Los Angeles Lakers Must Leave Past Behind to Truly Move Forward

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 6, 2014

Jul 29, 2014; El Segundo, CA, USA; Byron Scott is introduced as Los Angeles Lakers coach at a press conference at Toyota Sports Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The past is a great place to linger when the present doesn't have much to offer, as is the case now with the Los Angeles Lakers.

But if L.A. wants a real future, it must cut ties with the exceptionalist thinking of the bygone era by which it defines itself.

Byron Scott, the Lakers' new head coach, is just the latest example of Los Angeles' inability to let go.

A quintessential retread, Scott comes to the Lakers with a fairly long but wholly unimpressive history. This is his fourth coaching stop, his first since a three-year stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers ended in 2013 with a grand total of 64 wins. In his career, the 51-year-old Scott is 105 games under .500.

He has made the playoffs in four of his 13 seasons, however, and earned the 2007-08 Coach of the Year award when his Chris Paul-led New Orleans Hornets notched 56 victories. And let's not forget a pair of Finals appearances with the New Jersey Nets.

NEW ORLEANS - DECEMBER 26:  Head coach Byron Scott talks with Chris Paul #3 of the New Orleans Hornets during a timeout against the Houston Rockets on December 26, 2008 at the New Orleans Arena in New Orleans, Louisiana.   The Hornets defeated the Rockets
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

It's probably wrong to say Scott is a bad coach. He's been both very solid and underwhelming by turn, typically depending on the quality of his personnel. In that sense, he's not so different from most coaches.

The issue, though, is that the NBA has already seen a 937-game sample of what Scott has to offer on the bench, and it decided collectively that it wasn't worth buying.

Except for the Lakers, apparently, who were happy to hire a self-admitted old-school thinker with ties to the team's past.

Per Sam Amick of USA Today, Scott said: "I do think that (Jim and Jeannie Buss) know how wearing that purple and gold, being a member of their family, that Laker family, is an important issue and I think they'll look at that and consider that as well."

Scott's history with the organization (he played 11 of his 14 professional seasons in L.A.) and his close relationship with Kobe Bryant are the main reasons he got the gig. All parties involved have been open about that from the start.

There's a logic to L.A.'s decision, one defined by a value system the entire organization embraces. But Scott's understanding of what it means to be a Laker and his strong relationship with a player, Bryant, who isn't going to be around long enough to figure into the team's future, show how the Lakers' emphasis on things past prevents them from building a real future.

The organization's past two years have been rough. Wouldn't it be better if someone came in with some fresh ideas? The fear, of course, is that whatever new thinking the Lakers got would mirror the woefully unsuccessful kind Mike D'Antoni brought.

But fearing all new approaches because the last one didn't work out is a silly way to operate.

Magic Johnson, perhaps the most vocal former Laker on the planet, offers yet another example of the unprogressive approach that holds the Lakers back.

Jul 29, 2014; El Segundo, CA, USA; Byron Scott (left) is embraced by Magic Johnson at a press conference to introduce Scott as Los Angeles Lakers coach at Toyota Sports Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

"If I don't see another three-pointer from a Laker team, I'll be happy," Johnson told Eric Pincus of the Los Angeles Times.

A nit-picky point? Sure.

But Johnson's tongue-in-cheek comment, an indirect shot at D'Antoni's free-wheeling and ultimately unsuccessful offensive approach, is just another example of the Lakers' outmoded thinking. The NBA set a record for three-point attempts last year; that's the direction the game is headed.

If there was anything good about last year's Lakers, it was their willingness to embrace some small portion of the league's future by firing off triples like crazy.

Scott's hire and Johnson's remarks both tie in to the pervasive belief (among Lakers) that the organization is somehow special today because of what it did yesterday—that it's history defines its future.

Those 16 championship banners hanging in the Staples Center aren't without meaning. They symbolize the intelligence and skill of the people who helped hang them: West and Baylor, Magic and Kareem and Riley, Jackson and O'Neal and Bryant. And above all, Dr. Jerry Buss.

LOS ANGELES - FEBRUARY 17: (L-R) Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss, Former players Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jerry West and Pat Riley pose for a photo during a Jerry West Statue Unveiling at the Staples Center as part of the 2011 NBA All-Star
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Those men were fantastic at their jobs. Exceptional, really.

But only Bryant remains, and he's not the same person who helped the organization collect five of those banners. Now, Bryant stands as one of the prime examples of the way L.A.'s adherence to the past holds it back.

Though the Lakers aren't the first team to reward a star with a hefty contract in his twilight years, they were unique in their reckless hurry to do so. Bryant hadn't played a game since tearing his Achilles in April, 2013, but the Lakers gave him $48.5 million in December anyway. They treated a relic as though he were still in his prime.

As a result, the Lakers put their future on hold for two full seasons.

Justin Verrier of ESPN's TrueHoop explains:

And so the Lakers remain stuck in a Kobe-induced purgatory: Beholden to Bryant to cobble together a contender, but without the ability to do so as long as he insists on operating like the Bryant of old; apparently committed to an honest-to-goodness reboot in the summer of 2016, but limited to deals that keep their books as clean as possible past that point. They're the type of team with the brand power and influence to score one of four sitdowns on Carmelo Anthony's free-agency world tour, but not one he would ever seriously consider playing for. They're a big empty suit in a town full of them.

There are no punches pulled there, but the criticism is accurate. The truth hurts.

If there's any good news in all this, it's that the Lakers spent part of their summer making moves with the future in mind. Aside from rookie Julius Randle and Nick Young, nobody on the roster is under contract beyond 2015-16. By refusing to commit long-term money, L.A. is setting itself up to start a fresh rebuild over the next two summers.

Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Goran Dragic and Rajon Rondo will hit the market a year from now. Kevin Durant will follow in 2016. The Lakers will be ready to pursue every one of those players.

The Bryant contract was a mistake, and the Scott hire feels like it was made for the wrong reasons. But perhaps the Lakers knew all along they couldn't truly build a new future until Bryant was through playing, and maybe what's happening now is some kind of odd fan service.

John Bazemore/Associated Press

After all, if the team isn't going to be competitive for two years, the least it can do is give supporters familiar faces (and ideas) to root for. If that's what's going on here, it's defensible.

The Lakers are in a holding pattern, and they know it. So maybe they're just playing up the history, the lore and the exceptionalist thinking so many loyal L.A. fans enjoy.

If, however, the Lakers' recent devotion to their history is more than that—if it's an indication of how the Buss siblings hope to run the franchise going forward—L.A. is in serious trouble.

There's still a way for the Lakers' future to be special, but only if everyone involved with the organization is ready to admit the past is gone.


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