“Championship or bust” is the familiar mindset of the Los Angeles Lakers and their fans whenever a new NBA season rolls around. This year’s campaign, however, will offer a different tune with the team still in the early stages of a long term rebuild.
Instead of aspirations of a seventeenth NBA title, the primary focus of the 2015-16 regular season for the Lakers is merely the development of the young players on the roster — most notably the core of D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson.
Sounds simple enough, right? Well, if your name is Byron Scott, it isn’t. It actually happens to be quite a complex matter.
When it all boils down to it, the legacies of professional players and athletes across the entire sports stratosphere are judged primarily on one thing: How many championships they win. A career or individual regular season win-loss record means significantly less to fans and critics alike.
For instance, Michael Jordan is not widely regarded as the greatest player to ever pick up a basketball because of his 843-237 regular season record. You know how I know? Because his actual regular season record is 706-366 but no one would have corrected me. Instead, everyone alludes to his success on the biggest stage, finishing a perfect 6-0 in NBA Finals series without ever needing a decisive Game 7.
For coaches on the other hand, their win-loss record in the regular season is often times the first thing brought up when discussing their body of work, unless they have a few championship rings to their credit.
Unfortunately for Scott, the then-New Jersey Nets came up empty in back-to-back Finals appearances in 2002 and 2003, so his coaching record of 437-582 (.429) sticks out like a sore thumb.
Coming off a 21-61 season — the worst in franchise history — in his first year at the helm of the team he won three titles with as a player, Scott will not have the luxury of patience from fans that a player or front office member might be fortunate enough to endure. In the eyes of many Lakers fans, the sixteen-time champions need to right the ship, and fast. The bulk of that responsibility will fall on Scott’s shoulders.
The Lakers, for the first time in several years, have a foundation of young players yet to be established as bona fide NBA talent. While it is certainly exciting for fans as the franchise continues to transition into a post-Kobe Bryant era, it is going to take at least a few years for the youth to develop into what is expected of them, if it happens at all.
Scott has three years remaining on his contract, with a team option for the final year. However, he is employed by the same people that gave Mike Brown the ax just five games into his second season, so if they deem it necessary, the front office certainly has what it takes to cut the cord before that contract option even arrives.
Which brings us to the upcoming season, where player development is paramount and racking up wins are, in a sense, on the backburner. Barring a verbal commitment for the future from Mitch Kupchak and the Buss family, Scott’s job — like any other coach on all major competitive levels — is to win games. A coach’s future is far less guaranteed than the players under his tutelage that are considered leaders of the team. Because of this, Byron should absolutely be a bit selfish and focus on winning games, even if it means reducing the minutes of his young players in favor of veterans.
Is it the best thing for the future of the organization? No, but he should not be chastised for doing whatever is necessary to keep his job. I was guilty of doing so at times last year, while forgetting that Scott does not really have a long leash in comparison to most NBA coaches today.
Again, that is only if the front office has not given him some sort of promise that they will be patient with him as the youth attempts to blossom. If they have given that type of endorsement, then yes, player development takes precedence. End of story. The main objective for him will be to find the perfect balance between the two, as difficult as that will inevitably be.
For the crowd wanting to give the young talent a boatload of minutes from the outset, my advice to you is simply to be patient. There are 82 games in a season. It is a marathon, not a sprint.
If guys like Russell and Randle don’t get what you feel is an adequate amount of minutes right away, remember that Clarkson hardly got on the floor for about the first half of last season. They slowly brought him along, allowing him to observe the game from the sideline while getting reps in practice, and it has worked out pretty well so far.
In Randle’s case, whether he is in the starting lineup or not, his minutes should and probably will start out relatively low. Coming off the injury he suffered last year, being cautious and gradually increasing his workload over time is the appropriate way to go. Randle is virtually still a rookie (even if the handful of minutes he played in last season’s opener disqualify him from Rookie of the Year consideration). Despite being able to study endless film, he is going to need in-game reps to start taking major steps forward as a player.
Russell will probably get his fair share of minutes this year, given the projected point guard rotation with the current roster. The Lakers, as of right now, do not have a true point guard slotted to come off the bench. Randle, though, is in the middle of a log jam at power forward that includes Brandon Bass, Ryan Kelly and first-round pick, Larry Nance, Jr.
Allocating minutes properly to make players happy while presenting a winning product is already a daunting task for coaches, even if the roster possesses immense talent. Doing so while building for a future that you might not be guaranteed to be a part of? That could result in many sleepless nights for Byron Scott.
Whether he elects to roll the dice on his future and direct his focus on developing the youth, or attempts to secure said future by winning as many games as possible, Scott can’t please everyone.
But ultimately, that decision is his to make, and we are all just along for the ride.