Byron Scott is a familiar sight for sore eyes. His hiring is viewed as a homecoming for many Lakers lovers, seen as an opportunity to revive Showtime basketball, as Magic Johnson has longed for with previous hires.
The Lakers, of course, aren't familiar with being relegated to basketball purgatory. Why would they be? Their success has permeated through league history, from its 1947 infancy to today's global influence, beginning with the NBA's first superstar, George Mikan, who pioneered the tradition of 23 Hall of Famers donning purple and gold -- not including future inductees Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, and Steve Nash. It's the perfect recipe for dispersing 16 NBA championships among the 1950's, 70's, 80's, and 2000's.
Unfortunately, there's an ever-glaring conflict between the success the Lakers long to replicate and the mediocrity they've humbly wallowed in, one headache at a time.
Scott wants a championship. Kobe Bryant expects a championship. Mitch Kupchak echoes the same sentiments. Meanwhile, fans simply want the bleeding stop.
Chiefly, the Lakers simply need patience.
It's the last thing any fan wants to hear following a 27-win letdown, but contenders are rarely bred overnight, and as we observed this summer, even the most intimidating juggernauts can be eradicated with one fatal swoop. In most cases, stability, direction, and cohesion not only build championship influence, but sustains it.
A three-time champion with the Showtime Lakers, Byron Scott (middle) is responsible for restoring the franchise's longstanding luster. Photo Credit: Jeff Gross, Getty Images
Since 1976, only two NBA champions have finished worse than 10th in defensive efficiency. But the 2001 Lakers and 1995 Rockets sported two Hall of Fame centers (O'Neal, Hakeem Oljauwon) anchoring championship teams in Year 2 of a repeat. The Lakers have everything but that luxury, even with Kobe Bryant returning. In the past three seasons, they've finished 13th, 20th and 28th respectively, trending downward as their rebuilding phase continues.
With Scott, some expect (hope for) the trend to be bucked, but he had anything but better luck during his stint as coach of the Cavs. Fresh off losing LeBron James, the Cavs finished no better than 26th in defensive efficiency under Scott, and that team sported the same issues the current Lakers exhibit: a transient team reliant on journeymen, unproven rookies, and overcompensating veterans.
Moreover, the Lakers' success hinges on a myriad of concerns, from the team's health, to how immediately Julius Randle develops, to, chiefly, who, in the off chance they earn a playoff berth, do the purple and gold replace among the frenzied Western Conference elite.
Most 2013-14 Western Conference playoff teams have already paid their purgatory penance. Since 2005, when the Lakers missed the playoffs, five Western Conference playoff teams (Clippers, Warriors, Rockets, Blazers, Grizzlies) endured a three-season playoff drought before rejoining the elite, each relying on shrewd trades, savvy draft picks, and efficient cap management to intertwine eventual contention with longstanding flexibility.
The Rockets, for instance, stockpiled draft picks and an ocean of cap space to not only acquire James Harden and Dwight Howard, but surround them with great youth in Terrence Jones and Patrick Beverley, who combine to make only $2.53 million this season as starters on a 50-win team.
Likewise for the Blazers, who supplied Terry Stotts -- he of the .405 win percentage before their 54-win, second-round postseason run last year -- with savvy picks (Damien Lilliard, Nicholas Batum), shrewd acquisitions (Robin Lopez, Wesley Matthews, Dorrell Wright), and a franchise centerpiece in LaMarcus Aldridge. Moreover, Brandon Roy's amnestied $19.3 million salary falls off the team's books next summer, just in time for the aforementioned core to negotiate extensions as the newly-signed TV deal skyrockets the salary cap.
The Lakers are poised for similar flexibility, especially with a coach passionate about returning the franchise to prominence. Of course, even the most impassioned intentions can fall short of respective goals. It happens -- it's the NBA's circle of life. Scott's predecessors, Mikes Brown and D'Antoni, never stood a chance following in Phil Jackson's footsteps, and their combined five postseason wins over three seasons never helped matters. The Lakers are armed with short-term contracts masquerading as season-long tryouts, with a few enticing cogs worth eyeing, Julius Randle being chief among them.
The Lakers must prioritize Julius Randle's development to ensure he adds to the franchise's championship culture.
Beyond appeasing Kobe's inextinguishable competitive fire, developing Randle should be the Lakers' top priority. He's their most talented prospect in some time, and his athletic vigor will be a distinctive, vibrant contrast to the laborious style Scott is implementing. Randle has shown an ambition for creating off the dribble, pushing the ball in transition, and attacking the basket with bad intentions. He's a controlled fury, and Laker fans love it, rookie mistakes be damned.
Unfortunately, Scott's "win-now" approach has been the catalyst behind Carlos Boozer's current starting nod,
Overvaluing role players is a dangerous game when doling out hefty contracts, but the risk is equally damning with determining rotations. Boozer's only discernible advantage over Randle is his mid-range jumper, which is hardly an advantage by now. Last season, per Basketball Reference, Boozer shot 37.7 percent on attempts 10-16 feet from the basket -- the third-worst mark of his career. While Randle's jumper is developing, Ryan Kelly could be the odd man out in the power forward rotation, and his floor-spacing would do wonders for a team devoid of four of its best five three-point shooters from last season.
But alas, veterans get first dibs, meaning that tricky Lakers Way could be more an obstacle than anything else this season. Falling short of a championship won't denote a failed season. Inflated expectations would, as the past two seasons can attest. Let's not conflate realistic expectations with tanking, though. But over-reliance on veterans and accomplishments past is anything but a recipe for success, especially when superior options are just down the bench, younger or not.
That's the balancing act Scott must master in Year One. Appeasing Kobe's hunger and transitioning the franchise into its next phase.
His .444 win percentage is the lowest among coaches with multiple NBA Finals appearances, though his 64-166 record with the LeBron-less Cavs dropped his mark five percent. Scott, like the aforementioned Stotts, or any coach overseeing reputable talent, can prove to be a fine hire. But restoring the Lakers takes time, even for a man with a higher playoff win percentage (.579) than Doc Rivers, Rudy Tomjanovich, and Rick Carlisle, who have earned a combined four NBA championships.
In years past, Scott has maximized talented rosters led by Jason Kidd and Chris Paul. This season, and for the foreseeable future, "maximizing talent" will take on a different context, but won't necessitate failure. Kobe Bryant's name holds its own acclaim, and that's why his predictions to "surprise some people" are anything but empty talk. The Mamba exudes an ardent hunger that will overtake the locker room, gifting an improved Lakers squad with a lesson in accountability and championship focus, even with an exam far down the road.
But it will all come down to Scott, for better or worse. His ambition is welcomed and familiar, but the team's direction needs more nurturing than misguided enabling. The failed 2013 super team was a lesson in humility. Last season's cry fest was an illustration in preparing for the future. The 2014-15 campaign will be about embracing that future and accepting their penance. The playoffs mean nothing with an inevitable exit, especially at the expense of a top-five protected 2015 first-rounder.
Scott is right for wanting to breathe championship expectations into a recently downtrodden franchise, the love of his NBA life. But he'll need more than romanticized ambitions to deliver on reviving longstanding tradition. The NBA has done its best to level the playing field for franchises to acquire and secure talent, emphasizing cohesion, nuance, and direction -- require a balancing act for a Lakers organization accustomed to having superstars at their disposal. Unfortunately, the past two free agencies have demonstrated how faded their glory has become, even if temporarily.
Though there is light at the end of the tunnel, it must first be journeyed, with leadership seeking the correct solutions, rather than impatient fixes.
Ultimately, Scott -- and the Lakers -- will need to accept where they are to healthily move forward.