Scouting 24/7

For Kuester’s staff, scouting opponents is an endless cycle

Brian Hill, Darrell Walker, Pat Sullivan and Steve Hetzel.
NBAE/Getty
When the Pistons play at Minnesota on Friday night, it will be their third game in four nights with another game looming 24 hours later at The Palace against Toronto. That’s four scouting reports to absorb, plus four rosters worth of personnel that Pistons players must study, to pick up on the strengths and tendencies of four vastly different teams.

And with a schedule that busy – two sets of back-to-backs, four games in five nights in four different cities, traveling from the United States’ northern border to its southern border and back in the process – it means the Pistons won’t have any time for practice. That makes how that information is conveyed to the players of utmost importance. And that’s where John Kuester’s assistant coaches come into play.

Brian Hill, Darrell Walker, Pat Sullivan and Steve Hetzel make up Kuester’s staff and they’re the ones in charge of scouting future opponents. It’s a process that never ends. As soon as one scouting report is prepared, preparation for the next opponent begins for each assistant, who take turns being the point man in filing scouting reports.

Responsibility for preparing the report on Minnesota falls to Hetzel. Within 30 minutes of the end of Wednesday’s game at New Orleans – while players finished up showering, changing and talking to reporters – Hetzel was sitting on the team bus outside New Orleans Arena with his laptop running, watching video of Minnesota’s loss at New York on Monday night.

He’d already dissected the Timberwolves’ three previous games, and on the flight to Minneapolis the next morning would be working on Minnesota’s most recent game – their Wednesday loss to Oklahoma City.

That’s the process. In order to get a complete picture of an opponent, Pistons assistant coaches review a team’s five most recent games. That gives them a cross-section of looks to fit a variety of schemes and personnel thrown at them from their opponents.

It starts with video coordinator Ryan Winters, who is responsible for editing the video so Kuester’s assistants can do their work more efficiently. Computer software has evolved to the point where Winters can provide coaches video packages in the broadest or narrowest categories – all defensive or offensive sequences, baseline out-of-bounds plays, player-specific packages, pick-and-roll plays involving only the starting point guard and center, etc.

Hetzel says he spends two hours watching each of the five opposition games needed to compile his scouting report. He also coordinates what he gathers with the reports filed by Pistons advance scout Bill Pope, whose job it is to scout upcoming opponents live, usually twice, in the days leading up to their meeting with the Pistons.

“Bill does a great job,” Hetzel said. “He does his report for every single game, so he’s got a lot on his plate. If we’re playing a game on a Friday night, I’ll get his report on Thursday morning. He watches games live and he listens for a team’s play calls so we can match up what he hears with what I’m seeing on tape.”

So when Minnesota calls out a play Friday night – for example, say it’s “15 chest” – Pistons players might already know what to expect or will look to the bench, where Hetzel will have an answer for them. Some NBA language is universal. The numbers give away what players will be principally involved in the play. A “15” designation likely means that the “1” and “5” positions will be at the center of the play – the point guard, or 1, and center, or 5. What motion “chest” dictates can vary from team to team.

“Fifty-three can mean a five-three pindown,” Hetzel said, meaning a screen by the center set from the top down to the baseline to free the small forward, or three. “But it might be a different action than it means for us. For example, (Washington coach) Flip Saunders might say 452 – that will involve the four, the five and the two man. But it’s a completely different action than what we would call it. Numbers are put to match the players, but different coaches have different ways of using them.

“We hear a play call, the players will look to the bench and ask what that is. We’ll tell them the action, or if it’s a similar play to what we run, we might tell them it’s our “fist” and then they’ll know what the play is.”

Pope also includes important statistical data in his reports that highlight the areas of preference or strength for the opposition. Are they a top-10 3-point shooting team? Do they get an unusual number of points in transition? Do they consistently hurt their opponents on the offensive glass? Hetzel uses Pope’s statistical research in combination with what the five-game glimpse tells him to prepare the information he passes on to the team.

The critical element in preparing the scouting report is to deliver the information to Pistons players as concisely as possible. The 10-plus hours of work Hetzel invests in a single scouting report has to be boiled down to a 15-minute presentation to the team.

That’s done, typically, at the morning shootaround on game days. The Pistons gather for roughly an hour on the mornings of game days at the arena. Before they take the court, the assistant who has prepared that game’s report will address the team and hammer the major points of concern about the opponent. There’s no shootaround on the second day of a back-to-back – as the Pistons experienced on Wednesday in New Orleans – so on those days the scouting report is passed along at a team meeting.

“I try to find two or three major points that the (opponent) does, so I can repetitively hit our players with those two or three points over and over, so they can take that away,” Hetzel said. “If we can take that away, that’s the goal. We have a personnel edit – that’s about a five-minute video to show three or four clips of what each player does. And we have a play edit, a five-minute edit that shows the high-volume plays they run.

“We walk through their plays at shootaround. We walk through five plays, and before we go out, we go to the board and recap our coverages. I want to make sure I’m hitting on the most important things over and over again. For anybody, learning when you hear something once, it’s hard for it to sink in. When they’re hearing 15 different things, it’s hard for them to absorb it. Remember, they play another game the next night.”

And the next night’s opponent might run its pick-and-roll plays, for example, in stark contrast to the way the most recent opponent ran them, and the strengths of the players involved are almost certainly going to be different. Steve Nash on the pick and roll is different than Deron Williams. And Mehmet Okur or Andrea Bargnani, as the screen man, is far different than Amare Stoudemire or Dwight Howard.

Does the ballhandler favor one hand over the other? Is it best to go over or under the screen, depending on what the scouting report says about the dribbler’s shooting range? Should the big men “show” on the pick and roll – jump out to cut off penetration, risking the dribbler splitting the double team and getting inside the defense – or “drop” and worry more about protecting the paint? It all depends on the abilities of the individuals involved.

“You have to come up with a scheme that’s simple for them to pick up in one day, but fits that team to help defend them the best way possible,” Hetzel said. “Some games, we might match up so well with a team that our scheme can be simplified. That’s really what you want – a simple plan for them to go in with.”

Before the assistant coach stands in front of the team to present each game plan, Kuester and his staff will meet one hour before shootaround begins. That’s when the assistant will brief the rest of the staff on his game plan and Kuester will make the final decisions on what offensive sets and defensive coverages should be prioritized.

Hetzel said he probably devotes 60 percent of his scouting time to watching the opposition’s offense and 40 percent to defense, information he passes on to Kuester, who formulates his offensive game plan based on the defensive coverages Hetzel finds.

If all goes well, the game plan is executed properly and their shots are falling, the Pistons will be flying home with a win at Minnesota, crossing the line from Friday night into Saturday morning, and as Roundball Three passes over Lake Michigan, Hetzel will already be at work watching video for the next scouting report that falls to him. And the players will be awaiting the next day’s scouting report on Toronto.