As the NBA plans to resume play amid the coronavirus pandemic, Jeremy Berman breaks down the potential effects scouting departments could face with a dramatically different schedule.
On June 4th, the NBA’s Board of Governors approved the implementation of a format to resume the 2019-20 NBA season. Taking place at Walt Disney World in Orlando, the 22 teams that were invited are all within six games of making the NBA playoffs. Starting on July 30th or 31st, each team will play eight more regular-season games under the moniker “seeding games,” continuing through their schedule against other teams in the “Orlando Bubble.” Along with a few other tweaks to the rules and timing of games, a potential Game 7 of the NBA Finals would occur on October 12th.
In terms of off-season front office prep, the 2020 NBA Draft Lottery is tentatively scheduled for August 25th. The NBA Draft is scheduled for October 15th, with Free Agency slated to start a couple of days later and the 2020-21 NBA season beginning in December.
NBA front offices have plenty to plan and prepare for in regards to the rest of the 2019-20 season. There will also be a plethora of challenges to face in planning and scheduling for the 2020-21 season. Along a standard NBA timeline, front offices are generally able to create a framework of scouting trips, roster planning meetings, and other important strategic sessions in September or October, before the NBA season starts. However, with the immense number of variables thrown into the equation due to COVID-19, that should prove more difficult and will likely require more resources to handle.
For now, let’s play the role of an NBA team’s Director of College Scouting. The Director of College Scouting’s job description usually does not simply entail traveling the world scouting prospects for the draft. While that is obviously an essential task, other responsibilities may include scheduling and assigning the team’s network of scouts, creating processes to break down and discuss prospects organizationally, making intel calls, and directing a busy GM on which prospects to see and what the most efficient routes of travel are. NBA front offices place an extremely high value on the ability to efficiently view multiple prospects, multiple times, in a singular location over a short time period. This is clearly evidenced by the extremely high level of scouting attendance at Preseason Holiday tournaments, the G League Showcase, Conference Tournaments, Portsmouth Invitational, the NBA Draft Combine, High School All-Star showcases, and international tournaments.
As an example, some of the most prominently attended events for NBA scouts are the High School All-Star showcases that take place in the Spring, including the Nike Hoop Summit, the McDonald’s All-American Game, and the Jordan Brand Classic. In the era of one-and-dones, it’s crucial for teams to attend these games. Outside of Team USA Basketball events or FIBA Youth Championship tournaments, these games represent the first time many NBA scouts and GMs are able to see these high school-aged kids in person. NBA rules also allow scouts to attend the practice scrimmages that occur at the events. Taking place a little over a year before many will be drafted, the prospects get an opportunity to leave a great first impression and really get on the radars of NBA decision-makers.
Due to COVID-19, all of those sessions, Team USA youth events that usually take place at the final four, and likely all FIBA Youth Championships around the world are canceled for 2020. This could cause a major strain on scouting departments around the league because they represent great opportunities to get multiple data points on high-level players as well as hidden gems in short periods of time. The opportunity cost of seeing certain prospects over others will increase significantly due to the condensed and less convenient schedule. Especially in the case of one-and-dones, draft scouts will need to be on their A-game early on in the college season and be extremely efficient in traveling around the country to college practices, preseason tournaments, and non-conference games.
This scenario leads us to the issue of the distinctly different schedules of the NBA and NCAA this year, which usually run roughly concurrent. In October, when NCAA practices kick-off, teams send their scouts around the country to watch team practices of high-level prospects and interact with college staff. This season, those practices could run right in line with the time frame when every team is directly preparing for the 2020 NBA Draft taking place on October 15th. Those first two weeks of October represent valuable days that would normally be spent getting first looks at the behind-the-scenes practice habits and work ethics of potential 2021 draft entrants. Add that to the list of missed opportunities to view one-and-done players in person. Will NBA teams be forced to miss out on valuable input from scouts in the weeks leading up to the 2020 draft in order to get a head start on the 2021 group? It will be a very interesting case study to see which teams focus all personnel on 2020 vs. those that split personnel between 2020 draft prep and early 2021 draft prep in the form of practice attendance. This time frame will be essential for the NBA to consider as it mulls whether to permanently alter the NBA schedule to run from December through the late summer or fall in the future.
Moving down the timeline to preseason tournaments in November, NBA teams will want to make up for lost time by making sure to field a heavy presence at as many of these tournaments as possible. For many teams, these tournaments will now be the first opportunity to view some of the freshmen they may have seen in prior years at the Hoop Summit or McDonald’s game. One issue that could plague some teams is the overlap between these tournaments and NBA training camp for 2020-21. Many teams field front office-wide meetings during training camp and try to get their scouts in the building to watch their own team practice and get a feel for what the team might need in the draft. Now that training camps and the pre-season will take place in mid-to-late November, Directors of Scouting will likely have to make sacrifices one way or the other with their personnel.
Finally, it is very common for NBA GMs, Assistant GMs, and high ranking draft scouts to take a trip to Europe to view international prospects in December or January. We often see familiar high-ranking front office members pictured at a Liga Endesa game in Spain or a HEBA A1 game in Greece during this time of year. In December or January, NBA teams have settled into the meat of their schedule, and GMs will take some time out of the country to get a feel for some of the top international prospects in person. With such a condensed schedule, GMs may have to rely even more on their international scouting personnel’s opinion on draft prospects in order to see domestic players that they did not have the opportunity to see in high school or in November.
While the inconvenience caused to NBA teams by COVID-19 pales in comparison to the lives lost from and affected by the virus, front offices will be forced to make some sacrifices in 2021 draft prep due to the altered schedule and its change in overlap with the college season. With four extra months to prepare for the 2020 draft, maybe we will hear of some savvy teams getting started on their due diligence for the 2021 high school class, finding ways to get a head start on scouting for the future.