On the Road with Brent and Bob
How'd you like a job where you're away from your family most of the week, make your own travel arrangements and when you get to your destination, end up working the graveyard shift?
Welcome to the coveted world of NBA scouting.
This year, the Timberwolves have two assistant coaches who serve as "advance scouts" - Brent Haskins and Bob Thornton. On one level, their job is simple: digest endless DVDs of the Wolves' upcoming opponent, then get on a plane and see that opponent's two pre-Wolves games. Like all scouts, Thornton and Haskins are there to diagram plays and match them to the offensive and defensive "calls" shouted or signaled by the head coach or point guard. They might pick up a few stray bits of intelligence on opponents' personnel. Then, they must process the information and feed it all back to Randy Wittman and his Wolves staff. Immediately. Even if it takes until 3 a.m.
Explains Thornton, "During the game, we're writing everything down - the time code of the play, the play called, how they defend the pick-and-roll, how they might trap Kevin Garnett. But our night really starts at 11 p.m., when we get back to the hotel. That's where we have put all our information into a computer template that gets sent to Target Center. It can take you two, three, four hours, if you're seeing an opponent for the first time that year, but you want to have the information for the coaches as soon as possible."
Like spies in enemy territory, scouts on the road encounter no small amount of gamesmanship. NBA rules guarantee scouts good seats if they are seeing a "next opponent," but if Haskins or Thornton are working further out, they could wind up anywhere. Says Thornton, "This year, some teams are putting scouts higher up and in different spots. You can see the game, but it's hard to get the call."
Recalls Haskins, "One time in Dallas, they were playing the Knicks and there were so many media - this was not even a good Knicks team - that they put me in the stands, top of the lower deck. This was just a regular seat - nothing to write on. Imagine trying to chart plays, draw diagrams, write all kind of stuff in your seat. It was tough; you just don't have a good feeling unless you're as close as possible. Seattle on opening night put me in the upper deck."
Says Thornton, "Miami's put me up high; Phoenix is tough, Portland is tough sometimes."
Then there are the coaches who don't miss a chance to throw up some misdirection. "San Antonio's Gregg Popovich knows where the scouts sit, and he usually turns his back to them when he's making play calls," Haskins says. Clippers coach Mike "Dunleavy is big into it, but that's one of Bob's teams, and I'm glad he has to deal with it. And not every play comes from the bench. [Spurs point guard Tony] Parker calls his own plays in transition. And some teams have a lot of fluff, players moving and cutting that doesn't really mean anything, to throw you off. Especially during a blowout, they'll mess with you."
Another tactic: changing calls throughout the year. Former NBA coach "Larry Brown was always difficult," Thornton says. "If there was any kind of gap between times you saw his teams, they were always changing offenses, changing sets. Fortunately, on some level, everybody runs the same plays."
Still, there's a camaraderie within the league. When scouts travel to other sites, they eat in the same dining room with the media and opponents' team personnel. Thornton notes, "At any given game, there are three or four scouts; sometimes there are five or six. We talk to each other just like everybody."
Any info about players - injury gossip, or even attitude problems - could make its way into the personnel section of a template; most commonly the info is used by coaches, but you can bet Kevin McHale and his staff are keeping track when possible trades are explored.
Before they set out on assignment, Wittman and his assistants will work up a list of specific things that Haskins and Thornton should look for. Generally speaking, the scouts must have wrapped up their game watching two or three days before the Wolves play that particular opponent, so that video can be incorporated into the electronic scouting report and coaches can then analyze, install and teach the game plan to players. ("If the other team plays a game between when the report is done and we play them, I'll watch it just to make sure they haven't changed their calls," Thornton says.)
Scouts are not only road warriors - Haskins and Thornton will sit behind the bench if their schedule syncs with the Wolves - and they are not only night owls. Days are spent watching the past three to five recorded games of future opponents so they can get a leg up for the road work, integrating play diagrams into the templates so at least they don't have to do that after midnight, and also doing mundane chores like arranging their own flights, hotels and arena passes.
Haskins, a five-year advance-scouting vet, estimates he watched 90-to-100 games in person and logged over 100,000 frequent flier miles. Like baseball umpires and basketball referees, scouts are on what amounts to a season-long road trip. They're gone anywhere from three to five days a week, hopscotching among cities in a way that's far more frenetic than the average player's schedule. Both men book their own travel. "I'm real good friends with nwa.com and marriot.com," Haskins says. "Sometimes, just to get to the next city, you have to book yourself on an 8 a.m. flight after you've been up until 3 a.m., and you just pray you're not next to some screaming kid so you can get a little shut-eye. My sleep schedule gets back to normal in June."
This year, his task is easier, since the Wolves added Thornton, a bench coach last season, as a second advance-scout assistant coach. "Bob and I are able to do more on each team, watch more film, get more data, see more games collectively," Haskins says.
Says Thornton, "I've been pretty lucky - with the mild weather, I've only had three flight delays this year and no cancellations. I'm 6-10, so my biggest battle is fighting for exit rows. It's tough sometimes for holidays, birthdays. I'm married, and my wife's getting used to this whole coaching thing. You miss things, and you make them up; you miss a birthday and you celebrate it when you get back. We just had Thanksgiving two or three days late. Comes with the territory."