In making any coaching hire, each NBA front office has their own litany of boxes to check off in assuring themselves and their fan base that they've chosen a worthy leader. Though franchises are bound to differ in how they prioritize certain attributes, there exist some core tenets that any credible organization is going to insist upon. Knowledge of the game, a yeoman's work ethic and a sellable strategy for how to move the team in a winning direction are some of the pillars that just about everyone is looking for in some form or another.
From there, it gets substantially more subjective. While Franchise A might demand the name recognition of an experienced coach, Franchise B may value the youthful optimism of an unknown entity. While one team might prefer Coach X due to his relatability as a former player, another team might opt for the analytically-minded Coach Y. One team might have all kinds of firm ideas about what they're looking for, only to be blown away during the interview by a killer PowerPoint presentation complete with animated slides, dancing letters and a deftly utilized laser pointer. This is perhaps the most finicky climate in which a franchise can make a coaching choice. For a front office to go into a meeting with certain prerequisites in mind only to exhibit the resolve of a 16-year-old on a used car lot does not speak well of their eye for leadership.
Though it's not clear what specific brand of snake oil Mike Brown pulled from his briefcase during his meeting with the Los Angeles Lakers brass in the spring of 2011, the Lakers themselves have admitted that his impassioned interview was a huge factor in him winning the job. Similarly, in trying to pin down the reasons the Lakers may have had for hiring Byron Scott, the implications are equally vague. In the wake of Scott's hiring last summer, as opposed to detailed enumerations of his plans for improving upon the team's moribund 27-55 record, there were sexy buzzwords abound. "Knowing what it means to be a Laker." "This city is about championships." "I know what it takes." Defensive focus and intensity. 110%. History. Pride. Rah. Rah. Rah.
The language coming out of the Lakers front office wasn't any more encouraging or specific. As Mitch Kupchak noted at Scott's introductory press conference: "Byron has proven himself at the highest levels of the game as both a player and a coach in his almost 30 years of NBA experience. His leadership skills and track record for success make him the ideal person to lead this franchise forward."
Super. Except for Scott's track record of...what's the opposite of success? While Scott did lead the New Jersey Nets to back-to-back NBA Finals appearances in 2002 and 2003, a closer look at those accomplishments takes some of the shine off that apple. In those two seasons, the Eastern conference had its third and fourth worst winning percentages since 1984 and a total of three teams won 50 or more games in both years combined.
Sure, you can only beat the teams on your schedule, but to anyone pointing to those two seasons as proof positive of Scott's competence as a modern NBA coach, to quote former NBA commissioner David Stern, I have a bridge I'd very much like to sell you. Since being fired from the Nets job in 2003-04, Scott has a career winning percentage of .387. While there are plenty of fair qualifications to be made about rosters, injuries, management, etc., that's still a ten year sample size in which a winning record was achieved all of twice. At a certain point, to revive one of sports' favorite clichés, Byron is what he is.
To be clear, this isn't about assigning blame for the dumpster fire of a season LA has endured, as that's been done ad nauseam in our corner of the internet. When a ship leaves port only to spring a leak, have an outbreak of Norovirus, be overtaken by pirates, spontaneously combust and get swallowed whole by Charybdis all within 30 minutes of setting sail, there really isn't much point in blaming the captain. Still, that doesn't mean the captain wouldn't have eventually charged headlong into a reef and keelhauled his crew.
No one's going to argue against the fact that it's unrealistic to expect much out of this roster regardless of who paces the sidelines, but Scott's reputation as a below average tactician is not something unique to Lakers fans and those who follow the team closely. There's no shortage of national media outlets openly acknowledging the substandard job being done from the Laker bench:
Take, for example, a February piece by Yahoo's Kelly Dwyer that describes Scott's style as "proud parroting of acting ‘old school' as opposed to acting a ‘capable coach'".
Then there's Matt Cianfrone of Hardwood Paroxysm taking a direct shot at Scott's competence in an article published earlier this month: "The Los Angeles Lakers were never going to be good this season. Not with Kobe Bryant coming back from a devastating injury [...] and not with Byron Scott leading them".
Lastly, in detailing his exasperation while watching Lakers games, Grantland's Zach Lowe had this to say: "If they're not trying to lose, they are incompetent. There's no middle ground. The plays they're calling, the sets they're [running...it's] just unwatchable".
Beating a dead horse, right? People have been saying this since August. Byron doesn't know when to foul or not to foul. He rides his veterans far too long for the sake of chasing meaningless wins at the expense of the development of his youth. He throws his players under the bus with the subtlety of someone whispering into a megaphone. He runs an antiquated offensive system and his defensive chops are wildly overstated. Byron is the tank commander. Byron makes untoward statements about foxholes. Byron's rotations are nonsensical. Byron is stealth tanking. Yes, we know, we really, really know, but his absurdity rears its head so often that it legitimately bears repeating.
What we don't know is what the Lakers think. How do the people whose opinions will genuinely, literally affect the fortunes of the team feel about what they're seeing this season? Kobe gave his hearty endorsement at the season's outset, but how can a purveyor of such sophisticated basketball artistry not look down his nose at the paint by numbers approach being sold by his coach? Magic Johnson seems to think Scott's the man for the job, but his credentials as a judge of sound decision making as it pertains to basketball operations in the 21st century are dubious to say the least, not to mention the fact that he has no tangible hand in the team's day to day dealings.
