Starting off the 2015-16 season on sporadically firing cylinders, the Los Angeles Lakers are a flawed team with intriguing ingredients.
Led by aging superstar Kobe Bryant and largely populated with young and developing talent, this year’s model is already plumbing the mediocrity of recent campaigns while limping to a 1-5 start.
Though there are still 76 games for the Lakers to play, it’s already abundantly clear that some of the same problems that plagued the team a year ago have not yet been rectified.
If there is one flaw that singularly defines the current state of L.A., it is the lack of instructional governance. From current head coach Byron Scott to his assistants, the sideline leadership is woefully short of talent, imagination and the ability to execute effective game plans.
It starts with Scott, an old-school practitioner whose tough talk is a poor substitute for coaching acumen.
After a lopsided loss to the Sacramento Kings Oct. 30, Scott accused his team of not manning up. As Forum Blue and Gold’s Darius Soriano later pointed out, negative digs have been a common refrain for the coach through the years, and “the characteristics he rails against in his post-game pressers are, at least somewhat, a product of his own coaching.”
Expanding on that thought for The Cauldron, Jared Dubin wrote:
When you’re working on your sixth straight team that likely will finish in the bottom 10 in defensive efficiency, and the fifth straight that likely will finish in the bottom five, and the only connecting thread is that they were coached by Byron Scott, maybe it’s time to look in the mirror rather than saying things like, “It doesn’t come down sometimes to X’s and O’s. You’ve got guys going at you. You’ve got to man up.”
When your defense routinely gets beat with simple pick-and-rolls, and doesn’t defend the paint, and doesn’t force turnovers, and fouls all the time, and that holds true over a period of years on teams with vastly different rosters, at a certain point, it probably does come down to X’s and O’s, man. It does.
The veteran coach has been running a combination of Princeton and triangle concepts in Los Angeles, along with basic pick-and-roll actions. It’s not the underlying principles that are at fault—numerous coaches use elements of the motion offense. But while this current squad is able to run specific sets effectively, Scott seems unable to get them to work cohesively over extended periods of play.
After a close four-point loss to the New York Knicks Sunday, the Lakers’ head motivator chose to accentuate the negative once again, as noted by Lakers Nation's Serena Winters:
Scott is not a tactician, nor is he a motivator of men. And unfortunately, he doesn’t have the kind of support staff that can make up for his own deficiencies. His chain of command remains curiously unchanged from last season’s epic 21-61 disaster, with Paul Pressey, Jim Eyen and Mark Madsen still sitting alongside him. Despite whatever expertise these three basketball pros possess, they seem to serve as little more than yes-men to their commander's stubborn resolve.
Los Angeles has no trouble getting buckets, averaging 104.3 points per game, a big jump over last season’s 98.5. But you still have to stop the other guys from scoring even more in order to actually be the victor.
This has been Scott’s unceasing mantra since landing his L.A. coaching gig: Defense wins games. But he just can’t get his charges to buy in—not last season, and not now. The Lakers are starting where they left off last time around, with the third-worst defense in the league.
Management did take at least one step in the right direction when they landed Roy Hibbert via a trade from the Indiana Pacers this summer. But the 7’2” man-mountain can only do so much when opposing players stream into the paint unhindered, bouncing off him like so many pinballs in an arcade game.
Scott’s solution, once again, comes down to bluster. Before the team’s first win Friday against the equally woeful Brooklyn Nets, the Lakers’ voice of authority used the threat of benching as motivation for increased defensive effort, per ESPN.com’s Baxter Holmes:
I think when you make a mistake over and over again, sometimes that wood has a good way of talking to your butt a little bit, too. Getting a couple splinters here and there, sometimes that has a great way of communicating how important it is to play on that [defensive] end of the floor.
Lo and behold, his team responded. But the difference largely had to do with actual substitutions, not allegorical splinters. Metta World Peace—a player whose career success has been built on defensive intensity—finally got a chance to get out on the floor. World Peace’s energy and presence inspired like-minded play, and also drew the praise of Bryant.
“Metta did a great job changing the tempo of the game,” Bryant said, per Joey Ramirez of Lakers.com. “He was everywhere. At one point I leaned over to Julius (Randle) and I said, ‘Imagine him when he was 22.’ ”
Yes, sometimes using a defensive stalwart to beget more defense can work. On Sunday, World Peace made his second appearance of the season, completing three of four shots, including 2-of-2 from downtown, along with four boards, a block, an assist and a steal. Unfortunately, that only earned him 16 minutes on the floor.
Establishing a team identity is crucial. But for now, the Lakers are a team that has fallen from its pedestal, led by an icon whose game has noticeably deteriorated.
Bryant, now in his 20th season and coming off a slew of injuries, clearly isn’t the player he once was. But as long as he remains a Laker, the team will be seen through the prism of what was and can no longer be.
To his credit, the five-time champion realizes this—that he can no longer take the game on his back like he once did.
“I’m really wanting the young guys, especially D’Angelo (Russell), let him call the game, let him organize the game, let him read the flow, let him make those decisions,” Bryant said, per Bill Oram of the Orange County Register. “Which is part of me taking a step back, which needs to be done.”
But it is one thing for Bryant to logically know this and another to actually resist certain urges in the heat of battle. How do you put a damper on the heart of a killer? After so much talk of limited playing time this season, Scott rode his 37-year-old for 32 minutes Sunday—more than all other teammates except Hibbert.
At least Bryant is recognizing the importance of encouraging the next generation. Paradoxically, his coach has often chosen to sit Russell during crucial minutes. Per Holmes, Scott’s threats of benching have extended to the team’s No. 2 draft pick, even at this embryonic and formative stage of his career.
"I'm saying that he has to start getting it, just like the other young guys have to start getting it, and if they don't, they won't play as much," Scott said when referring to the 19-year-old point guard.
How does stunting Russell’s progress now help establish a future identity for the Purple and Gold? Answer: It doesn’t.
And this is the crux of the problem for a once-proud franchise seeking to reinvent itself in the highly competitive Western Conference. The Lakers are guided by a stale coach who doggedly favors Bryant, even as the waning star looks to empower the next-gen kids.
The Lakers deserve a much better identity than this.
There are numerous flaws that make up a losing team, from players’ shortcomings to management’s failure at making the kind of free-agency summer splash that could have vaulted them back into relevance.
But if there is one deficiency that stands heads above the rest, it lies with poor coaching.
Granted, the Lakers haven’t had much luck in this department during the post-Phil Jackson era—not with grind-it-out Mike Brown, or his successor, Mike D’Antoni, a man saddled with back-to-back rosters uniquely ill-suited for his run-and-gun style.
But Scott’s the one in the hot seat right now. Bringing the former Showtime legend back into the Lakers family seemed to be more an act of nostalgia and misplaced loyalty than forward-thinking strategic planning. Simply speaking, the game has evolved since Scott’s early successes as an NBA head coach, and he hasn’t.
On the plus side, young players like Russell, Randle and the super-talented Jordan Clarkson are forming a nucleus that the Lakers can build on for years to come.
But Scott is a glitch in the system, and his presence is hampering rather than helping the team’s overall development. Barely more than a year into his coaching tenure in L.A., he already seems like a man on his way out the door.