Byron Scott: Villain, Scapegoat, or He Got What He Deserved?

When the Los Angeles Lakers severed ties to the past and fired Byron Scott, they were, for the last time, putting to bed the Showtime era that netted the Lakers five titles and a cultural histology they have leaned upon for the past 36 years. Coupled with the Kobe Bryant retirement, the Lakers are now absent every single player who knew, respected, and had a conversation with Dr. Jerry Buss. The Lakers are fully embracing their descent and waiting for their resurrection with cautious breath and an awkward sense of timing. It was just last week that Mitch Kupchak said Byron was under contract and the two were going to have an “informal” lunch in the next two weeks.  The lunch never materialized. Byron Scott joins Mike D’Antoni and Mike Brown as coaches who never should have been hired but were, and then fired.

Firing Scott days after Tom Thibodeau was hired in Minnesota can only be interpreted as the Lakers didn’t want the hottest coach on the free agent market. As a matter of record, they never would have released power the way the Timberwolves did in making Thibodeau team president, but they took themselves out of the Thibodeau hunt, who was the glamour get. Their coaching search begins immediately.

“We would like to thank Byron for his hard work, dedication and loyalty over the last two years but have decided it is in the best interest of the organization to make a change at this time.” (Mitch Kupchak)

Coaches rumored to try to piece this tapestry of youth, veterans and lack of direction together are Kevin Ollie, Jay Wright, Luke Walton and Ettore Messina. Ollie is a Durant guy. Jay Wright is the bright new penny, after winning the NCAA title, and has the feel of a Brad Stevens college to the  NBA success story. Luke Walton is a Laker by birth. Ettore Messina was a highly respected European coach before he became an assistant for the Spurs. He would change the culture from me to we.

Each member of the Lakers list all have a shot at recruiting Kevin Durant which will be the familiar Lakers tree they are attaching themselves to. It is all they know how to do. Go all out for a free agent you have no chance in landing and then pick up the pieces.

The coaching search will be headed by Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss. Their previous brilliance delivered to Los Angeles: Mike Brown (because he interviewed well), Mike D’Antoni (after rejecting Phil Jackson), and Byron Scott. So there isn’t much trust that they know what they are doing, nor is it clear they have the capacity to identify and empower talent.

The Lakers history has always created an illusion but it is their future that matters now.

As for the coach they just fired, he deserves an epilogue.

Byron Scott had a particularly compelling Inglewood story romantics are drawn to. A witness to a culture of gangs and crime, Byron escaped to Arizona, was traded for Norm Nixon, won three titles, metastasized the Pat Riley lessons, bonded with a rookie Kobe Bryant. A toughness addict, he mentored great in Chris Paul and Kyrie Irving, he tolerated Jason Kidd and elevated the New Orleans Hornets, and appeared in eight NBA Finals as either a player or a coach. That he had a deep and abiding love for the Lakers wasn’t the point. Nearly a decade has passed since Scott has been relevant as a NBA coach and it wasn’t quite clear with the Lakers in transition what they were expecting from Scott with a roster seeped in irresponsibility, inexperience and failure.

On the surface, Byron Scott was riven with the impossible task of being who he was and being who he was not. He couldn’t lay himself aside. The hard nosed tactician who thrived on tyranny was a stylistically bad fit for the young and immature players he was charged with improving. But- and this is where it was complicated- he lacked the ability to be anyone else, despite the failure of his rigidness. Byron Scott was Laker celebrity and around here that matters until you have to fall on your sword and spill blood.

There were many a night when the Lakers cheated the game. As difficult as this season was navigating the Kobe Bryant retirement tour, there was ample room for Scott to take advantage of the 37 year old Bryant’s absence. Kobe could take care of himself. He had played long enough and knew how to fit himself into whatever arrangement was presented. The kids needed empowerment but received a stale and archaic offense with little ball movement, a lot of dribbling, no attention to details, no screen setting, no helping each other or playing for each other, and an overall apathy. Scott, an innate micro manager, couldn’t get his hardcore disciplinarian philosophy to rub off.  He invoked something far different and the consequences were dire.The Lakers were the least disciplined team in the NBA. The students didn’t reflect the teacher; the students rebelled.

When you have two rookies in the rotation, plus two second year players, you are not going to win a lot of games. It is a developmental team. But the Lakers kids were better at the end of the year than the beginning. Julius Randle tied Anthony Davis as the best rebounding forward and this was his first full season. Jordan Clarkson improved his scoring nearly four points to 15.5 points a game but his defense was catastrophic. D’Angelo Russell improved as each month went on and he made more threes than any other lottery pick. But overall, his impact was 75th best among point guards and he wasn’t out there to make other players better.

