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Do NBA Teams Need Scouts?

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By now you may have heard that the Memphis Grizzlies no longer have any college scouts - some were fired, some left on their own (or so I think...maybe they all were fired?), but the bottom line is that the Grizzlies have no on staff anymore whose full-time job is to scout college players.  Some were outraged (including fans and Hardwood Paroxysm's Matt Moore), some were a little more nonchalant about it.  Without a doubt, this was done to save money - a lot of teams, the Grizzlies included, are going with only the minimum number of players this season, and Memphis owner Michael Heisley is considered perhaps the biggest cheapskate in the league.  So let's take a look at two questions - does any NBA team need a dedicated college scouting staff, and does Memphis specifically need college scouts?

There has never been more information about athletes available publicly, and that goes for college and high school athletes as well as pros.  In addition to coverage on ESPN and "major" networks, there are regional TV networks and some owned by individual NCAA Division I conferences that all show college basketball games.  DraftExpress is just one example of websites who track college basketball players and evaluate their readiness for the pro game.  So why don't NBA teams just use those resources?  Well, for one thing, there's value in seeing someone play in person.  Take the D-League (since this is a D-League blog and all).  As good as Futurecast is, the camera doesn't catch everything that happens on the court.  From my own experience, attending Toros games allowed me to see aspects of certain players that I hadn't seen before, like Malik Hairston talking on defense or even Dwayne Jones spending the entire warm-up working on his free throws.  That kind of information is incredibly valuable when getting a complete picture of a player and what he can offer your team.  And while the folks at DraftExpress do a good job, relying on them or any other website without seeing those players and games for yourself means that you're relying on an outlet whose job is more general - Givony et al. are looking at how players will do in the NBA generally, not how well they'll fit on a particular roster.

At the same time, a team could still reasonably manage to see enough college players as it needs with only a few people in the front office.  Why not have the GM (or "president of basketball ops" or whatever), director of player development, or the other decisionmakers see for themselves?  Miami Heat GM Pat Riley stepped down as coach when his team wasn't very good to attend college games and watch players.  So why can't other GMs?  A member of the front office or coaching staff can attend the Portsmouth Invitational or any other large gathering of prospects, and likewise can supervise the team's individual player workouts.  There's also the argument that by the time the college season rolls around, there aren't a whole lot of surprises as to who the top players are, the only question is who declares and who stays in school.  For a team drafting in the lottery, then, there are usually only a handful of players they need to pay attention to anyway.  And, barring some kind of Houston Rockets we're-going-to-pay-three-or-four-teams-to-draft-guys-in-the-second-round-for-us situation, teams usually end up with a maximum of two players on draft day.  Add to that the fact that more and more teams are using one or both of their draft picks on European players who will stay overseas (and off the payroll) for one or more seasons anyway, and you have a situation where there are fewer this-college-guy-or-that-college-guy decisions being made.

The weight I give to each of these opposing points changes fairly often at this point, but at the very least there is an argument to be made that getting rid of its college scouts doesn't have to be the end of the world for an NBA team.

After the jump, we turn to whether this is is good or bad for Memphis, specifically.

I don't follow the Grizzlies much, so I won't pretend to know exactly what the team needs or doesn't need.  Still, it's no real secret that Memphis owner Michael Heisley, and not GM Chris Wallace, calls most if not all of the shots, player-transaction-wise.  The recent decision not to retain Hakim Warrick, for instance, was seen as a cost-cutting move that was opposed by the team's basketball operations side people.  So if that's true, then one has to wonder how valued the college scouts' contributions were.  Or, as the Grizzlies blog Straight Outta Vancouver put it,

In Memphis's front-office, where it's becoming increasingly clear that even Chris Wallace is prisoner to Michael Heisley's whims, I'm going to guess the dedicated scouts had to shout to be heard. I'm infinitely more concerned with Heisley taking over Wallace's player evaluation duties than with them not having a circle of scouts to ignore.

To emphasize this even more, other Grizzlies blog 3 Shades of Blue examined the question of why Wallace sticks around anyway, and dug up this Heisley quote:

I'm not so sure the professionals have that much more going for them than the fans have going. A lot of it really turns out to be luck. How many trades do you make that turns out horrible because the guy gets injured and he hardly ever plays for you?

While it might be okay for a sports columnist to make this argument and not, say, a team owner, to a certain extent Heisley is correct in that there's a certain amount of risk involved in any trade or draft pick, so even the smartest minds get some things wrong.  And while I don't personally think this means a team owner is as qualified as a GM or a scout to make those kinds of decisions, the important thing here is that Heisley believes it.  For a team whose owner believes he's just as good as any scout in evaluating what his team needs, the scouts they employ are pretty much doing glorified busywork.

There are some other unique aspects of Memphis's situation.  For instance, ecause there's a prominent college basketball program in their city that plays against good competition (part of the time, anyway), it's not all that hard for Wallace (or whomever) to see top college players in person during the season.  There also are several SEC teams within a few hours of Memphis, so a Grizzlies representatives can see players from that conference as well.  Not every NBA team can do the same.

That's why, to me, this particular move isn't the worst thing in the world.  I definitely wouldn't call it a good move, and certainly the people who lost their jobs because their boss (or rather, their boss's boss) is a cheapskate can'tbe happy with it, and it's never fun for a team's fans when that team is constantly looking for ways to spend less money, but if the folks in charge of the Grizzlies didn't think much of scouting opinions, then it makes little sense for them to keep those scouts around.