When the Pistons traded for Anthony Tolliver last week, they did so with full confidence they had a complete picture of the player being acquired. Assistant coach Bob Beyer was on the staff in Charlotte last season when Tolliver played a key role off the bench of a surprise playoff team. Pistons scout Adam Glessner was also a member of the front office. And Stan Van Gundy could have reached out to Charlotte head coach Steve Clifford, his trusted assistant in Orlando, for additional endorsements.
But they won't always have such an immediate connection to a trade target, which is what Van Gundy had in mind when he pitched Tom Gores on the importance of a pro scouting staff that might be unprecedented in the NBA experience.
The Pistons beefed-up front office includes four full-time NBA scouts. They're spread out across the country and Van Gundy estimates that they scout – not just watch, but study and file reports on – 85 to 90 percent of all NBA games. General manager Jeff Bower says that by mid-December, those scouts had filed 6,000 scouting reports.
"I get a call on a player, I can go right to his report card and see my weekly grades from the scouting staff," Bower said. "Week by week, you can read the narrative and pull it all together to see if he's going up, if he's going down, why he's been out, why all of a sudden his minutes have increased. But you don't have information like that if you're not following it every day and every game and every week. That's where the day-to-day compounding of information comes in really having value."
In studying how NBA teams were put together, Van Gundy kept coming back to the fact that for most teams, more than half of players were drafted by another team.
"There tends to be an opinion that we just know the NBA players and I don't think we really watch them as closely as we need to and those are huge decisions," he said. "You don't want to make a mistake in the draft, but the way it's set up now, if you make a mistake in the draft at least it's low cost. If you're going to go out and spend $14 million a year, $15 million a year on a guy and you make a mistake, now you're really hurting. So I just want to weight it a little bit more."
The pro scouting staff, under the direction of assistant general manager Jeff Nix, consists of four men with a combined decades worth of basketball experience: Glessner, Tom Barrise, Rob Werdann and Al Walker. Barrise is based in New York, Werdann in Charlotte and Walker in Denver. Glessner's home base is Auburn Hills, though he spends stretches of days in Los Angeles, as well, to balance the scouting staff between Eastern and Western conferences.
NBA teams hold close information pertaining to front-office structures and processes, but it's a relatively small world with considerable movement. Bower has been around long enough to know the Pistons are now at the forefront in terms of manpower and resources.
"We're on the top tier as far as staffing and head count and dedicated resources to scouting," he said. "We're right near the top, if not at the top. I know nobody has the number of dedicated pro scouts."
Those four NBA scouts divide up the 29 other teams – Glessner has eight teams, the three others seven apiece – and watch, live or on videotape, home games of their assigned teams. (They divvy up the D-League as well, with the Pistons having an extra layer of support there with Otis Smith in place as coach of their affiliate in Grand Rapids.)
The four pro scouts also attend most games at the arenas in their home bases. Then come the reports, filed weekly, on every player. Nix and Bower get a written narrative plus a series of charts that rank players a 1-10 scale over eight categories. They can view the charts independently or overlaid, one atop the other, to get both a specific and broad view of each player's makeup.
There is an analytics component to the reports as well, the integration of areas overseen by Nix and assistant general manager Ken Catanella. Bower and Pat Garrity, director of strategic planning, have spent scores of hours on formalizing processes so that scouts at every level – pro, college or international – speak the same language and use the same forms.
It was a commitment to resources and manpower made by Gores that Van Gundy hasn't taken lightly. The organizational decision to part ways with Josh Smith and go in a different direction a week ago meant Gores had to sign off on paying Smith for more than 2½ seasons to not play for the Pistons. That was a splashier move but no more critical to the franchise's future than putting financial might behind Van Gundy's vision for staffing the front office.
"I've said this for a few months and I absolutely mean it," Van Gundy said late last week. "I've got confidence that over time here, we're going to get this turned around. But if we don't, it ain't gonna be on Tom Gores. He's doing absolutely everything anybody can do. I can't imagine an owner doing more or even close to what he's been willing to do. I feel a responsibility, quite honestly, to get this thing turned around and to give him what he deserves here."
Waiving Smith means the Pistons stand to have somewhere around $30 million to take into free agency next summer. The Pistons will have both of their draft choices and a war chest of money to buttress a roster with a handful of important building blocks already in place, including 21-year-olds Andre Drummond and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
"I think it's important going forward with the money that's at stake that we make really, really solid decisions," Van Gundy said. "I'm happy with the guys we brought in (during 2014 free agency), but we were making those on the fly. We had a month and a half before we hit free agency. I feel a lot better headed into this off-season with where we are at. We'll be better prepared."