A defender hears the other team's play call as he backpedals across midcourt. Only he doesn't recognize it. So he looks inquisitively to a teammate, who shrugs. Both of them look to the other guys on their team, all of whom have the same puzzled expression. A glance over to the bench reveals three men in suits: One has his palms upturned and shoulders hunched, another is whistling and avoiding eye contact, the third is about to slam a clipboard to the floor. And now it's too late -- the opponents slice through them for an easy layup.
There are many moments of abject ignorance and absolute indecision on NBA courts each season. But there may be a few more in 2009-10 if cutbacks around the league in scouting show up in the quality of play, particularly on defense.
Economic hard times have hit commissioner David Stern's league along with the rest of professional sports, and the NBA is responding a lot like other businesses across the land by reining in costs. We can see it more clearly when the purse strings are tightened at the roster level -- an extra rookie or two, maybe 14 players instead of the maximum 15, all to reduce payroll. Cutbacks upstairs, in the front office, often aren't apparent, unless they trickle down with a negative impact on the games people pay to watch.
The Memphis Grizzlies got the headlines this offseason when they shuttered their amateur scouting staff, dumping all five full-timers who evaluated college and European draft prospects. But a number of other teams have nipped and tucked on the basketball side as well, playing hardball on salaries, not renewing an extra assistant coach here or there, keeping training camp at home rather than heading 100 miles away to a leafy college campus, and reevaluating the costs of preparing for each game.
"I just think that the recent economic plight fast-forwarded things," said one NBA assistant coach, who preferred to remain anonymous for job security reasons. "If you are an owner and you start to look at your expenses and you see that you have four assistant coaches, perhaps a couple of 'development coaches' or 'workout guys,' advance scouts, video staff, etc., etc., you see that the number gets up there pretty quickly, especially if you have a head coach that is well-paid -- say in the $4 million to $5 million range. Then you look in your front office and you see a full executive staff and a lot of scouts. Plus, you have travel expenses for everyone. All of a sudden this number can really start to get out of control."
Advance scouting -- sending a seasoned member of the basketball staff to study and report on the plays and tendencies of a team's next opponent -- is an area hit hard by several clubs. "We made a decision we'd do away with that role, but we'd still need something as far as an advance standpoint," said Bobby Marks, New Jersey's vice president of basketball operations.
Let's be clear: Marks and the Nets are not alone. He was just willing to talk about it, while other clubs are trying to keep such, er, budgeting measures below the public radar. One veteran advance scout who pieced together freelance work from four different teams in 2008-09 said he was told none of them will need his services this season. "They're not going to scout,'' he said. "At least, that's their plan.''
In sheer dollars and cents, advance scouting is pricey and has grown increasingly difficult. One reason: Courtside seats at a scorer's table that used to be available for scouts, giving them ringside sights and sounds to monitor opposing teams, have been turned into prime and expensive real estate for VIP tickets. The media in many arenas have been moved from the sideline to the corners, or even to the top of the lower bowl, and the scouts in many instances have been moved with them. And where seats used to be plentiful, allowing a scout to work ahead and see a team multiple times, now they are limited to just two: one seat for the home team's next foe, one for the opponents.'
As a result, scouts who can't hear or see the calls have to rely more on the video replays they watch most nights anyway, double-checking their work. Or they talk to other teams' scouts and share info. Both argue against the tradition of 30 franchises footing the bill for 30 advance scouts.
Consider the costs: Airfare could run anywhere from $300 to $700 to attend one game (teams charter planes, but their scouts fly commercial). Hotel might average $140 a night. There's the price of a rental car (upwards of $80) or ground transportation, along with food and incidentals that can add an extra $100 a day. Now multiply it by 100 to 130 games a year, then add the staffer's salary and benefits.
"We spent $80,000 to $90,000 in expenses on the road,'' said Marks, whose team employed Paul Cormier as its advance scout for two seasons. Cormier will not be back, and Marks said the Nets might use regional freelancers.
"Then you've got to factor in the salary," Marks added. "You're looking at close to $200,000. Plus, Paul did 103 NBA games last season. That's 18 or 19 a month, which is crazy, especially when you're [traveling commercial]. We asked ourselves, How can we be smart with it and how can we save a little money?''
One way is to make better use of technology that didn't exist just a few years ago. For instance, Synergy Sports, a Phoenix-based digital video service that lists Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban as its best-known investor, now is utilized by a majority of NBA teams.
"It has every NBA, college, D-League and international game, uploaded into their computers,'' Marks said. "And by the morning, it's already been broken down [edited and categorized]. It's almost like each game has its own video coordinator -- online. If I want to watch all of VinceCarter's jump shots from last night, I can get it and watch a one-minute clip.'' Thus, the assistant coach responsible for a particular opponent can go right to the source, rather than starting with an advance scout's report.
Teams also can save money by pooling their efforts. If some scouts were forced to trade information that they could not hear or see from inferior seats, teams can formalize that process by using regional freelancers. Eastern and Western Conference clubs meet only twice each season, for example; the rest of the time, they can share a scout's knowledge rather than replicating each other's work.
We already saw some of that during predraft workouts: Golden State, Minnesota and New Jersey held "combines" attended by multiple teams, rather than flying all the prospects to many more cities at greater expense (and with greater fatigue for the players). "We had 21 teams here," Marks said. "They each paid $2,600 to see 36 kids, I think 20 of whom got drafted."
An unfortunate benefit of this energized economizing is that, just as in a lot of fields, there are plenty of former full-time scouts now available for whatever freelance morsels they can find. More will end up piecing together, on a per-game basis, assignments from four or five teams to make a living.
A smaller pie already has pitted some in the business against others: college scouts vs. advance scouts vs. extra assistants vs. so-called player development coaches. "Glorified ball boys," a displaced scout grumbled. Said another: "A team will spend more bringing in a player on a 10-day contract -- never practice and never play him -- but it will cut its advance scouting."
There are some who see a conspiracy among owners, convinced that franchises are cutting costs to have a more compelling argument when they sit down with the NBA players in negotiations of the next collective bargaining agreement. "They want to be able to say, 'We've made our sacrifices. Now it's your turn,' " one assistant coach said.
Short-term, though, the test will be how much the games, right down to individual plays, are affected. "I don't think any team is going to lose games [over it]," an assistant coach said. "They may struggle if they get rid of an advance scout altogether. ... [It] makes it a lot harder without the advance scout's eyes. Harder but not impossible."
Said Marks: "I think it will be a better product. From a scouting angle, we'll still get the calls. It's going to be done in a different way, in a more cost-effective way. But [the Nets are] still going to prepare for each opponent the way we have. The scouting reports are going to be done the same. The plays, the personnel, everything will be the same."
Maybe for New Jersey. Maybe not for the team whose five starters stand and stare at each other, the 24-second clock ticking away.