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The Video Room: Unfiltered with Dan Craig

You know Erik Spoelstra. You probably know of a few assistant coaches. Not many people would recognize a Video Coordinator like Dan Craig (pictured above with Norris Cole), in part because they rarely get out of the video room, but few people in the world are as in touch with the intricacies of the NBA as the guys in the video room. They prepare for everything, including things that might never happen and opponents the Miami HEAT might never play in the playoffs, but in the process they learn what makes every team tick.

Taking time out of a busy schedule preparing for the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, Craig sat down to chat in the HEAT's video room.

What was it like prepping for two teams? From getting on the plane after Game 6 in Indiana and the next few days. What was that like for the guys in the video room?

It’s always difficult. Obviously, it’s a ton of work. You’re in the Eastern Conference Finals, so you don’t want to leave any stone unturned. We basically took the approach that before Game 7 started, both teams would have to be done. We got together, the staff got together, and some people took the approach of working on both at the same time. Others took the approach of focusing on Boston, getting them finished and then finishing Philly before that Game 7 started so that Coach Spo would have whatever prep necessary for after the game. Basically, you knew that one of those teams that you were working on was taking away from the other team that you were going to end up playing.

We went through all of our film for our series against them in the regular season. We went through all of their playoff series and we do specific breakdowns on all of their sets and their tendencies within their sets. And then we do specific individual edits on all of their individual tendencies as well. What they like to do, whether it’s shot fakes or screening techniques, drives left, drives right, all of that stuff is really closely analyzed then put together in an edit so that these guys see it consistently. They start to get their tendencies down. Also, we give them their key sets. That’s stuff we’ll prepare for whenever we end up prepping for that team. But they’ll have that all so they can review in on DVDs, iPads and books.

We’ll have a page on each guy, three of their main sets, all their tendencies, what they like to do, and some of their statistics on the year and also in the playoffs. Some of our staff works on the books and others work on specific video edits. That’s what we’ve been cranking on for the last 72 hours here.

How many hours have you slept in the last three days?

It hasn’t been many. You want to be as prepared as possible. When you have two teams that you might be playing, you can’t leave anything to chance.

When you’re in a time crunch, what do you focus on first?

When I’m in a time crunch like that, I have to have a finished product for coach to watch. That’s the first thing that comes in my mind. Really, going into our closeout game, I knew that there was a possibility that if we closed them out then some work would need to be done. That was one of those things where you want to have something that coach can watch. That’s first priority. He doesn’t necessarily always want it right away, but that’s got to be a priority. So you have something tangible so that if he asks for it, you can give to him.

You’re going into that knowing that half of your work is essentially being trashed, right?

We had one scenario [Spo] had when Stan [Van Gundy] was coaching when we ended up playing New Orleans, Dwyane’s first year, that was a nightmare. There were like three different games on the last night of the season. The one situation that was the most unlikely happened and we ended up playing New Orleans and nobody had done any prep because we had done the other teams ready and prepared. We ended up staying up all night and really cramming just to have all of our prep done for the next morning.

Do you ever sleep at the arena?

There’s been times in the past when we’ve had to crash on the couch. We try to avoid that, but it has happened in the past.

How much of what you do is with Synergy Sports (a service that logs and categorizes video of every possession in every NBA and NCAA game) and how much is your own proprietary software?

Ninety percent of what we use is off of our software, Sportstec. Synergy is very popular for the draft. Particularly in the management side. But also for these guys in particular, any random edit that might get thrown our way, as in “Take a look at a specific team two or three years ago and see what they were running.” We might not have that film on our software or server. So, we dive into Synergy.

We have it set up where we can convert stuff Synergy into our software. Which makes it really nice. A lot of summer projects and stuff we’ll use Synergy to really find what we’re looking for, but during the season 90 percent of our work is on our server and on our own software.

Did you have Sportstec before Synergy came into play?

Yes. Synergy came onto the scene right around the same time we switched over to Sportstec. Sportstec was just at that time really breaking into the NBA. They’ve done a phenomenal job. I think they have 90 percent of NBA teams now.

