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LOS ANGELES — The Lakers had no shortage of performance–based reasons to part ways with Byron Scott, but it was his handling of an all–important, all–too–familiar philosophical issue that ultimately left them no choice.
Give Scott credit for this: He gave the world so much Kobe Bryant over the last six months that even the Black Mamba’s most insatiable fans had to leave satisfied. Despite three consecutive season–ending injuries and the necessity of a nonstop maintenance program just to keep him on the court, the 37–year–old Bryant led the Lakers in scoring, shot attempts and usage rate. On opening night, Bryant took 24 shots in 28 minutes while 2015 lottery pick D’Angelo Russell mostly stood in the corner and watched. On closing night, a performance for the ages, Bryant scored a season-high 60 points on a career–high 50 shots, as the Lakers sent their franchise player off into retirement with one final “All you can eat” buffet.
To be clear, this approach wasn’t merely enabling by Scott who, like Bryant, won multiple titles with the Lakers. Scott wasn’t just looking the other way every so often if Bryant failed to hustle back on defense. He wasn’t just “a little too trusting” of Bryant in late–game situations. He wasn’t just “making sure that Bryant left on a high note.”
No, Scott was an active participant in placing Bryant at center stage, and keeping him there as often as Bryant’s body would allow it, repercussions be damned. For Scott’s Lakers, Bryant was the priority and nothing else really mattered. Bryant was the star and everyone else, even the stars–in–training, were afterthoughts.
Major compromises were made along the way. Russell and 2014 lottery pick Julius Randle were both moved to the bench at times, an unthinkable decision for most 17–win teams looking to build for the future. Why empower the youngsters when you can undercut them? Even when Russell and Randle did start, neither was consistently showcased, and Bryant remained the top dog during the dregs of a losing campaign.
Presented with Russell’s immaturity issues early on, Scott adopted an unbending, tough–talk approach that ultimately backfired. Instead of inspiring Russell to toe the line, Scott’s regular criticism, coupled with his Bryant–first strategies, practically begged the 20–year–old rookie to go his own way. Sure enough, by the end of the season Russell was embroiled in a saga involving the illicit videotaping of teammate Nick Young, an episode that severely damaged Russell’s reputation and reportedly led to tension in the locker room.
Much like Jahlil Okafor’s early–season stumbles in Philadelphia, the Russell affair was a classic example of what can go wrong when young players don’t feel like they are an integral part of an organization that’s heading somewhere. If Sixers management couldn’t be bothered to sign a real point guard, why not play “Fast and Furious” in the whip and “Mike Tyson Punch-Out” in the streets? If the Lakers weren’t even going to attempt to strike a balance between Bryant and true development, and Scott wasn’t going to truly engage with his most important young piece, why not fool around with your iPhone and start freelancing for TMZ? This was a prototypical “no carrot, all stick” approach that seemed doomed to fail.
Bryant’s departure, telegraphed well in advance, was bound to shift the Lakers’ power balance towards Russell and the other youngers. Consequently, it’s been clear since at least midseason that Scott would be left on the wrong side of the leverage equation, with no leg to stand on.
He certainly couldn’t point to his 38–126 record: his two–year Lakers tenure featured the two lowest winning percentages in the 68–year history of the franchise, and he’s coached five straight sub–25 win teams dating back to his time with the Cavaliers.
He couldn’t point to progress: L.A. ranked No. 23 in offense and No. 29 in defense in 2014–15, only to slip to No. 29 and No. 30, respectively, in 2015–16.
He couldn’t point to his vision of the game: In an era of passing and three–point shooting, the Lakers ranked dead last in assist rate and dead last in three–point percentage and Scott regularly espoused old–school, traditionalist ideas.
He couldn’t point to his ties to Lakers history and his long–standing relationship with Bryant because, after 20 unforgettable seasons and five titles, it’s finally time for a new day.
And he really couldn’t point to his relationships with Russell, Randle and the Lakers other youngsters, as he had just asked them to give up a year of their lives to serve as extras in Bryant’s goodbye documentary. How was a, “Last year was last year, this is your team now” message ever going to fly given the extraordinary circumstances around Bryant’s farewell tour?
Think about it like this: the ideal Lakers coach is a young, player–friendly, forward–thinking, development–first communicator with championship experience and the ability to shine in the Lakers’ high–profile spotlight who can mold Russell and the Lakers’ 2016 lottery pick (assuming they keep it) into franchise players while also helping make the franchise seem like a promising and productive place for free agents this summer and beyond.
The ideal Lakers coach, by those standards, is basically Warriors assistant Luke Walton, who is rumored to be one of the organization’s targets for a coaching search that is already underway. The ideal Lakers coach, by those standards, is most definitely not Scott, who was hired in 2014 to do a much different job. The Lakers’ brief press release announcing Scott’s departure noted that the move was made “in the best interest of the organization.” Who, really, can argue with that?
Since Phil Jackson’s departure in 2011, the Lakers have cycled through three head coaches and an interim coach. Bryant’s presence complicated all of those hires and it put all of those coaches in difficult spots. The understated Mike Brown never stood a chance. Mike D’Antoni found himself in a sea of personality conflict so deep that he found himself posing for photos with Bryant and Dwight Howard pretending to punch each other. Scott, as noted, was stuck overseeing an aging legend’s last gasp.
If any franchise was in need of a clean slate this summer, then, it was the post-Bryant Lakers. It’s a little distressing that it took them nearly two weeks to come to that conclusion, given that Tom Thibodeau and Scott Brooks went elsewhere in the interim, but a little late is so, so much better than never. Consider: Walton should lead a strong pack of remaining candidates, the Lakers have all the money in the world to get this hire right and make noise in free agency, and an A–lister like Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram should be waiting in the lottery unless the ping pong balls fail to cooperate.
Taken together, L.A. should soon be looking at its most hopeful days since Bryant’s terrible Achilles injury sent the franchise spiraling in 2013. But there was simply no way for the Lakers to move forward unless they burned this creaky bridge to an irretrievable past.