What Would Make Byron Scott's First Season with Los Angeles Lakers a Success?

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What Would Make Byron Scott's First Season with Los Angeles Lakers a Success?
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We've already considered the best- and worst-case scenarios for Byron Scott's debut season as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.

For the tl;dr crowd, the Lakers can hope for, say, 45-48 wins if everyone stays healthy, Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash regain some semblance of their prior form, Julius Randle is a stud from the outset, the team finds an actual solution at small forward and the frontcourt isn't a total disaster.

On the flip side, the Lakers could careen toward 20-win territory (if not below) if everyone gets hurt, nobody plays defense and Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss hold a yard sale in front of Staples Center at the trade deadline to sell off what few valuable, moveable, veteran assets they have.

Neither of those scenarios, though, addresses the more crucial question at hand: What can Scott's Lakers do in 2014-15 to have the season deemed a success?

In politically correct Lakers parlance, success can only be defined by banners, trophies and cartoonishly extravagant jewelry. 

"This organization is all about championships, period," Scott said at his introductory press conference on Monday. "We don't look at Western Conference Finals, Western Conference championships. We look at championships."

It's no secret, though, that the Lakers have a long way to go before they can so much as sniff another Larry O'Brien Trophy. The talent to do so just isn't there right now, and the top teams in the West are too far ahead of L.A. in that regard to afford the Purple and Gold any leeway.

But a "championship or bust" mentality doesn't necessitate a complete commitment to the latter. Nor would the Lakers and their fans be in any way satisfied with another season that resembles (or undercuts) the 27-55 debacle into which the team devolved in 2013-14.

Noah Graham/Getty Images

More than the losing, though, what made last season so frustrating to watch for fans and observers of the Lakers alike was the perceived lack of progress toward anything concrete. Mike D'Antoni was dealt a terrible hand, but he didn't do himself or the organization any favors with the way he played it.

He constantly juggled his rotations, leaving some—mostly the frontcourt guys (i.e. Pau Gasol, Chris Kaman, Jordan Hill)—to wonder what, exactly, D'Antoni's plan was. D'Antoni's often-head-scratching machinations might've played a part in the departure of Gasol, whose own feud with the Lakers' former head coach was fueled, in part, by benchings dating back to 2012-13.

"We had a great conversation but I think the way he was treated last season, kind of hurt him," Lakers legend Magic Johnson said of Gasol (via The Los Angeles Times' Eric Pincus). "Here's a guy 18 [points] and 10 [rebounds], shooting over 50 percent and you want to bench him? You want to mess with this guy? He could never get over that."

Those problems, combined with lousy defense, left Lakers fans with little to grasp in their search for something worthwhile about that squad. Nick Young's on-court antics were fun from time to time. So, too, were Robert Sacre's sideline dances.

On the whole, though, there wasn't much to take away from last season on which the Lakers could build for the future.

Scott's first step toward a successful season as the head coach, then, will be laying the foundation for the future. Above all else, that means getting back to basics on the defensive end.

"The main thing I have to do right away is establish ourselves as a defensive basketball team," Scott said. "Offense is going to come and go, but you control your effort on the defensive end every night, and we obviously have to get that back in the plans."

And even that's putting it lightly. The Lakers allowed the third-most points per 100 possessions (107.9) in the league last season, due in large part to lackadaisical effort. They forced the sixth-fewest turnovers by percentage (14 percent) and checked in dead last in both total rebound percentage and defensive rebound percentage. In fact, the Lakers allowed their opponents to collect nearly a third (29 percent) of their own misses.

Andrew Gombert/Getty Images

Scott has seen his fair share of defensive reclamation jobs before. When Scott first came on the scene, his New Jersey Nets ranked in the bottom six in both defensive efficiency and defensive rebounding percentage. By year two—and with help from the newly arrived Jason Kidd—Scott had his guys up to No. 2 in defensive efficiency. Come year three, the Nets sported the NBA's best defense, with the fifth-best defensive rebounding percentage to boot.

It took Scott a bit longer to turn the New Orleans Hornets, during Chris Paul's formative years, into a bruising, ball-stopping bunch out West. Here's a look at their year-by-year defensive performances under Scott prior to his early season ouster in 2009-10:

Byron Scott's Effect on the Hornet's Defense
Def Eff Def Reb %
2004-05 23rd 22nd
2005-06 20th 10th
2006-07 16th 7th
2007-08 7th 3rd
2008-09 9th 7th

NBA.com

Despite his past successes, Scott's most recent foray with the Cleveland Cavaliers cast doubt on his ability to engineer a similar turnaround in L.A. As NBA.com's John Schuhmann noted, Scott's three-year run in Rock City was arguably the worst by any single coach in NBA history, at least as far as defense is concerned:

The Cavs ranked in the bottom five in defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) in each of Scott’s three seasons. That’s not just bad. It’s unprecedented.

Before Scott, the last coach to lead his team to the bottom five in defensive efficiency in three straight seasons was Mike Dunleavy, who did it with Milwaukee from 1993-94 to 1995-96, a streak that started when the league had only 27 teams. So Scott is the only coach to do it in a 30-team league.

It doesn't help Scott's case, either, that the Cavs jumped from 27th in defensive efficiency during his last go-round in 2012-13 to 17th last season with Mike Brown at the helm.

