The Blazers' Larry Greer: The Spy Who Everyone Knows
BY JOE FREEMAN, THE OREGORIAN
Marcus Camby glares at the opposing coach along the sideline during a stop in play, hears the coach yell "Floppy" to his players, and cups his hands around his mouth and screams across the court toward the Trail Blazers' bench.
"Floppy! Floppy! Floppy!"
A salt-and-pepper-haired man rises from the row of seats just behind the Blazers' bench, contemplates Camby's words, and shouts back. "Power. Power." Camby yells "Power" to Andre Miller, who yells it to Wesley Matthews, and before the opponent readies to inbound the ball, every Blazers player on the court knows exactly what play is about to be run and exactly how they are supposed to defend it.
The Spy Who Everyone Knows has struck again.
Life as an NBA advance scout is thankless, tireless and monotonous, but it's also a vital and invaluable part of most organizations. As teams search for any competitive advantage they can get, the information learned through advance scouting -- and the game plans created from this knowledge -- can be the difference between a win and a loss on any given night.
The Blazers are clinging to sixth place in the Western Conference playoff race with two games remaining. Two games separate the second seed from the fourth seed and three games separate the fifth seed from the eighth seed. One quarter, even one possession, over the final two games can make the difference between facing the Dallas Mavericks or the two-time reigning champion Los Angeles Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. And a person you've probably never heard of -- Larry Greer -- might just end up being the person who cements the Blazers' playoff fate.
Every team in the NBA features at least one advance scout, and the Blazers, who place a priority on it, are one of five teams that feature two: Greer and Jim Sleeper. Their jobs are to attend games of upcoming Blazers opponents, learn as much as they can about the teams and report back to coach Nate McMillan and his staff. The staff, with guidance from Greer and Sleeper, then create a game plan.
When the Blazers defeated the Jazz on Thursday in Utah, Greer had been prepping for that matchup for days. In the week leading up to the game, Greer had watched at least two Jazz games on video and two more in person. From a seat near the Jazz's bench, Greer recorded every play the Jazz ran and what they called it into a laptop as the game unfolded.
Afterward, he retreated to his hotel room and noted which plays the Jazz called the most and which players were featured in those plays the most, paying special attention to end-of-game situations and plays that were called out of timeouts. He compiled all the Jazz's tendencies, frequencies of called plays and emailed a report to the Blazers' coaching staff.
Then, after watching the Jazz twice in person, he joined the team in Salt Lake City, collaborating with assistant coaches and offering suggestions on what might help the Blazers win based on what he learned. During games, players call out plays they hear opposing coaches say and Greer fires back with the name that the Blazers call that play.
It's espionage. And it's overt. Everyone in the NBA does it and everyone knows everyone is doing it. At any given game, there might be five advance scouts from different teams sitting side-by-side courtside charting every play. The scouts converse and sometimes even share tips.
"It's information," McMillan said. "Information helps you. Preparation is, I think, the key to this whole thing. Whether it's mental preparation or physical preparation. The same goes for a coach. Having that information of what a team's tendencies are and being able to put that into a game or bring that into a game, is important. Because a lot of times a possession here or a possession there can be the difference."
In fact, Greer was the difference in one critical Blazers victory without even being in the arena.
Remember that Andre Miller-to-Nicolas Batum alley-oop game-winner against the San Antonio Spurs last month? Greer gave that play to McMillan in October.
"A couple years ago I was scouting a Toronto game against the Nets," Greer said. "(Former Nets coach) Lawrence Frank ran that play ... and Vince Carter had a dunk to win the game. I thought it was a great play. And what happens as an advance scout is, and everyone does it, you say, 'Hey, that was a great play,' and you write it down. So I put it in my notes."
Basically, like any good advance scout would do, Greer stole it.
"I'm sure that one day someone's going to use it and say, 'It was that play that Nate McMillan ran against San Antonio,' and give him the credit," Greer said. "And I'm sure that Lawrence Frank got it from someone else. That's how it works."
There couldn't be a more fitting illustration of what it means to be an advance scout. Greer was working that night, scouting a game, so he didn't watch the play live. But his wife texted him to say the Blazers had won, so he texted assistant coach Kaleb Canales to offer congratulations -- Greer texts coaches after every win -- and was surprised to get an immediate call back from Canales, who said: "Nate used your play."
"I said, 'What?' I had no idea," Greer said. "So I watched it on ESPN. Obviously it was exciting. But most importantly, we won the game. For someone in my position, you just want to be someone who helps, who contributes, in any way you can. And for me, I'm just glad that it worked and that we won."
McMillan says Greer makes similar meaningful contributions to virtually every Blazers game. After scouting the Atlanta Hawks, Greer discovered that first-year head coach Larry Drew runs at least eight different plays out of timeouts. It's impossible to predict which play he might run at any time, so the Blazers decided before they faced the Hawks to run zone defenses after timeouts.
In another game, Greer noticed that one team was doubling LaMarcus Aldridge in a way that left Miller wide open in the corner. Greer suggested an offensive tweak that shifted Miller to the weakside and Nicolas Batum -- a much better three-point shooter -- to the opening in the corner.
"It ended up getting Nic a bunch of threes in the corner," Blazers assistant coach Bill Bayno said. "He comes up with good suggestions like that all the time. We take that to Nate and he often ends up using them."
But as rewarding as these difference-making moments are for Greer, who has been with the Blazers for four seasons, the life of an advance scout can be equally grueling. Greer, who lives in Ohio with his wife and three children, sees his family about five days a month on average during the NBA season. He's with the team eight days a month and the rest of his time is spent in hotel rooms, airplanes, airports and basketball arenas.
Greer watches roughly 100 games in person during season and another 100 or 200 on DVD.
He loves his job, but the time away from his wife, Emily, and his kids, Darcy, Ashley and Joey, is the most difficult part of the job. He cherishes the little things, like phone calls home after a long day of travel or the brief trips to Ohio he squeezes in when he can. His family has become big Blazers fans, so much so that the last time he visited, his 7-year-old son Joey was wearing a long sleeve on his arm just like Aldridge, his favorite player.
When Emily Greer tries to explain what her husband does to friends, most inadvertently mistake him for a scout who evaluates college players. So she's come up with a nickname to clear things up.
"She calls me the Spy Who Everyone Knows," Greer said.
And this spy will now try to make his mark on the playoffs. As they do all season, Sleeper and Greer will separate in the postseason, with Sleeper scouting a potential second-round opponent and Greer staying with the team to add insight into their first-round matchup. He's seen the Lakers roughly 20 times this season in person and he's seen Dallas and San Antonio about 10 times apiece.
No one in the organization has seen them more. So when you see a salt-and-pepper haired man stand behind the Blazers bench and shout to the players on the court, you can bet the Blazers will be prepared for whatever is about to come their way.
"The one thing I learned early on is that I'm not guessing," Greer said. "It's not my job to guess. I don't want to give the information that's wrong. You'll see Marcus Camby all the time. He'll put his hand up and call plays back to the bench. I don't want to be the guy who gives him the wrong information and we end up defending a play wrong. That's the worst thing that could happen to me. That means I failed at my job.
"This is a big business and the difference between winning and losing is small. Hopefully, 99 percent of the time, I'm right.