We've heard what Mitch Kupchak had to say last summer, but what does he think now? What about Jim Buss? Jeanie? This is where things get complicated. What can Lakers fans realistically expect to happen in the next year or two? This isn't about wins and losses in the 2015 season - there are a slew of lottery-bound teams in Utah, Boston and Detroit that have legitimate cause to be excited about who's at the helm of their currently sub-.500 squads. Conversely, one of either Washington or Toronto is all but guaranteed to advance to the East's final four, but large swaths of those fan bases can't wait to see their current coaches replaced. In this age of overabundant information and the hyper-informed fan, people are generally smart enough to compartmentalize the various aspects of their team's successes and failings and dole out credit and blame accordingly.
This is part of what makes the Lakers current coaching situation so dicey. It's not every day that the sentiments of such large portions of a fan base so definitively coincide with those of basketball's literary intelligentsia, and yet, that seems to be where we are. The verdict is most definitely in on Byron Scott's performance as an NBA coach, and it's not flattering. Yet, in spite of the Lakers' winning history and obvious commitment to spending whatever it takes to put a quality product on the floor, those aren't the particular attributes the team needs to show at this critical juncture. What precedent do we have to show that this current iteration of the Lakers front office is willing to embrace the cutting edge of ruthless efficiency and humble themselves by admitting repeated defeat in the same area?
This isn't to say they can't or won't, just that there is currently a dearth of evidence to suggest otherwise. The Lakers brain trust infamously failed to send a representative to the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference as recently as two years ago, ranked poorly in a recent study detailing each team's statistical fortitude, and just hired a coach whose principles fly in the face of every significant trend in modern basketball. Before anyone points to how quickly the Lakers pulled the ripcord on Mike Brown's tenure as proof that they're unafraid to eat their share of crow, I'd argue that Brown's firing (and the ultimate failure of their next coaching hire in Mike D'Antoni) actually makes it more difficult to imagine them pulling the plug on Byron in a timely fashion.
It's fairly understandable to have one false start after the winningest coach in team sports rides off into the sunset. Two misfires? Hey, nobody's perfect. But to admit to the league and your fan base that you have in fact failed to hire the right coach for the third time in four years? With all due respect to the goodwill the Lakers built up during the wildly successful tenure of GOAT Bernie Bickerstaff, that would take a degree of humility rarely seen from the higher-ups of any multi-billion dollar company with international corporate interests and legions of devoted followers.
If you're Jim Buss or Mitch Kupchak, how many times can you admit that you've failed at the exact same thing? At what point does professional and personal pride come into play, if at all? This is where the Lakers would be in jeopardy of committing their biggest mistake yet: needlessly letting a failed experiment play out in a misplaced attempt at fairness.
More than a blown draft pick or poorly spent free agent money, the worst possible thing the Lakers could do in the next few years would be to allow a coach that is clearly under performing to continue to infuse his philosophies deeper and deeper into the team's DNA. The problem is, the Lakers won't be in a position to realistically make that call for a while. It's not unfeasible that Scott's performance next year could merit a firing, but what can fans and the front office truly expect from this team at the start of a season that is just over six months away? Will a top lottery pick, a healthy Julius Randle, a healthy Kobe Bryant and a good value free agent or two be enough to move this team into the top eight of the brutal Western Conference? Maybe. Maybe not. The scary part is, from a perception standpoint, it would be tough not to grant Byron another mulligan regardless of what happens next year in terms of the team's record.
If you're the Lakers front office, are you really going to fire a coach that failed to drastically improve the fortunes of a team that just finished with 60-plus losses the previous year? What can you realistically expect from a tangible standpoint? Better cohesion, improvement on offense and defense, and a general sense of trending in the right direction are all things that can be evaluated separately of the team's place in the standings, but even if those things come to pass, how much credit should be attributed to the coach and not just a healthier, more NBA-ready roster? It's difficult to tell, and these things are even trickier to quantify if you're the one tasked with determining Byron Scott's future with the team. If you're the one who hired him, how can you not be pulling for it to work out, perhaps even at the expense of too readily giving credit to the man in charge?
This isn't to say Byron deserves to be fired at this point. Even after acknowledging his many shortcomings this season, it would be in poor taste to lay the smoldering compost heap of this season squarely at his feet. Scott could improve and grow along with this team. He could embrace basketball's new age, show humility and get better in all facets of the game. These things could happen, but there is over a decade of evidence to show that they probably won't.
Another useful tool for front offices evaluating the merits of a prospective coach is a simple visualization exercise: can you and your fans envision that person outsmarting four other coaches en route to a title? Can you picture him exuding the kind of confidence, intuition and adaptable intelligence needed to infuse your franchise with the culture necessary to one day hoist the Larry O'Brien trophy?
If at any point over the next few seasons the Lakers "powers that be" come to the conclusion that Byron Scott is not the leader they need, the most reckless thing they could do is allow him to stick around just to keep up the facade of giving him a fair shake. Lakers fans have grown fat and happy on an embarrassment of riches over the past three and a half decades, and no one should be saying the sky is falling due to a handful of down years. But if we soon reach a point where all the principles involved can privately acknowledge that Scott isn't working out, they would do well to cut bait sooner rather than later. While the rich theater of NBA basketball is one of its most alluring qualities, enabling a lame duck coach would constitute a terrible act of dramatic irony - one in which the characters of this play are allowed to continue along their ill-fated paths as the audience knowingly watches in horror.