The Lakers are saying goodbye to Byron Scott and Kobe Bryant as they welcome Luke Walton, a coach who has the ability to return the team to greatness.
Over the 56-year history of the Los Angeles Lakers, the franchise has had 21 head coaches. With names like Jerry West, Pat Riley, and Phil Jackson, some of the NBA’s most accomplished coaches have been at the helm of one of the league’s most storied franchises.
It has not always been rainbows, butterflies, and championships for the Lakers, however. Of the 21 aforementioned head coaches since their move to Los Angeles in 1960, only five of have had losing records, including Mike D’Antonio (67-87) and Byron Scott (38-126), Los Angeles’ two most recent coaches.
Scott was supposed to be the perfect fit and the next coach to take this once-proud franchise back to the glory of their former years. Having won three NBA Championships as a player with the Lakers during the Showtime era of the 1980s, Scott understood the tradition and expectations that come with being a part of the Lakers organization. As his .227 winning percentage as a coach shows quite clearly, his knowledge and execution just did not quite match up.
At first glance, the marriage of Scott and the Lakers should have been a mutually beneficial one. Scott certainly had a qualified coaching pedigree; he coached the New Jersey Nets to the NBA Finals twice, in 2002 and 2003, and had been named Coach of the Year in 2008 as head coach of the upstart New Orleans Hornets.
Most importantly, the hiring of Scott in 2014 appealed to aging Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant:
Kobe on Byron Scott: “He was my rookie mentor … We’ve had a tremendously close relationship throughout the years”— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) July 9, 2014
Asked if he wants Byron Scott to be the Lakers coach Kobe says “yep”— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) July 9, 2014
The guard approved of Scott in a way that he had never done of the Lakers’ two previous coaches, D’Antonio and Mike Brown. With a two-year, $48.5 million contract in 2014, the Lakers were incredibly worried about keeping Bryant happy, despite being only a shell of his once unstoppable self.
Unfortunately for all involved, the hiring of Scott was simply not fruitful.
The Bad: The Past Two Years
From the beginning, Scott’s coaching strengths were not suited to the Lakers roster that he inherited. During his heyday as head coach of the Nets, the team was routinely a middle-of-the-pack offensive unit with extraordinary, top-ranked team defense that held opponents to 92.0 points per game in 2002 and 90.1 in 2003.
The narrative was the same during Scott’s time at New Orleans, as the team was one of the worst in offensive rankings but was ranked fifth in opponents’ points per game during the 2008 and 2009 seasons.
Scott’s success had come when his teams played a slow-paced offense, coupled with a lockdown defense that never gave up an inch. For many experts, this was thought to be a strategy that met the Lakers with some success, coming off a 27-55 record with a coach who had a run-and-gun, defense-second mindset.
A coach with a reverse philosophy might be good for the franchise, many believed.
Scott’s defensive mindset was not something that was easily translatable to the Lakers’ roster. His main core consisted of a 35-year-old Bryant who only played 35 games, Jeremy Lin, Wesley Johnson, Jordan Hill, Nick Young, Robert Sacre, Ed Davis, and Carlos Boozer.
Do any of those players jump off the page as lockdown defenders? Or even passable defenders?
Instead, most (see: Hill, Young, Boozer, and Lin) are actually known for being subpar or lazy defenders at best. And it showed, as the team forced very few turnovers and allowed 105.3 and 106.9 points per game, good for 29th in the NBA in 2014-2015 and 27th in the league in 2015-2016, respectively.
Part of it was not Scott’s fault, since the players he inherited were not exactly the “cream of the crop” in terms of NBA talent. Yet, part of the blame can be put on Scott for not adjusting his game plan around the strengths of his team.
Offensively, Scott’s coaching was about as successful as his team’s pushover defense. Watching the Lakers on offense was like witnessing a car that had just slammed into a telephone pole. Then, after managing to back up with a barely-functioning car and smoke pouring from all sides, the automobile proceeded to ram head-on into the pole once again. This process occurred again and again as the Lakers’ offense was just plain painful to witness.
Players were out of sync, and few knew their roles. In games that Bryant did not play in 2015, the Lakers offense was led by the “dynamic duo” of Jordan Hill (12.0 ppg) and Nick Young (13.4 ppg).
2016 was not much better, as the team ranked dead last in points per game (97.3), while being led by 37-year-old Bryant (17.6 ppg) and second-year player Jordan Clarkson (15.5 pig).