This isn't to suggest that Scott suddenly lost the ability to teach defense, or that his previous triumphs were more fluke than reflective of his acumen. Rather, Scott can no longer ride through on his reputation. He'll have to prove once again that he can coach on that end.

And do so with a relatively bare cupboard, no less.

Nash, Young, Carlos Boozer and Jeremy Lin have long been considered defensive liabilities. Bryant became one before he tore his Achilles and hurt his knee again, and he isn't likely to turn things around now. Randle's a rookie, so he's bound to get burned in some respect. Of the current cast of characters, only Hill would be considered a "plus" defender, though he tends to run out of gas after 20 minutes or so in a given game.

But good defense isn't about individual ability so much as abiding by a coherent and well-crafted set of guidelines as a unit. If Scott can set down some ground rules and get his guys to buy in consistently, he'll be well on his way to helping the Lakers reverse course in this regard.

Noah Graham/Getty Images

Like any team as bad as the Lakers were last season, their woes weren't limited to one end of the floor. They tumbled to 21st in offensive efficiency, despite D'Antoni's dictates to rain fire from behind the three-point line.

Or, in Magic Johnson's estimation, because of them: "The team is better than what we had last season, because we have more guys who can do more things than just shoot three-pointers," Johnson went on. "If I don't see another three-pointer from a Laker team, I'll be happy."

Scott's teams have never been particularly prolific from long range. In fact, not one of his past outfits has finished among the top 10 in the NBA in three-point attempts as a percentage of overall field-goal tries.

That doesn't figure to change in L.A., and not just because the locals are sick of watching players they barely recognize jack up brick after brick. All indications thus far point to Scott instituting a post-heavy offense, in part to appease his most powerful constituent, as Bleacher Report's Kevin Ding noted:

Scott will showcase Bryant's meticulously crafted mid- and low-post games and commit far more than D'Antoni to forging an accountable team defense that protects Bryant's limitations at that end.

That approach makes plenty of sense in light of the rest of the personnel, too.

Boozer, Randle, Hill and Ed Davis are all best-suited to operating on the block, be it with their backs to the basket or while facing up. Lin has steadily improved as a shooter since catching on in 2011-12, but he is still best-suited to using his quickness to get to the cup. The same goes for Xavier Henry.

Young certainly enjoys shooting, though he'll have to tone down his fun-and-gun tendencies with Bryant on the ball. Nash is arguably the greatest shooter in NBA history, but, given his run of poor injury luck since joining the Lakers, he can't be counted on to play consistently, much less spot up with aplomb.

All of which is to say the Lakers under Scott figure to feature an offense that emphasizes half-court execution and deliberate low-post play, with the younger guys (i.e. Lin, Randle, Hill, Henry, Wesley Johnson and Ryan Kelly) pushing the pace when appropriate.

Will that approach yield better results than D'Antoni's free-wheeling framework? Only time will tell, but if Scott can do on offense what he must also do on defense (i.e. implement a system, get his players to put that system into practice), his Lakers might start looking like an honest-to-goodness team again.

Juan Ocampo/Getty Images

None of this guarantees that the Lakers will be back in the playoffs next spring. Such an outcome, in a Western Conference replete with good-to-great teams that are actually trying to compete, would be more than a success; it'd be nigh on a basketball miracle.  

Not that it can't happen. In Bryant's mind, a season that doesn't end in the playoffs would undoubtedly count as a failure.

"We might have had the worst season ever, or could have the worst season ever for a Lakers team," Bryant told ESPN's Darren Rovell back in March. "But now let's have the greatest comeback that the league has ever seen."

In all likelihood, the Lakers hired Scott and went about their summer as they did with Bryant, his expectations and his contract in mind. Bryant's the face of the franchise and will be until he retires. He's close with Scott, dating back to their days as teammates during Bryant's rookie season. The plan is to be competitive now—partly for Kobe's sake—and Bryant won't be pleased with anything less.

Chances are, though, the Lakers won't be competitive enough to qualify for the playoffs. In that case, it'll be important for the team and its fans to adjust (i.e. lower) their expectations based on the facts on the ground rather than the fantasies of their beloved superstar. 

Realistically speaking, a successful Lakers season in 2014-15 would be all about process and progress. It'd be about building the strategic infrastructure on which the NBA's best teams are routinely fashioned. It'd be about laying bricks and concrete, rather than trying to erect a downtown skyscraper in one fell swoop. More wins would be nice, but the application of a coherent plan should take precedent in any judgment of L.A.'s next six-month spin through the NBA.

What would make this season a success for the Lakers?

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There will be some smaller-picture situations worth monitoring that Scott will have to sort through. How's Randle coming along? Who's getting priority at power forward? What will Young's role look like? Can Kelly become a rotation player?

In truth, the Lakers' upcoming campaign will be measured more accurately according to big-picture concerns, including style of play on both ends. Those are the issues that will ultimately dictate how the Lakers proceed from this franchise low point and how quickly they dig themselves out of it—and whether marquee free agents want to be a part of that effort going forward.

Because the Lakers' purple-and-gold luster isn't going to be restored overnight. It's going to require plenty of patience and persistence on the part of all involved.

Byron Scott's return to his roots marks just the first step in a long journey. He'd better tread carefully, though. Where he plants his proverbial foot may well determine the course of Lakers history for years to come. 

 

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