What are your thoughts on the SportsVu cameras (that provide optical tracking data, such as dribbles per possession, average speed and average distance of a defender from an offensive player)?

I’ve heard about that. It’s always evolving. Technology is crazy. Where it goes from one year to the next, then one year to five years. Who knows what we’re going to see in five years? That could be an evolution to what they’re doing with that type of stuff.

Is there stuff that you feel you still can’t do?

For the most part we can do everything we want, it’s just the efficiency rate at what you do things. That’s where technology becomes so key. That’s why we keep investing in these companies, because they become more efficient and they give you more work that you can do. It’s a blessing and a curse.

When you first got here, how good were you at recognizing all the things you needed to? Was it a process?

It was definitely a process. Especially working as closely as I have with Spo in the last nine or ten years. When I first came in, there was a learning curve on the NBA in general. The terminology; a lot of teams have very similar defenses, so offenses are predicated on what the defense is going to do. As you become more accustomed to that, you know what to look for. It becomes a lot easier and you start to know play calls. Once you start to know play calls, you start to learn tendencies within the play calls. So there is an evolution to it. When you’re prepping for every single team, you start to really know the NBA. You start to really understand players, understand coaches. Are they a post up team? Are they a catch-and-shoot team? From that standpoint, it’s a heck of a lot easier now than it had been in the past.

What’s it like having a former video coordinator as a boss? It seems as though it would help with efficiency, him knowing what you can do and you both have terminology in common.

I’m fortunate because I’ve had a chance to work under him as an assistant, and now when he became the head coach, I knew how he worked. I knew what he looked for. In that sense it was easier. You’re not taking on a new relationship with a head coach where you really don’t have a gauge of what he likes. It’s definitely easier. The biggest thing of getting coach what he wants is just the communication aspect of it. When you work closely with somebody, and you’re around them enough, there’s that familiarity where you know exactly if he’s saying one thing, he may want a couple of extra things. If he’s saying one thing, he may not want all of it. He may just want the core of it. I can kind of simplify for him. Just try to help in the system as best you can.

Did you know when you came here that you’d also be doing on-court player development?

To be honest, when I first came here, I was pretty set on coaching college basketball. I didn’t even know what a video coordinator was until I pretty much found out about it and had the opportunity to come down for an interview. In terms of having a career in the NBA in general, it wasn’t even a blip on the radar. Then I saw the opportunity and I was fortunate enough to get hired and work here. But, no, I definitely didn’t anticipate it.

Mario Chalmers was your first big project, was there anyone before that that you latched on to?

A lot of the younger guys, especially the summer leagues and training camps where we have guys in here. Particularly the guards. Whoever coach puts me on, really.

How much of a role do you play in the design of the player development process?

It’s coach’s message. It’s basically him, with me just simplifying what coach wants. But in order for me to teach it, I just need to make sure the message is clear from what we’re trying to teach them as a staff, and what Spo wants. There are some specialties within our guys that we want. Especially playing alongside Dwyane, LeBron and Chris. It’s extremely important for them to fulfill their roles.

Whatever gets the message across to these guys. It’s not a message unless it’s received. I use very similar vocab that Spo uses so that there’s no confusion on the players part. But at the same time, if I think there’s something else that will help get that message through, then I’ll throw that in the mix as well.

Do you have to read guys to know how much video you can show them?

Yes. We’re a big believer in that. It stems from Spo. Everybody has an attention span. That’s one of his major strengths, preparation and the amount that he puts in. That trickles down to all of the staff members as well. Take the core of what you want to give them. Don’t give them everything. Take what’s most important and make sure they get that message first. We hand pick whatever clips we want to show them, and condense it down to what’s most important.

Chris has an account in the Synergy system that he said he used last offseason. Does he watch more video than a lot of other guys?