As seen in the video below, the offense was often stagnant and did not move the ball with any sort of frequency or urgency. If a team has few offensive options, it becomes paramount to move the ball quickly to force the defense to be on their toes and constantly shift or adjust. Unselfish ball movement is incredibly important, as is a cohesive team.
A great example of this was this year’s Boston Celtics. They knew that they did not have the talent to compete with teams individually, so they bought in by playing team defense and team offense with crisp execution. This was truly a testament to the impeccable coaching of head coach Brad Stevens.
The same cannot be said of Scott.
The one strength of many of the Lakers players was driving into the lane and finishing around the rim. Yet, too many times, players would wave off screens or misuse picks and be forced to shoot long-range two’s or three-pointers.
Compared to the Celtics (left), the Lakers (right) had almost 500 fewer shots within a couple feet of the basket, as seen below.
Less talented teams, like the Lakers, have to buy into manufacturing higher percentage shots and playing lockdown defense as the only way to beat more talented groups. The Lakers did not, and their 38-126 record over the past few years clearly shows.
The Good: A Fresh Start
Now, the Lakers are heading into the 2016 offseason with more promise and optimism than the past three years. They have a coach in Luke Walton who was part of a staff that just set the record for NBA wins in a season and also guided the Warriors to a 39-4 start as the interim head coach.
Walton will have a chance to become somewhat of a hero in Los Angeles if he is able to return his former team to prominence. However, the task will be taller than Walton’s father, 6-foot-11 former center, Bill Walton.
At this point, the only guaranteed returners are Nick Young, Lou Williams, D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr., and Anthony Brown. The Lakers will also have an early draft pick and plentiful cap space to use this summer as the collective contracts of Bryant and Roy Hibbert, worth over $40 million, come off the books.
Some free agent options include Durant (not likely), Nicolas Batum, Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Chandler Parsons, Mike Conley, and DeMar DeRozan, to name a few. Plus, what about the potential of a Harrison Barnes-Festus Ezeli-Luke Walton partnership in L.A.?
To say it plainly, there are a lot of options for the Lakers for the first time in a while. If the Lakers are smart, they’ll allow Walton to have input on this process to help form his own roster.
Everyone only pays attention to the offense of the Warriors, but the defense plays a large role in the team’s success, too. Even though Walton’s Warriors were 19th in the league in defensive points per game, this statistic is misleading due to the fact that the Warriors played at one of the fastest paces in the league, and thus had to defend against more possessions than most teams.
Per 100 possessions, the team actually had a defensive rating that ranked fifth in the NBA. They also ranked in the top 10 for steals and the top two for blocks. Both will be areas that Walton will attempt to translate to his younger, inexperienced Lakers roster.
Offensively, there is little doubt that Walton will not be struggling for a model. After coming from one of the best offensive team in league history, Walton will attempt to bring this explosive strategy to the purple and gold. Admittedly, this will not happen overnight.
The first major step that Walton will be able to introduce right away is a passing mindset.
As an assistant for the Warriors, Walton aided his team to a league-high 28.9 team assists per game, despite the fact that no one on the team averaged over 7.4 assists per game. This team-first mindset is something that has been lacking, especially for a team that was dead last in team assists this past year with only 18.0.
The counter-argument cannot be personnel for this shortcoming, either. The Celtics had just as few playmakers this past year, yet they were sixth in the league with 24.2 team assists per game, even with their top assist man, guard Isaiah Thomas, averaging a measly 6.2 per game. The Lakers have no excuse for not being better in this category this past year, and it is reasonable to expect Walton to be a major upgrade over Scott in this category in 2016-17.
So, Kobe’s gone and the Lakers are moving on. Bryant did a lot for the Lakers, don’t get me wrong. But he certainly put the team in quite the pickle the past few years. Paying him $22 million a year for little production strapped the team and prevented a healthy passing of the torch. If there’s one big knock on Kobe, it is his large ego. Want to see a mutually beneficial passing of the torch? Look no further than the Spurs and Tim Duncan.
But that’s neither here nor there. The Lakers have a bright future, led by their fearless leader, Luke Walton, and his crew of young talent. How soon will they be able to compete for the playoffs is anyone’s guess. But I would say one thing to Lakers fans: It might be sooner than you think.
Brad Stevens has his Boston Celtics well ahead of schedule. Moving forward, the Lakers can easily bloom into the Western Conference’s version of the up-and-coming Celtics. The similarities are uncanny.
A brilliant and budding coach, a roster of young talent, and endless possibilities.
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