Byron Scott's Return to Lakers Has Taken Time but Seems Right on Schedule

Kevin Ding@@KevinDingNBA Senior WriterOctober 13, 2014

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LOS ANGELES — The eldest child is the one you assume to be the first one coached by the father.   

Thomas Scott says no. He remembers when the notion of his father, Byron, being a coach gained its real toehold.   

And Thomas remembers the kid who was the first to be coached by Byron Scott.   

"My dad's last year here playing with the Lakers [was] Kobe Bryant's first year," Thomas said. "There was a relationship there. There was an understanding. I think my dad saw a lot of himself in Kobe—not necessarily the basketball part, just the mentality, the attitude, the focus he had at 18. It was really intriguing to my dad.

"Kobe saw somebody that he could look to as a role model in the NBA: How are you supposed to work here? How are you supposed to lift? Just somebody he could watch and see, someone leading by example at 35 years old and going harder than the guys at 22. That's what Kobe got.

"I noticed Kobe would ask him questions here and there, and he always had something. And Kobe would apply it. I saw that early on."

Now in the coaching business himself, Thomas serves as the Lakers' and his father's assistant coach for player development. During Kobe's rookie season, Thomas was just a young teenager. But he still noticed the connection between Byron and Kobe.

And in that relationship from 1996-97, the son saw a glimpse of the father's future.

"There was something there," Thomas recalled. "He has a way of communicating his experience—and knowledge."

Kobe Bryant has long said that he feels Byron Scott was his first mentor in the NBA.
Kobe Bryant has long said that he feels Byron Scott was his first mentor in the NBA.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

Byron Scott had by then already been told by mentors Pat Riley with the Lakers and Larry Brown with the Pacers that his communication skills could translate to coaching. Before Bryant came along, Scott had been willing to help other teammates or kids, too.

Some even joined Scott for his offseason workouts. Elden Campbell didn't last a week. Reggie Miller forged an 18-year NBA career.

But it was Bryant who really shaped Scott's future at a time when Bryant was thinking it was all about "Mr. Scott" guiding him. Indeed, Bryant still refers to Scott, not Del Harris or even Jerry West, as "my rookie mentor."

In that way, it was the best sort of relationship—a real give and take, each benefiting and growing from being around the other.

And for it to have come all the way around to now, with both men at a point when they need each other and their beloved franchise needs the most help of all, it's downright poetic.

Bryant's last coach is his first coach.

Scott returns just before Bryant leaves.

The glorious Pat Riley era is meshing with the even more glorious Phil Jackson era.

This is not mere nostalgia. This is synergy.

If it's such a logical fit, then why did it take the Lakers so long to settle on Scott as the head coach? There was a three-month wait for his hire. It sure didn't feel as seamless as Scott becoming this staple of the Lakers when his childhood home sat just 14 blocks from the Forum. (Yes, he counted.)

Scott oversaw a Cavs team that lost 166 games in three seasons while trying to recover from the departure of LeBron James in 2010.
Scott oversaw a Cavs team that lost 166 games in three seasons while trying to recover from the departure of LeBron James in 2010.Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

The Lakers went into this search determined to move slower and be more open-minded after being quickly impressed by Mike Brown's DVDs on defense and Mike D'Antoni's history with Steve Nash.

And...then there's the reality that clubs will do just about anything to get LeBron James.

In 2010, the Cavaliers were desperate to re-sign James. They were led to believe that James wanted a coach with playing experience and a history of winning, maybe even one in particular whom James’ buddy Chris Paul would endorse from his time in New Orleans. So the Cavs fired Mike Brown and hired Scott.

Given that James didn't elect to join Scott then, the Lakers understandably had pause now that they were coveting James in 2014 free agency and thinking to hire Scott.

So the decision was made to wait for free agency to play out, to open the door for someone such as James, who recently admitted he didn't choose to return to the Cavs based on their coach, or Carmelo Anthony to help determine who would succeed D'Antoni.

Indeed, the Lakers' express elevator back to the penthouse hinged—and will hinge—far more on free-agent recruiting than coaching hires. As general manager Mitch Kupchak said after the dust settled without an incoming star this time, "If you don't try, you don't know. ... We'll get somebody. At some point in time we will."

When James and Anthony made their decisions, the Lakers finalized theirs with Scott, who outlasted Lionel Hollins, Kurt Rambis, Alvin Gentry, Mike Dunleavy and George Karl. Scott signed a four-year deal worth $17 million, the last year a team option, on July 28.

Until the marquee changes, Scott is reinforcing the foundation with his emphasis on sound defense and high expectations. Even if the timing might never be right for Scott and James to connect, Scott and this franchise do have a way of falling in easy step together.

The Lakers and Scott really have former Clippers owner Donald Sterling to thank for getting this ball rolling. After the San Diego Clippers drafted Scott fourth overall in 1983, Sterling wasn't too jazzed about the pick or the money the kid would be paid, so he made the sort of penny-pinching, short-sighted decision he often did: The Clippers traded Scott to the Lakers for a declining Norm Nixon. The Lakers won three NBA championships with Scott and won five more with Scott's proteges, Bryant and Derek Fisher—and the Clippers most definitely did not.

