Nine months after he coached his last game for the Los Angeles Lakers, Byron Scott is an elusive figure. He is part of the Lakers past but rarely mentioned because his accomplishments were small by design. Scott had a difficult task. Get young players on the NBA professionalism program and then exit quietly. Though the mention of Scott’s name is often followed by a collective eye-roll, it was Scott who legitimized Jordan Clarkson in his first year. Scott believed in Clarkson on day one more than he believed in Jeremy Lin. It was that first year in which Clarkson thrived and was on the All NBA-Rookie team that new coach Luke Walton had Clarkson study to remind himself of the player he used to be: all aggression and play making without none of the second guessing.
Scott’s major failure was clinging with a tight grip to the past and his major flaw was his teaching style. Scott lived in the right now. He would never be called an innovator. He used what he knew which made him extremely ordinary. He had success a long time ago but that was no longer relevant as the league has drastically changed. He couldn’t wrap his brain around the perimeter revolution and he stuck to his old habits to the Lakers peril and to the Lakers joy. They wanted Scott’s failure. That would earn them a group of young talents that the next coach could worry about. It was never going to be Scott’s job to nurture the Lakers to their full potential. He was the gatekeeper.
Scott never fully meshed with D’Angelo Russell, the star in waiting. Russell’s maturity last season wasn’t Kyrie Irving or Chris Paul lite. He was a 19 and 20 year old who pouted on the bench, could be incredible dynamic as he was in those Brooklyn games or he could be average to worse. He struggled with the point guard position, particularly seeing the floor and getting players shots. Russell thought of himself as a star and that Scott was holding him back. When all hell broke loose with the D’Angelo video, Scott finally realized the kids were babies. They needed more than a babysitter. He was in way over his head.
So it made sense to fire Byron and hire Luke pronto. Luke represented the now and the future. He came from a system that legitimized ball movement. The Lakers don’t have a dominant talent so there is no hierarchy, just play hard. Play well. Those are the instructions.
Walton has great interpersonal skills and even when he’s mad he’s pretty gentle about it. But as the season has progressed Walton hasn’t played Russell any more than Scott did so was Byron right about Russell all along?
What Byron was right about was the Lakers defense. Yes you can blame a lot on effort. But defense falls upon the individual players capabilities. Part of being defensive minded is being physical. Nick Young has never been a physical player. Lou Williams has never been a physical player. Luol Deng has always been a good defender but he looks as if his game and physicality has degraded. He is not the same player he used to be. So where exactly is the defensive resurgence going to come from? If the Lakers can’t defend, they can’t compete.
Let’s look at the numbers. Last season the Lakers were 27th in opponents points per game. This year they are 27th in opponents points per game. They Lakers gave up 106.9 points per game under Byron Scott. This year the Lakers are giving up 110.7 points a game under Luke Walton. They are worse.
Last year the Lakers were 29th in field goal percentage defense. This year they are 30th. Teams shoot 47% against them. Last year teams shot 47% against them.
Last year the Lakers were 11th in 3-point defense, 34.7%. This year the Lakers are 18th in 3-point defense. Teams shoot the three with 35.5% success. The Lakers have digressed.
But what about individual players. Have they improved under Luke Walton?
Julius Randle: He is playing the same amount of minutes as he played last season, 28. He is a better scorer this year, 49%, a worse three point shooter, 17.6%. His free throw percentage is down this year, under 70%. His rebounds are down but his assists are almost twice as high. Randle isn’t an explosive rim protector so he’ll never block shots with any level of consistency. His scoring average is slightly elevated 1.5 points higher. His overall offense is better and his defense is worse. Last year he was ranked 77 out of 80 power forwards. He has a habit of playing out of control or too fast and then turning the ball over. He still doesn’t have a jump shot he trusts. This year he is ranked 46th (out of 93 power forwards). Improvement Grade: B+
D’Angelo Russell: Russell is playing less minutes this year under Walton than he played under Scott but you don’t hear any Walton shade about Russell’s playing time. He is shooting slightly worse, 40.1% but better from three, 38.2%. His rebounds are the same but his assists are up but unfortunately for him so are his turnovers. He is a 15.0 scorer which is a big plus for Russell. His defense is pretty unchanged: bad. Russell is a solid point guard if not a great one. He is still learning the position and sometimes can be more selfish than he needs to be. Last year he was ranked 59th (out of 68 point guards.) This year he is ranked 19th (out of 85 point guards). Improvement: B
Nick Young: He is having the greatest year of his career. The highest shooting percentage, an ungodly 41% from three, a career high free throw percentage which cracks the 90% threshold. His rebounds are up, his points are at a three year high- Byron totally emasculated Nick’s game. Swaggy’s defense is the worst it has been in 8 years but in a switch Nick is actually giving effort. He is just horrible at contesting shots and having any sort of defensive awareness. His offensive rating of 125 is a career high. Before this season his highest offensive rating was under D’Antoni, 107. He has a career high PER. Last year he was ranked 79th (out of 80 shooting guards). This year he is ranked 14th (out of 96 shooting guards). Improvement: A.
Lou Williams: Under Luke, Williams is the Lakers leading scorer. He has returned to his Sixth Man of the Year form though it’s a long shot for him to win the award. Eric Gordon of the Rockets has the front runner position. But Lou is the reason the Lakers bench is #1 in the NBA and on pace to be the most prolific scoring bench in NBA history. Last season the Lakers bench was the 15th best. As for Williams, he is shooting a career high from three. His assists and steals are higher than they were last year and so are his turnovers. 18.8 points a game is a career high. His defense is better this year but not at his Toronto level. He is that offensive spark the Lakers needs to fill in the gaps when they go through their offensive lulls because they have stopped moving the ball. Last season he was ranked 49th among shooting guards and this year he is ranked 3rd. Improvement: A
Jordan Clarkson: Clarkson thrived under Byron; Byron trusted him. This season coming off the bench, his three point shooting has come back from the dead; he is at 35.0%. His rebounds are down but he is playing four minutes less and his scoring has dropped below 15 points a game. HIs defense hasn’t been very good just like when Scott coached him. His offense is coming around but still not at the level when Scott was guiding him his rookie year. Last season he was ranked 48th among point guards and this year he is ranked 55. Improvement: C
And so it’s a mixed bag without Byron. Offense is better. Defense is worse. The Lakers move the ball a little bit more, 20 assists versus 18 assists. Nick and Lou are having career years. Clarkson isn’t as efficient or dynamic. The Lakers aren’t a playoff team this year and they weren’t a playoff team last year but they are on pace to win 31 games which is a 14 game improvement. They look like they are having fun except when they are losing. But the defense and the turnovers and the not playing hard was not all on Byron Scott. Those same issues have cropped up this year too.
Byron Scott is an easy scapegoat and oh so convenient. It’s easy to blame him because he was stuck on his own arrogance and frankly, damned unlikeable. His my way mantra and not looking to compromise ruined whatever chance he had to keep the job. But he did his part for the Lakers when they needed him to. He created structure and discipline if not a fun environment. He lost and the Lakers reaped talent. The Lakers kids have thrived with Walton. And they have regressed. And like they did under Byron Scott, the Lakers will have a lot of losses in their future.
photo via llananba