Effort was hard to predict from night to night and whatever Byron was teaching went in one ear and out the other and it depressed him after games, how he didn’t recognize what he was seeing. He alternated between anger and sorrow and disgust. The Lakers, in crises, were being led by a man not suited for crises management. There were just too many kids.

The number two pick in the draft, D’Angelo Russell is a 19 year old point guard who struggles with organizing the offense and living in the NBA world but his talent to score the ball made his believers say I told you so. Jordan Clarkson, the second round pick who pulled himself up from the expectation of nothing special, is best as a finisher but he makes repetitive errors on defense and is careless with the ball. Julius Randle is the hardest worker of all the young guys but he needs a summer education in footwork in the paint and change of direction. That is not something Scott could fix in one season even if he was the best teacher, which he is not. The kids are learning the game and their maturity ebbs and flows.

Speaking of their maturity: the NBA eats their young. One week Nick Young and Jordan Clarkson were accused of sexually harassing an activist while driving in L.A. and two weeks later D’Angelo Russell was caught up in a videotaping social media scandal. Both incidents illuminated the Lakers are dealing with players in early adulthood. As Lou Williams remarked, “it’s okay to grow up.” The divided locker room regurgitated the worst of high school. It wasn’t just the way it ended with Russell and Nick Young, but it was all of it, the dazed expressions, the confusion, the cliques, the dissonance.

Bearing some of the blame, the front office who gathered such a young group and expected the opposite of what they received. Russell’s immaturity wasn’t some grand secret that caught everyone off guard at the wrong moment.  He approached this season like it was his sophomore year in college and then he found out the hard way there were maturity expectations he had to meet and if he didn’t he would pay a severe price.

The kids aside, the rigidity of Scott was why the Lakers chose him. They knew he would fail at this; they expected it. He was never supposed to be more than a two year coach, a bridge over the Kobe Bryant waters. Perhaps, he would have surprised them by an ability to nurture and embrace with an understanding that flexibility is not a weakness and doesn’t mean you are soft. He played the part they had written for him and it was a brilliant display of Scott being tone deaf. There wasn’t any effort on his part to tailor the offense around the talents of his players but rather the reverse; the kids had to fit into the ghost of the NBA past with a slow moving regressive offense that didn’t honor ball movement, spacing or perimeter shooting. By the time Scott changed the offense, it was too late to save himself despite the roster being exponentially limited. He didn’t move the needle quick enough. It was what the front office knew was going to happen.

Young players don’t know what they don’t know. If they are your center, then the product is going to be flawed. To the naked eye, the Lakers kids had such obvious imperfections it made any kind of normal season virtually unattainable for whoever was coaching them. It was going to be a failure no matter how you sliced it. The Lakers collective rock bottom numbers pointed to their flaws. It allowed the front office to wrap it all up in a neat bow. Goodbye Kobe. Goodbye Bryon. Hello what is coming next.

The brutal calculus of NBA coaching is you are judged by your record and the Byron Scott record was abysmal. The unintended consequence of the way things worked out this year for Scott is that his last year as a player was when Kobe came in the league. And his last year as a coach was when Kobe left the league. It was Scott’s dream job to coach the Lakers but most dreams rarely fulfill expectations. Dreams are dreams for a reason.

So pour the dirt on the grave that Scott dug with his fearless and reckless style of bringing his young players along. The Byron Scott era has died a torturous death with a lot of last minute resuscitations that didn’t matter in the end. The two years will hardly be missed or mourned in the annals of Lakers history. There is too much to celebrate about the franchise. So the Scott regime, the guts of it- the good, the bad, the ugly- was interrupted because it had to be. It was a cutting of the cord with a machete and not a knife. It was a rapid kill; death is quicker that way. As nightmares go, it was a tough two years for everyone to witness and now that it is over and a page has turned, another new Lakers chapter begins with optimism at the center of it all.

Five years and four coaches and two playoff appearances and two lottery appearances (maybe three) and an organization stuck in neutral and brother and sister at each other’s throats and no transcendent star walking through the door. That’s their legacy after the Chris Paul trade was rescinded and yet the Lakers are bigger than they have ever been, and they are as complex as they have ever been, and, equal parts chaotic and confused. They are treading water, trying not to drown. They are throwing stuff on the wall and hoping it sticks. Scott or no Scott, it is a peculiar place where the Lakers have fallen.

photo via lllananba