Scott helped the Showtime Lakers win three titles in 11 seasons with Magic Johnson, Pat Riley and Co.
Scott helped the Showtime Lakers win three titles in 11 seasons with Magic Johnson, Pat Riley and Co.Brian Drake/Getty Images

Sterling had another chance at Scott in 2013, interviewing him for the Clippers' coaching vacancy. Sterling wound up reviving a trade to get Celtics coach Doc Rivers, which left Scott to fall back into the Lakers' arms.

Scott took a job as a TV analyst for Time Warner Cable SportsNet, the Lakers' regional network, and it offered him a platform to observe—and allowed a sort of words-eye view for "Scotty" to criticize—the lack of defensive consistency in D'Antoni's team.

"He's the right guy at the right place, to me, at the right time," said Paul Pressey, Scott's assistant in New Orleans and Cleveland and now with the Lakers.

Pressey is as aware as anyone they could've been in L.A. in 2011—with Scott coming home to coach a contending team as Jackson's successor—if Scott had just passed on coaching a likely-to-be-LeBron-less dead-end Cleveland team in 2010.

But Scott's way is not to game the system. He is a regimented man whose code says that success comes via steps, not slipping through some back door. After rebuilding accomplishments with the Nets and Hornets, Scott wanted to get back to work and tackle the mountain in Cleveland.

Except the terrain featured an NBA-record 26-game losing streak (tied by the 76ers last season) with James off in Miami, top scorer Mo Williams injured and Kyrie Irving still at Duke. The Cavaliers didn't win the next year (21-45) or the year after that (24-58), either.

Still, Pressey thinks the timing has worked out just right, as the Cavaliers' failures better prepared Scott for rebuilding in Lakerland today.

"Going through what he went through in Cleveland really strengthened him," Pressey said. "He was successful in touching a lot of young men's lives. But it was a painful thing, because he wanted to be more successful in terms of the public eye. He had to learn how to deal with those painful things that he didn't want to deal with. He had to take the hit for the players. He had to help them get through it."

Scott led Jason Kidd and the Nets to back-to-back NBA Finals appearances in four seasons of coaching New Jersey.
Scott led Jason Kidd and the Nets to back-to-back NBA Finals appearances in four seasons of coaching New Jersey.Andrew Gombert/Getty Images

It's the story of Scott's career: failure leading to balance and helping his voice grow into a broader range of tonalities.

Before coming to his dream job with the mighty Lakers, Scott went to coach three organizations with little history to speak of in the Nets, Hornets and Cavaliers. Before returning to the Lakers for that final season as an NBA player and showing Bryant how you show up at 9:30 a.m. for an 11 a.m. team practice, Scott's mark of 12 playoff berths in 12 years was marred by a humiliating, humbling season with the expansion Vancouver Grizzlies.

Sometimes the best timing for someone with an ego is after he gets it checked.

Scott made his debut as Lakers coach Monday night in San Diego. Even though expectations for this team are no higher than a low-top sneaker, there was still a clear gauge for this job's value.

Scott had to say, "Excuse me," to reporters just so he could enter a 30-strong throng of media waiting to hear him speak.

Scott faces a difficult challenge in trying to turn around a Lakers team that lost a franchise-record 55 games last season.
Scott faces a difficult challenge in trying to turn around a Lakers team that lost a franchise-record 55 games last season.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

In contrast, Brian Shaw, passed over by the Lakers to be Jackson's successor and now head coach of the Denver Nuggets, waited patiently behind a glass door for Scott to finish before emerging—but didn't wait for Steve Nash.

When Shaw came out, not a single reporter went to him.

Who knows what would've happened for Scott as a player and as a future coach if Sterling hadn't traded him away from San Diego right at the start? Who knows if Scott would've already been history if he had taken the challenge of replacing Jackson as Lakers coach—facing the pressure of "going on after Frank Sinatra," as Rudy Tomjanovich called it?

Even more so than regular jobs, the coaching carousel can turn on a trifle.

Scott would never have been in the initial position to mentor Bryant in 1996 if not for a sense from West and Lakers owner Jerry Buss that something just felt right about Scott returning to the Lakers.

After that awful season in Vancouver, Scott wasn't sure he was OK with a make-good-in-training-camp offer to rejoin the Lakers—and Scott didn't show up for a morning, pride-swallowing meeting with Harris at Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica.

That could've been that. Instead, West and Buss told Harris to give Scott another chance and go back the next morning.

This time, Scott was there.

And now, Scott is here, again with Bryant. And with another teenage future star to mold: Julius Randle was one-year-old when Scott and Bryant began that first season together.

Perhaps it's destiny. Maybe it's just oddity. But Scott is home—and it feels like he's right on time.

Kevin Ding is an NBA senior writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.


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