EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – Byron Scott posed on the court at Lakers headquarters Tuesday flanked by Showtime groomsmen Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. A row of championship trophies shone on the windowsill in the second-story office occupied by Jeanie Buss. Kids waited outside the parking lot for glimpses of immortals they never actually saw play.
“[It’s] great that L.A. takes care of its own like this,” Kareem said, and the legends nodded.
They spun old stories of Scott sneaking into The Forum as a boy in Inglewood to watch Jerry West; enduring hazing rituals without complaint as a Lakers rookie; winning three titles catching kick-out passes and knocking down treys. They noted that he still sticks practice plans in the waistband of his shorts — the way Pat Riley used to do — and still understands that all those iconic fast breaks started with defensive stops.
They predicted a rapid return to prominence (“I don’t think it will take long,” Scott said) and downplayed their local rival with the new owner (“One has 17 banners and the other doesn’t have any,” he added). They used terms like “Laker Basketball” and characterized the previous two coaches, Mike Brown and Mike D’Antoni, as outsiders who never understood the household dynamics.
“If I don’t see another three-pointer from a Laker team, I’ll be happy,” Johnson said.
It’s difficult to blame a proud franchise for attempting to recreate a gilded past – it’s a lot more fun, after all, to reminisce about Kareem than assess Carlos Boozer – but sports history is littered with empires that fell because they kept trying to turn back the clock, placating fans and alums, winning press conferences while losing everywhere else. They don’t adapt. They don’t wind the clock forward.
The Lakers, a family business in an increasingly corporate world, have fallen victim again to their own generous sense of loyalty. Nine months ago, they gave Kobe Bryant a $48.5 million contract extension, even though he was coming off a torn Achilles tendon. He returned for six games, broke a bone in his left knee and missed the rest of the season. Now they have given a four-year deal to Scott, who has been fired three times in his career, posting a career coaching record of more than 100 games under .500.
Scott’s arrival caps an empty summer in which the Lakers missed the obvious targets (LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony) and re-signed five players from last year’s 55-loss roster. One player they failed to sign? Pau Gasol, their premium free agent, who opted for Chicago.
“We wish we could put on a uniform … and help,” said Johnson, who tried recruiting Anthony and Gasol to no avail.
The Lakers did make a few prescient moves. They grabbed promising power forward Julius Randle with the seventh pick in the draft, pried a 2015 first-rounder from Houston in a salary dump for Jeremy Lin and somehow stole Ed Davis for two years at $2 million. They also won an amnesty claim for Boozer, though it can be debated how much of a victory that really was. Scott promises an improved defense, but he doesn’t have the personnel with Lin on the perimeter and Boozer inside. The offense will still largely revolve around Bryant, at 36, coming off two massive injuries.
Bryant and Scott have been linked since 1996, when Bryant was a rookie in L.A. and Scott his mentor. Scott may indeed be the best candidate to coax Bryant through the final, and likely the most maddening, stage of his career. But hiring a coach for Bryant is a little like choosing one for Steve Nash, which the Lakers just tried two years ago. They tabbed D’Antoni to maximize Nash and the decorated point guard has been hurt ever since. The Scott-Bryant marriage carries similar risk.
If the Lakers did not worry so much about Nash in 2012, they could have landed Phil Jackson and they’d have likely kept Dwight Howard. Or, if they didn’t concern themselves with public perception, they could have plucked Steve Clifford off their existing staff. He was a Lakers assistant at the time and one of Howard’s closest allies. But he had no head-coaching experience and wasn’t a name brand. So Clifford wound up in Charlotte, where he finished fourth last season in Coach of the Year voting and looked like the second coming of Tom Thibodeau. No one remembers anymore how he fared at the introductory press conference.
The Lakers seemed reluctant about Scott, putting him through three interviews starting back in May. But they wanted a former head coach who is one of their own, even if the trends say they should have examined assistants from every background. It could be argued it doesn’t really matter whom they chose, given their dearth of talent, and perhaps a company man is more likely to see the big picture next season. Thanks to the Nash trade – the gift that keeps on kicking the Lakers in the shins – their first-round pick is ticketed for Phoenix, unless it falls in the top five.
The Lakers as currently constituted probably aren’t one of the five worst teams in the league, but they could be, especially if Bryant misses more time. By spring, half of L.A. will know the definition of “top-five protected.”
The priorities should be keeping that pick and developing Randle. Then the Lakers can begin to build, as Nash’s contract mercifully comes off the books, followed by Bryant’s. They will be able to attract free agents as long as their roster isn’t an impediment.
“There are still a ton of people that would love to play for this organization,” Scott said. “And you’ve got guys sitting in the front row that are very adamant about it.”
Some of the A-listers he’s referencing are his own best friends.
“We’re going to be down there bothering you every night,” Abdul-Jabbar told Scott.
The Lakers are embarking on a long and painful reconstruction, but as they suffer through it, at least they won’t have to read any more of Johnson’s angry tweets. He now has a direct line to the head coach. He works out with Scott almost every day and indicated he may stop by the practice facility on occasion to help. Johnson went so far as to suggest Michael Cooper be considered for a spot on the staff, even though Cooper coaches the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream and underwent surgery last week for tongue cancer.
Showtime is not coming back, not this year or next, no matter which immortals get hired. There are no magic fast breaks available to the Lakers. They just have to start moving down the court.