There's almost no doubt: within the Silver Screen & Roll crew, the two biggest detractors of head coach Byron Scott may be Ben Rosales and myself. We've been deriding Scott since weeks before he was even hired, with our critiques growing more and more barbed as the year wore on.
However, with the worst season in franchise history now in the books, we've decided to take a turn at being positive about B. Scott. Below is an e-mail correspondence between Ben and me, where we're trying--in vain--to come up with some silver linings in Byron's first year at the helm and his future prospects as head coach.
The Great Mambino: This was not just the worst LA Lakers team of all-time, but the worst Lakers team in both the Southland AND Minneapolis combined franchise history. Woof. For many NBA teams, a failure of this magnitude is reason enough for a firing. Yes, the Lakers had a ton of injuries this season, yes, the team was never particularly talent-laden to begin with, and no, this team was never realistically going to compete for a playoff berth in a conference where 45 wins barely buys you a postseason spot. However, this is a historically horrible team for a historically great professional sports franchise. The worst is the worst, especially for an organization that does not reach failure of this magnitude.
Ben, it's no secret that you're no more of a fan of Byron than I am...maybe even less. The media disasters over the past few weeks haven't helped matters with either of us. But the outcry from the Lakers fanbase? It's been making our snide Twitter comments look tame.
So, with all this going on, I thought it might be a good exercise for two of Byron's biggest detractors here on Silver Screen & Roll to try and uncover even the slightest silver linings in an otherwise disastrous campaign. Let's fight through this together Ben: can you give me some sort of support for Byron Scott? Through any of his weaknesses do you actually see the hint of strengths?
Ben Rosales: Well, Byron's weaknesses are a strength this year if only because there's little to no chance the Lakers would have had such a high percentage of keeping their pick otherwise. Sarcasm aside, we really have to dig deep to find redeeming features in Byron's coaching. He's tossed the entire roster sans Kobe -- and his attempts to curry favor with Kobe are as aggravating as his put-downs on the rest of the roster -- under the bus, and his offensive system is really painful to watch after a year-and-a-half of well-executed Mike D'Antoni SLOB sets. Even when the team is seemingly doing well, it's because they're hitting an above average number of mid-range shots, which Byron's offense emphasizes more than nearly any other team in the league despite widespread evidence that you really shouldn't, and the likes of Jordan Hill, Ed Davis, and Tarik Black are killing it on the offensive glass. Needless to say, that's not really a sustainable path towards success and if anything, the offense was even more difficult to watch with Kobe because it basically amounted to giving Kobe the ball and asking him to create.
So if a coach fails from a system perspective and is seemingly doing his very best to lose the locker room, we're really scraping the bottom of the barrel here. The best point that one can likely bring up in Byron's favor has been the player development, as his awful offenses aside, he seems to be a bit of a point guard whisperer, helping at least in part Jordan Clarkson reach the level he's currently at. Jabari Brown and Tarik Black have similarly performed well too, although a big black mark in this line of thought is Byron's completely nonsensical run of Ryan Kelly at the three despite clear evidence that he couldn't play the position and that it was hamstringing his development.
In a rebuilding year, this could reasonably be construed as a strength, the degree to which Byron continued to run out veterans notwithstanding. The team will get another fresh infusion of youth through the draft this year and bringing them up to speed is arguably the most critical aspect of the Lakers' rebuilding effort. Is that enough to save Byron? I doubt it but it is fulfilling at least some purpose if we're forced to consider the prospect of him sticking around for another season.
The Great Mambino: I'll co-sign on Byron's supposed strengths--I suppose he is a bit of a point guard whisperer, though I personally didn't see much growth from Kyrie Irving in his time with Scott at the helm in Cleveland. It took a few dozen games, but Jordan Clarkson looks more and more confident with every contest. He's getting to the cup with efficiency, looking confident and in control, a massive stride from earlier in the year. His play the past month has surpassed any expectation I had of him, even with a starting job and the ensuing minutes handed to him because of injuries. Byron has to be given credit for some of that and entrusting a 22 year-old to run the offense.
One other thing I'd say about Byron's arcane-looking scoring attack is that while it seems to be heavy on two-point shots and post-ups rather than corner threes and pick and rolls (like, you know, the rest of the NBA), it's not the worst idea considering this team's strengths.