All the guys watch video, it’s just how they get it. Some guys like it on their iPad; some guys like DVDs; some guys have Synergy accounts. But it’s just what their preference is and what they’re watching it with. Some guys will take it home and throw it on the big screen with a DVD. Some guys like having it on an iPad and having it mobile to take wherever they want. And some guys like Synergy, wherever that may be.

Was Shane Battier a step up from the norm, in terms of digesting video?

Shane is a definite step up. Not from a video standpoint, but from a statistical standpoint. He believes in those numbers. It’s a credit to him. You see it on the court. That’s one of the reasons that he’s and amazing defensive player. He really studies his opponent and what their statistical tendencies are. But also, he dials into the video as much as anybody. But the thing that separates him is one, his overall toughness, and just his high character, and two, his evaluation of what he needs to watch videowise, but then that extra prep with the statistical analysis.

How much of what you do crosses over with the deeper stats?

[Director of Basketball Information Technology] Brian Hecker works on our staff as well and does all of our gameplans and is pretty much one of the guys that comes up with the key numbers for an opponent that we’ll play. We’ll work closely with Brian, making sure everybody is on the same page. If you see something videowise, they’ll work together and say, ‘Hey, what are the stats on this?’ Or vice-versa. Brian will say, ‘This stat is huge with Paul Pierce, let’s make sure the video makes it transparent to the players.’

With both advanced numbers and video becoming more mainstream and accessible to the public, it often seems like the mistake can be made not to cross reference one with another. How important is it to back up a statistical or video finding with supporting evidence?

There’s a difference between a tendency and a trend. I think those two can be easily confused. You do see something maybe once or twice, and that takes you away from what their overall trend may be from a player standpoint and a team standpoint. And I think that’s where having both, and making sure that they’re both transparent. What the video is saying is transparent with the statistics and vice-versa.

The decision to front Carmelo Anthony in the Knicks series, how did that come about?

That’s one of our overall defensive schemes. We actually used that against Dirk [Nowitzki] in the Finals [in 2006]. We obviously didn’t stop him, but Udonis pretty much mastered that technique defensively. And it was enough to frustrate and disrupt a lot of what they were trying to do. We saw a lot of similarities with that scheme and that technique against Carmelo. We thought that, if anything, we wanted to make his catches tougher and where he’s catching it further out. He’s such a good attacker, such a good scorer, that the farther out he’s catching it, the better chance we have of our help defense.

The stats kind of filtered in from there. What does he shoot from here? What does he shoot from this range? And obviously, the closer you got, the better his percentages were. That was something that we worked on for playoff prep. Everybody helped with that. Brian with his statistics, and everybody was watching film. Udonis was here in 2006, so this is what we were successful with, and it’s a similar idea. We used just a lot of our same concepts from that scheme.

Did you go as deep as the passing tendencies and abilities of the guards?

Yes, but the main bullet point was make the catches tough. And maybe he doesn’t even catch it. Maybe they have to go somewhere else and beat us now because we’re so aggressive on our denial. The other part of that is really try to occupy and pressure the guards.

Indiana started using the fronting as a quasi-pick-and-roll, dribbling right at it, right?

That was their counter to it. That’s the playoffs. Everybody is going to take what you do and have a counter for it. Then, schematically you have to have a counter for their counter, and it’s more about the coaching aspect, where you have to do it harder, have to do it better. You go in there and give these guys a gameplan and you tell them there’s going to be some degree of failure one way or the other. But this is the best way to defend these guys.

Now that the prep work is done, what’s the series like for you?

Now it becomes a chess match. Very analytical game by game. It’s counters. It’s constant video that Spo will show with the team. It’s constant video that we can give these guys. All the guys pretty much get the game after we’re done playing a team, and they all watch it. If there are specific things that the staff wants to watch, and maybe a coach or myself or whoever it may be may grab a single player and just watch clips individually. Let’s sit down and go over your pick-and-rolls. Let’s sit down and go over your defense. It becomes very specific and analytical from here on out.

When someone has a bad game, do you let the film do the talking?

