LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Lakers have the second-worst record in the league, own the NBA’s worst defense since Dec. 1, and have long been destined to test their fate in the lottery, where ping-pong balls will decide whether they keep their 2016 first-round pick.
At the center of all their turmoil is Byron Scott, whose record in 15 years as an NBA head coach is 446-620. Eight years ago, he won a Coach of the Year award leading Chris Paul and the New Orleans Hornets to a 56-win season.
Today, no coach has made life harder for himself. From his head-scratching decisions to bench D’Angelo Russell in fourth quarters, to L.A.’s nightly brand of lackadaisical transition defense, it’s all his fault—even when it isn’t.
All this begs the question: Is Scott truly out of touch with modern NBA trends, or is he a victim of circumstance, handcuffed to the circus that is Kobe Bryant’s farewell tour and a miscast, inexperienced roster?
Scott's specific situation is miles from what David Blatt experienced with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but both coaches were placed in challenging environments they couldn't control. If LeBron James never signed with Cleveland, there's a very strong chance Blatt would still be there today, but several factors—including unreasonably high expectations—led to his downfall.
Game tactics and strategy aside, the parallels between Blatt and Scott make for an interesting conversation, and both struggled to adapt.
"Sometimes you don’t understand what guys are looking for, what owners are looking for, what general managers are looking for," Scott said. "So I feel bad for David, he’s a great guy. From the outside looking in, you try to figure out what didn’t he do, or what did he do, I guess in this case, that was so wrong that he got fired."
Outside of the daily struggle between player development and winning games—which is a delicate tightrope any coach would struggle with if in Scott’s shoes—the Lakers are bad because their talent doesn’t stack up against their opponents' on a nightly basis.
“I evaluate myself by waking up every morning and trying to do the best I can. I still believe that great players make great coaches. Simple as that,” Scott said. “You’ve got to have talent. You’ve got to have great players. And those players have to be willing to buy into your beliefs. And I really do think it’s that simple. I haven’t seen one great coach have bad teams. Great players make great coaches.”
That sounds like an excuse, but it's accurate. Still, not all his criticism is over L.A.’s on-court performance. Before the season started, Scott was forced to backtrack after he demonized the three-point shot the previous year, despite it proving to be an important part of several recent championship teams.
And his rotational decisions have been confusing, to say the least. After benching Russell in the fourth quarter of L.A.’s two-point loss against the Dallas Mavericks on Tuesday night, Scott said he replaced his franchise point guard for trying to take over the game.
Russell responded afterward in the locker room: “I felt like I was taking advantage of what they were giving me,” he said. “Like I said, it was a small split window of taking a shot or passing it up with a shot clock violation on the line, and it always was in my hands and I had to take a shot. I missed it, but I don’t know if he would’ve said that if I was making those shots."
The 19-year-old was visibly frustrated with the decision, and it isn't the first time Scott has used a quick hook to try to teach his young talent a lesson. But charm isn’t a required characteristic to coach in the NBA. It might make your life easier, but it's not the only route, and Scott's colleagues know how difficult he currently has it.
“[Coaching a young team] is very challenging, and I greatly admire the job that Byron has done, because he’s had to make tough choices,” Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle told Bleacher Report. “He’s playing guys that are going to be in their future. Or have a chance to be in their future. And it’s the right thing to do, but coaching a young team can be painful. When I first came in as an assistant coach in New Jersey, in the early 90s, we had a mixture of older guys and younger guys. We were a deep lottery team and it’s painful climbing out. But the work that he’s done with their team has put them in a position to make quantum leaps going forward.”
Has the NBA passed Scott by? Does he not understand evolving player tendencies and the constantly shifting dynamics that take place on the floor? Or is it just that his weaknesses are heightened on a rebuilding team, where uncontrollable circumstances are to blame?
“I think all coaches are better suited for teams that are ready to win right now,” Lakers forward Brandon Bass told Bleacher Report. “I mean, it’s an easier job. It’s more challenging when you have a bunch of young guys and you have to be a lot more detailed about things and teaching a whole bunch of things that make your job a little bit harder.”
Scott coached Bass for the first two seasons of his career, 10 years ago with the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets. The 30-year-old hasn’t seen much of a change since that first stint.
“He’s kind of similar with the approach,” he said. “He’s going to make sure you get your conditioning in. He’s going to make sure you’re mentally and physically tough.”
At the tail end of a recent Lakers practice, Scott paused a scrimmage to carefully deliver a message to his huddled team. On the very next play, noisy chatter echoed off the facility's walls. Every defender was shouting, communicating help coverages and busting it with precise energy.
"Every morning is another day to get better and you come to work with a smile on your face ready to compete, and that’s what I see in these guys right now," Scott told reporters after practice ended. "You guys saw the last three or four minutes. Very spirited. Very intense. And I thought our guys were focused for the most part, doing the things we need to do."
The reality is it’s hard to implement a complex offensive or defensive system when so many big-minute players have little to no NBA experience. This doesn't excuse Scott for the Lakers' poor play, or some of his strange decisions, and it's entirely possible they'd have a few more wins with a more patient head coach at the helm.
Scott's recent history probably eliminates him as a sexy candidate whenever the Lakers let him go, but how much of it is really his fault?
"He's good people," San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich said. "... He’s always ready to enjoy life, a good sense of humor. He puts things in perspective, he's honest and I just enjoy being around him."
Scott is much better suited to coach veterans who can handle his old-school style, but it's unlikely such a group will have a job opening anytime soon. So goes the carousel of coaching in the NBA.
All quotes in this article were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.