The Lakers were 21st in total assists and 26th in turnovers, which speaks a lot to the lack of ball movement and emphasis on one-on-one possessions. However, even if the team were to focus on passing...who's doing it? Out of the Lakers' remaining rotation players, only Ryan Kelly and Clarkson excel at moving the ball. Guys like Nick Young, Jordan Hill, Ed Davis, Carlos Boozer, Wesley Johnson and Tarik Black are not just ball stoppers by nature, but also by design. I see the offense designed as quite smart on some ways--why focus on ball movement when many of the Lakers are such poor passers?
Still, this season was undoubtedly a disaster, despite a system tailor-made for the lack of talent. What type of lessons do you think can be learned for Scott this year that he can apply for next year? What would you say is most feasible for him to fix immediately?
Ben Rosales: The biggest issue for Byron was coming up with a set of sensible rotations that put the team's best players on the court, but that will be corrected by itself this off-season since nearly all of the offending players (read: Ronnie Price) are free agents. Granted, this is more a fundamental misunderstanding of what is effective in the modern NBA, such as pairing Jeremy Lin and Ed Davis to maximize their pick-and-roll connection, than it is an affinity for a certain type of personnel. Nevertheless, Byron will have fewer opportunities to shoot himself in the foot next season and no matter how the draft or free agency shake out, the optimal lineups should be fairly self-apparent.
As such, the biggest thing for Byron to fix is the offense. They take way, way too long to get into their sets, and while your point on isolations is well taken, it still makes an awful lot more sense to run more quick hitting plays. Too often is a big left hanging at the top of the key as the team tries to execute its Princeton actions and run people off screens fruitlessly, only for the guard to come back to get the ball and face a short clock. If the Lakers didn't have so many good offensive rebounders this year, the team's offense, surprising as it is to say, could easily have been much worse.
Is there any real hope that Byron will come around on this count? I'm not sure. He made a lot of hay portraying himself as the anti-Mike D'Antoni and doing his best to make that a notable narrative before the season. What these changes would require is basically adopting a bit of MDA ball and joining the 21st century in that regard. The team can't take as many mid-range shots, needs to emphasize pushing the ball and getting into transition (especially with such a young roster), and needs a big overhaul in general. The thing here is that several of these changes aren't hard. Most of the league subscribes to these philosophies, but it requires Byron making substantive changes in how he runs things. Although this is a tough pill to swallow for him, it's the only way that he's going to end up sticking around as coach.
The Great Mambino: Rotations are the easiest thing to solve immediately, theoretically speaking. The Lakers are not going to be the Lakers as currently constituted, but that doesn't necessarily guarantee they'll have any more talent than they do this year. Part of Byron's improvement is intrinsically tied to how much talent they have, as we're pretty much in agreement that he's pretty much a coach that's not going to improve a whole lot on his own.
Defensively, there is obviously a long way to go. To Scott's credit, he had to play a ton of young guys this year who didn't have a prayer of keeping up with the pace of the NBA game. Jordan Clarkson, Ryan Kelly (often having to chase around small forwards), Robert Sacre, Tarik Black and Jabari Brown were asked to come a long way in a short time, while Wes Johnson, Wayne Ellington and Carlos Boozer didn't have a chance to begin with. However, with another year under their belts, there's little reason to think that Clarkson, Black and Brown can't make some strides on that end of the court and potential continuing players like Ed Davis, Jordan Hill and Nick Young can't be at least serviceable. You're much more equipped to answer this question than me--how can Scott improve this team defensively? Is it a system issue that can be fixed, or personnel-based? Remember, we're trying to be positive here!
Ben Rosales: Well, you're right that this team was never equipped to be an average defensive team, let alone a good one, but that doesn't excuse how utterly lost the team appeared to be on that end for more or less the entire season. No one ever seemed to have a clue of how to guard pick-and-rolls properly, for instance, and with the exception of Ed Davis, no one seemed particularly interested in investing an above average amount of effort into this end either. Even with poor defensive personnel, good defensive coaches seem to be able to wring at least the latter out of their teams, however.
And that's the odd thing here: Byron actually does have a history of success on that end. Granted, that was six years ago in New Orleans with all-world defenders at point guard (Paul) and center (Chandler), but not so distant from the present as to be completely inapplicable. Despite this, the Lakers far more resembled Byron's Cavs teams on that end in that they were continuously hapless. Is this a correctable issue? It's hard to say. If the Lakers come back from this off-season with Khris Middleton and Willie Cauley-Stein to buttress the defense and Byron still can't make hay on that end, it would be pretty damning, but evaluating this is hard. We can at least say that system or no, Byron's feckless rotation management stymied any attempt to play competent defense this season, especially the relative marginalization of Ed Davis, so this is all a moot point until Byron gets to the juncture that he's actually fielding lineups that have a chance to be decent defensively.