After experiencing decreasing returns in recent years, the Los Angeles Lakers seem to be making a concerted effort to rebrand themselves. But not in some modernistic, forward-thinking way. Instead, it’s a return to bedrock principles.
Byron Scott, the team’s new head coach, is leading the charge, embracing traditional concepts like team responsibility. You’ll hear phrases like “it starts with defense” more than the small-ball manifestos that have become so commonplace in the new NBA.
The Lakers even positioned three of Scott’s former Showtime teammates behind him at his introductory press conference as a show of support. Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jamaal Wilkes offered words of welcome and encouragement. Johnson talked about the excitement of getting “back to playing Lakers basketball.”
It’s as if the organization is putting as much conscious distance as possible between its new retro mindset and the one espoused by Mike D’Antoni.
A coach so intrinsically linked with free-flowing, score-first basketball has been replaced by one whose mandate is to stop the ball.
During the presser, per Lakers.com, Scott responded to a question about enforcing defensive responsibility:
The only thing you can really control with players is their minutes. That gets their attention. So, if you’re not out there and playing defense the way I think you’re capable of playing or the way we should be playing defense, then I’m going to have to find other guys who will.
And what about the offensive end of the floor?
Scott is planning on using elements of a system that date back to the Princeton Tigers men’s basketball team of the 1930s. Interestingly, the Princeton offense was briefly introduced at the start of the Lakers’ 2012-13 season under coach Mike Brown.
Brown was fired after five games and replaced by D’Antoni, who had no use for old-school concepts—he was ready to run the open floor. And then the next two seasons happened.
During a Grantland podcast taped last March, Steve Nash was asked by Bill Simmons about that short-lived Princeton experiment. Here’s how Nash responded:
It’s a really intricate, detailed offense that has real rules. And, it’s a beautiful thing—the Princeton offense is beautiful. I just don’t know if it was the right thing. And I think in some ways, if it had been this summer, it would have never happened because analytics probably would have been... I feel like the analytics movement has never been, like ‘oh, the Princeton, that would suit analytics.’ That movement’s kind of turned a corner to where it doesn’t seem like it.
But Nash is about to come face-to-face with non-analytics once again.
During his press conference, Scott spoke about an offense he has used in varying degrees throughout his career as a coach:
The Princeton offense, you have to know how to play the game of basketball. It’s like the triangle, a lot of similarities. I know that Kobe’s very familiar with it. But there’s different varieties to the Princeton offense. There’s like five different sets that you can call the Princeton offense. And we won’t get into all of them, and we won’t even try to work on all of them. Like I said, it’s going to be a mixture of things that I think can make this team more successful.
Scott recently sat down with Mike Trudell for Lakers.com, talking about a range of basketball topics. Naturally, the subject of defense came up. Trudell pointed out the lack of rim protectors on the roster and asked the new coach how he’ll compensate for that. Scott talked about stopping dribble penetration before it even gets that far:
You’re going to have to play a lot of help the helper to keep the ball from getting into the paint. That’s a lot of rotations, a lot of help, a lot of stunt and recover, where the guy with the ball sees one-and-a-half or two defenders every single time. You want to clog up the paint as much as possible and make the opponent take contested jump shots.
Writing for Forum Blue and Gold, Darius Soriano compared how bad the Lakers were on the defensive end last season to what Scott will be asking of his players:
Playing defense in the scheme that he describes is as much about want as it is ability. Players have to want to make the extra rotation; they have to want to be there for a teammate and not let the integrity of the scheme fail because of their personal mistake. When you combine that want with discipline—and a bunch of it—you are on the path to where you want to go.
One player that will be on the same path with Scott is Kobe Bryant, still the team’s franchise star and eager to get back onto the floor after sitting out all but six games last season due to injury. Bryant is as fierce and competitive a player as there is in basketball, even at age 36. This will be a full-circle season for Bryant in many ways—as a rookie, 18 long years ago, he was mentored by none other than Scott.
The two share a passion for the game and a work ethic that owes to an earlier era. And for all the impetuousness that Bryant displayed during his younger days, his greatest successes have always come out of structure and discipline—like the famed system of basketball preached by his former coach, Phil Jackson.
Despite his Zen trappings, Jackson’s core basketball philosophies are traditional. As a player for the New York Knicks, he learned about motivation from his coach, Red Holzman. And when Jackson joined the Chicago Bulls as a coach, he embraced the triangle system that had been pioneered by Sam Barry at USC and was later refined by Tex Winter, who played for Barry during the 1940s.
Winter passed his knowledge on to Jackson, and the two won a whole lot of rings together.
Years later, these circular patterns continue, with Scott returning to an organization where he won three championships as a player. Is it simply coincidence that he now compares the offense he’ll be using to the one that added five more banners to the Staples Center rafters under Jackson?
Perhaps coincidences and ironies are beside the point. Scott is bringing a traditionalist approach back to Lakers basketball, and after a season with the most losses in the team’s franchise history, it’s time to refocus on the basics.
This doesn’t mean the game won’t still be fun. Nick “Swaggy P” Young will continue to celebrate after baskets made and Bryant—despite being older and perhaps slower—will still put on signature displays of basketball brilliance. Jeremy Lin will attempt to create some new history, three years after his apex with the Knicks, and rookie Julius Randle will bull his way to the basket and score his first points in the NBA.
And if Scott has his way, the points scored will come after stops made rather than the notion of simply trying to sink more shots than the other guys.
That said, fun has its place on the court and after wins. But there also has to be accountability. As Scott said during his press conference, “When you lose games, you shouldn’t be sitting in the locker room having a good time. It should hurt.”
There’s a new sheriff in town, and he’s going to restore traditional principles and bring back Laker pride.
And his name is Byron Scott.