University of Portland. He landed a job in the Heat video room through his father's connection in 1995, and worked his way up from there, under the guidance of Pat Riley.

Vogel and Spoelstra became acquainted after they had broken out of the darkness to become scouts, the next step up from the video room, and therefore appreciate one another's success.

"We came up through the ranks together," Spoelstra said. "You respect the journey he's been on to get to this point. It's not easy. You have to have the right organization that will give you an opportunity, that will allow you to grow, with our backgrounds. You can see the preparation through his team."

Related: Vogel Can Lean on Assistants for Game 7 »

The two were more casual acquaintances than friends, and didn't spend late nights sharing their dream of becoming a head coach someday. They had more immediate and practical concerns at the time.

"It wasn't about, 'Hey, I hope we can get this opportunity,' Spoelstra said. "It was, 'Hopefully we don't screw up this next project and get fired.' We both had very demanding bosses."

But that's the thing about coaches from the video room. They know how to work. They learn to love dissecting game footage, looking for minute details and new angles. They aren't in it for the lifestyle of five-star hotel rooms and charter flights. They're addicted to preparation, even if it takes all night.

That's been obvious throughout the series between the Pacers and Heat, as each coach has made adjustments throughout. Spoelstra had his team begin double-teaming Pacers center Roy Hibbert. Spoelstra also had James post up more often after the first two games, then went away from that after the next two as Vogel tweaked his defense. It goes on and on, with constant adjustments, some of them too minor to catch the eye of most fans and media members. One could argue both coaches have over-thought strategy at times, but on the whole it's been a high-level chess match between budding grand masters.

Paul George is a pawn in the games, and doesn't mind.

"The video guys, that's what they do," Paul George said. "They key in on the Xs and Os. They see the game from a different angle. That's the case with those two. They see it from different angles and I think that's the reason why they're so successful."

The people who hires coaches are seeing it, too. At the start of the regular season, 21 of the NBA's head coaches had played in the league. Four others had graduated from ranks of college coaching, where they had been assistants (Mike Dunlap, Alvin Gentry and Dwane Casey) or head coaches (Gregg Popovich). The remaining five emerged from the wilderness of the video room: Vogel, Spoelstra, Lawrence Frank, Mike Brown and Tom Thibodeau.

By now, 10 of the 30 head coaches who began the 2012-13 season have been fired. Seven of them came from the group of former players. Two were former college coaches. Only one, Frank, is a former video guy. Of the four coaches who have been hired as replacements so far, three are relative unknowns from humble origins, as Vogel and Spoelstra had been – Mike Malone (Sacramento), Mark Budenholzer (Atlanta) and Steve Clifford (Charlotte). Only Jeff Hornacek (Phoenix), is a former NBA player.

It might not be a movement, but it's certainly a trend, one that coincides with the growing use of analytics. Most teams today, including the Pacers, have full-time staff members who pore over intricate details of players and lineups to discover strengths, weaknesses and trends. They analyze players to decipher their value beyond the obvious statistical contributions. They research which lineup combinations within a team are most productive. They know who plays well against which opponents, and otherwise.

A head coach has to be willinng to at least make use of all that information, if not champion it. That's why in Memphis, where the Grizzlies reached the Western Conference finals, coach Lionel Hollins, a former NBA player appears to be on his way out. The Grizzlies, after all, hired former ESPN stat guru John Hollinger to be their general manager a year ago, and the two clashed during the season. He'll likely be replaced by someone from the burgeoning breed of geek-coaches.

Pacers president Donnie Walsh has witnessed the changes in the face of NBA coaching. He had great success with former NBA players coaching his team, most obviously Bird, but doesn't mind the likes of Vogel taking over. Not when the Pacers are playing for the Eastern Conference championship.

"That's what makes a series interesting," Walsh said. "There's a lot of technical changes. The whole league is checking out analytics. It's a good thing. It's healthy. And when teams start winning, everybody imitates who wins."