Yeah, even when he plays well. When players have a bad game or players have a great game, Spo always takes the approach of, and it kind of trickles down to the staff, ‘How can we get better?’ Good or bad. We never get too high, we never get too low. It’s just about getting better. When we take that approach, guys will see on the video what they can do better and what their mistakes were.

You mentioned the counters, the chess match. When you’re trying to plan one, two or three steps ahead, how often does something come up that you’re unprepared for? Something that is a surprise.

As a staff, our job, and one of Erik’s jobs when he was an assistant under Stan, was what [opponents were] going to counter with. And he would prepare Stan with a gameplan of,
‘If I was coaching what I think Larry Brown or what I think Doug Collins from last year, Doc from last year, what they might counter our defense with.’ Or how they might defend us or attack us from an offense standpoint. So there is that probability that there will counters made, but that’s more behind the door. Behind the scenes.

We deal with the now and what is real, then it’s easier for the players and it’s more simplified, there’s not too much of a message to them. ‘We’re doing this, but in case they do this, let’s do this. And then if they do that, then this option too.’

We just say, ‘This is what they’re doing, and this is what we want to do to attack it. Or defensively, this is what they want, and this is how we’re going to take it away.’ I think there’s a progression. If it works, how can we get it better? If it didn’t work is there something that we need to change schematically – then obviously this is all evaluated with the video – or is there a way to do it better and just adjust it. That’s constantly what we’re looking at as a staff behind closed doors. We’re also [looking at] the What Ifs. But it is important, and Spo always preaches this, when we get out there that there’s a clarity and a simplification of what we’re giving the team.

I’ve got a bit of a ridiculous hypothetical for you. Let’s say something goes horribly wrong, there’s a fire destroying your servers and you can only pull one package of Boston’s offense and one package of Boston’s defense that you’re going to show the players before the next game, what do you pull?

We’d probably just show their main sets are. Specifically, what their main sets were recently and what they were against us. The same would be said about our offense. What are our main sets that have been working for us, but also what our main sets were against them in the regular season? Just take those two things and condense them down.

How different is Boston than last year?

They’re different. They changed from an identity standpoint with their trades and the unfortunate health issues that they’ve had. But they’ve also changed because of their personnel. They’ve changed systematically. You see that with the film. You see that with their stats too. They’re more of a jump shooting team. They used to dominate you in the paint. They used to be a great, one of the best, if not the best rebounding teams in the league. Now they dominate you a different way. They’re a jump shooting team. They’re one of the best jump shooting teams in the league.

Schematically, they’re different and when you look at it from a prep standpoint, that effects just how we prep for them. Doc’s done an amazing job evolving that team with what he’s had. He moved Kevin Garnett to the five because of their situations with their bigs. They lost all of those guys that they thought they would have. They’ve done a pretty amazing job with coaching that team.

Kevin Garnett has been hot from the mid-range all season. Even though those shots are traditionally inefficient, do you have to adjust to him?

You do. But also, you stay with that theme. That one core message to the guys. This could be said about any good shooting team or any good shooting individual, you just want them shooting contested jump shots. If you can contest a jump shot that’s mid-to-long range then you’re going to live with that. That’s kind of what a guy like Kevin Garnett does for you when you’re looking at from a prep standpoint.

What advice would you give to first-year video guys?

Keep working and keep learning. The one thing I always say, is that if you haven’t played in the NBA, and you want to coach at any level, or even if guys want to go into management, this is probably the best way to learn the game. Whether it’s from a personnel standpoint, whether it’s from an organizational standpoint, whether it’s from a coaching standpoint, what you have access to, and what you’re asked to do, if you stay in it, and you work hard, you’re going to be prepared for whatever that next job is that you want to do. Then it’s just about being in the right place at the right time at whatever level it may be.

From a personal standpoint, I’d say keep working and keep learning. You’re going to have some great people that you work for, people that have probably been around this game and in this league for a long time. Be a sponge. Soak up as much as you can from all of them, and from what you learn from the people you work for and what you see, it’s all right there for you.