Film at 3 a.m.
As the NBA playoffs begin, video gurus are feverishly breaking down tape, looking to find an edge
Posted: Friday April 20, 2007 10:56AM; Updated: Friday April 20, 2007 11:09PM
As he leads his Cavaliers into the playoffs against the Washington Wizards on Sunday, Cleveland coach Mike Brown will measure the moment against his NBA beginnings in 1992, when he broke in as a video guy with the Denver Nuggets. He equipped a cubicle off the weight room in McNichols Arena with a pillow, toothbrush and change of clothes, and grabbed catnaps on the training table. When he finished an edit he'd taxi the tapes out to the houses of coaches, who might slip him a twenty as a thank you. "I was going 'deck-to-deck,' all by myself," says Brown, referring to the clunky technology of that era. "But I wouldn't swap the experience for anything. There's been a carryover to everything I've done in this business. Breaking down tapes, I had to be meticulous."
Meticulous only begins to describe the way in which NBA teams study their opponents come playoff time. Over the course of a series they get to know each other so well it hardly seems possible that further film study will divulge anything new. Yet tape-room techies hole up and hunch over, hunting for even the most latent tendencies of an opponent.
Brown is only the most prominent of a breed of young coaches who broke into pro basketball by capturing, logging and editing images of games already played, all in the service of winning others yet to be contested. Over the past decade dozens of these blinkered get-a-lifers have migrated from the video room -- a.k.a. "the Cave" -- to the benches and front offices of NBA teams. As the game moves from chalkboards and clipboards to motherboards and telestrator-like Smart Boards, a new kind of player is emerging too. He's leveraging his own generational familiarity with computers, video games, YouTube and other products of the digital age to turn himself into a better, smarter, more conscientious pro.
"Players understand that video is a big part of your lifeline and very important to your improvement," says New Jersey coach Lawrence Frank, who broke into the game doing film breakdown at Marquette. "And they respect the truth. The tape doesn't lie."
The video revolution is even poised to alter pro basketball itself. As film prep becomes more sophisticated, and video coordinators now match with film clips the actual play calls and hand signals provided to them by in-arena advance scouts, opponents try to disguise their set plays by adding more options. Other teams are replacing scoutable sets altogether with simple motion offenses. The result is the more fluid and improvisatory version of the game, embodied by Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns, which has begun the NBA's stylistic rehabilitation.
All of this is being brought about by worker bees who inhabit a world marked by sleep deprivation, unreasonable deadlines, and takeout meals in Styrofoam clamshells. They'll burrow so deeply into another team's plays that, staring at a monitor at 3 a.m., they might audibly reproach an opposing rookie for failing to run a play properly -- as the Cavaliers' staff did earlier this season to the Grizzlies' Rudy Gay. A player may send gentle mockery their way ("Hey, Cable Guy!" is a typical epithet), but teasing yields to flattery as soon as that player wants his Xbox hooked up to the TV in a hotel room.
Video World even has its own argot, indecipherable to those who don't know what it means to go "deck-to-deck" or "get in your ones and twos." "If you're a video coordinator and you like being one, you're probably not doing the job right," says Steve Hetzel, who holds that position for the Cavs. "It's way too much work to want to do for the rest of your life."
Indeed, the fraternal bond among video guys around the NBA is so tight that they'll routinely call on one another for a copy of a game tape that has gone missing, or the name of that play used by some other team. Tape heads help each other out, knowing that they are a missed FedEx pickup deadline away from being an advance scout exiled to the upper mezzanine.
Ask a football coach what the weather's like and he's likely to reply, "Can't tell you 'til I've watched the film." Basketball has never been quite like that, at least not beyond a few football-influenced coaches like Michigan State's Tom Izzo and Texas Tech's Bob Knight, who once famously said, "The box score accuses. The videotape indicts." Video was slow to come to basketball, according to Randy Eccker of XOS Technologies, which supplies digital editing systems to 28 of the NBA's 30 teams, "because basketball is seen as being all about flow and making decisions on the fly." Then two things happened.
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