As they fill out their roster in free agency, the Lakers have reversed the usual order of operations. They will almost certainly finalize their roster before their coach. The latest news in Lakerland is that the team is in no rush to hire a coach, but is expecting to decide in the next few weeks.
The key question when it came to firing D’Antoni was always who would replace him. Last year’s squad was a franchise worst, but that was a reflection of the talent level and injuries more than coaching. As the Lakers have watched the Stan Van Gundy’s of the world get snapped up in the head coaching carousel, the number of viable candidates has dwindled.
With several interviews under his belt and strong endorsements from Kobe and Magic, Byron Scott has long been considered the front runner for the job. While George Karl and Mike Dunleavy are still reportedly in the mix, other candidates like Lionel Hollins, Alvin Gentry, and Kurt Rambis have since given up and accepted coaching positions around the League. You would have to give Scott the edge if you were handicapping candidates today.
It’s not hard to see why he might get the nod. I can see three clear reasons why the Lakers would hire Scott:
Nostalgia: He’s a Showtime Laker with a lot of history in Lakerland, playing a vital role on multiple championship teams. He’s an in-house hire that will make Magic happy and give many fans the warm and fuzzies.
Relationship with Kobe: He was Kobe’s mentor as a rookie and shares a very close relationship with the Mamba. When asked if he wants Scott to be the new head coach, Kobe simply quipped, "Yep." Like Magic, Bryant’s voice still carries substantial weight with the franchise.
Experience: The Lakers are never a team that expects to lose and have said they wanted an experienced coach. Byron definitely fits the bill and could be positioned to get the most out of Kobe’s twilight. He has coached 937 games since 2000 and been to two NBA Finals, both with the New Jersey Nets.
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While he definitely brings experience and a lot of history to the franchise, I really don’t like Scott’s fit with the Lakers at all. There are myriad reasons why Lakers fans should be ranging from skeptical to downright depressed about the specter of Byron Scott, Head Coach. I think that this would be a retread hire of the worst kind. Scott has not proven he will be an effective leader through a rebuilding process, nor has he shown the ability to remain the voice of a playoff team for more than 2-3 seasons.
While experienced, he’s certainly not a winner. Over 937 games coached, Byron holds a very mediocre .444 lifetime winning percentage. In 11 complete seasons under his helm, he has only made the playoffs four times. He’s been fired twice mid-season, once after only 9 games. As a tactician and leader, Scott has some major holes. While generally considered a decent defensive coach, Scott’s offenses were characterized by predictable sets and a complete lack of creativity. His uncompromising presence and stubbornness has drawn unflattering comparisons to Scott Skiles, who similarly grated on his teams and lost locker room after locker room as a coach.
New Jersey Nets (2000-04)
Byron Scott took over a terrible Nets team in 2000 and struggled to a 26-56 finish. Thanks to a swap of Stephon Marbury for Jason Kidd, the Nets turned around overnight. From there, the Nets won a franchise record 52 games en route to two straight trips to the NBA Finals. The Nets weren’t competitive in either Finals, getting swept by the Lakers in 2002 and outcoached down the stretch by Popovich in 2003, eventually losing to the Spurs in 6.
During a middling 22-20 start the next season, the Nets started to tune him out and eventually quit on him. At a news conference announcing that Lawrence Frank would replace Scott, Rod Thorn said, "It happens to almost every coach eventually. Your message isn’t well received and taken onto the court." Noted coach killer Jason Kidd berated Scott after an embarrassing lost to Memphis and was clearly in favor of his departure. He jumped on the dog pile, adding, "Sometimes change or a different voice is good." Fired 42 games after an NBA Finals run and losing your superstar after two years? Gulp.
New Orleans Hornets (2004-09)
Similar to his stint in New Jersey, Scott took over a franchise in disarray with the challenge of rebuilding. After three sub-.500 seasons including an 18-64 start, he and Chris Paul finally broke through in 2007. The 2007-08 Hornets won 56 games, good for the 2 seed in the West, and took the Spurs to a hard-fought seven games in the conference semi-finals. Scott was voted the Coach of the Year and they were clearly a team on the rise.
Unfortunately, the Hornets failed to build on their momentum. They fell to the 7th seed in the 2009 playoffs and were knocked out in the first round by the Nuggets in 5 games. Scott and Paul have the dubious distinction of being the only playoff team to lose to Carmelo Anthony in the first round. The Hornets were blown out in each of their losses, including an NBA-record 58 point drubbing in Game 4 at home. Following a slow start to the next season, Scott was fired after only 9 games.
Although he reportedly had a strong relationship with CP3, there were plenty of locker room rumblings in New Orleans. There were concerns about his in-game adjustments and stubbornness. David West, NBA statesman, indicated that the team’s philosophy wasn’t working and Scott’s pride limited his flexibility. After Scott had been ousted, West noted, "We’re not going to be as predictable as we have been in the past. We’ve had some conversations over the past couple of weeks, just trying to figure what we could do to get the ship righted, but … I think pride is a dangerous, dangerous thing."
Cleveland Cavaliers (2010-13)
Scott didn’t do much to redeem his past missteps in post-LeBron Cleveland. In an NBA fun fact, I believe Scott is also the only coach in NBA history to be replaced by the same coach that he took over for. The fact that it was Mike Brown only adds insult to injury. Despite working with low expectations, Scott’s inability to show improvement ultimately cost him his job. Even with the caveat of heavy injuries, Scott failed to progress in Cleveland, winning a meager 19, 21, and 24 games over his three seasons. He displayed a similar inability to consistently get through to his players and also drew fire as an in-game leader. His substitutions and time outs were regularly questioned throughout his tenure.
Aside from the ugly win-loss record, his teams also failed the eye test. As a team, his Cavaliers were last in FG % allowed in the NBA in 2012-13. Given plenty of young talent to develop, none of Scott's players made the leap in Cleveland. Despite a commitment to a youth movement, there was absolutely no organizational momentum when he was fired. His only saving grace was his bond with his young superstar, Kyrie. Upon Scott’s dismissal, a reeling Kyrie Irving said that he was "trying to get over the loss of my basketball father." For the first time since 2000, Scott did not coach in the 2013-14 season.
Taking a step back, Byron Scott would be a terrible fit for this Lakers team. His checkered past as a tactician and history of losing his teams should raise plenty of red flags, even if he was a legend in LA as a player. To me though, the most damning point is his stubbornness. Looking ahead, the only things that we can say for certain about these Lakers is that they will change dramatically over the next few years, will have plenty of young talent to develop, and will have substantial roster churn every offseason. No one knows how much Kobe has left in the tank. The Lakers need a coach that will be flexible and can maximize the talent of whatever team is on the floor, not an inflexible one.
As Kobe’s career fades to black, I understand the impulse to hire an experienced coach to try and win now as much as possible. I respectfully disagree. Instead of mediocre retread, I think the Lakers should hire an unknown, a bright young mind and student of the game. Like it or not, the Purple and Gold are in the midst of a rebuild and would be better suited to get their coach of the future rather than reach for the past.