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How Byron Scott Is Ruining the Lakers’ Chances in Free Agency

Burt Harris/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

How many ways can one coach screw up a basketball team? I don’t know, but if we keep a scorecard on Byron Scott for the rest of the season, we just might find out.

When you have a team “led” by Kobe Bryant, and the best thing that can possibly happen is losing enough games that you don’t lose your top three protected pick this summer, it’s almost impossible to “screw up,” especially when you’re not accidentally tanking the tank and going 1-7.

Scott is the master at saying stupid things. And then doing more stupid things. The most recent evidence of that came by benching No. 2 pick D’Angelo Russell in the fourth quarter for doing what Scott asked him to do…or something.

But I’m getting ahead of the story here. It actually started with some comments reported by Baxter Holmes of ESPN, justifying benching Russell in the fourth quarter of a tight game with the Brooklyn Nets:

“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,” Scott said Friday before the Lakers’ 104-98 win over the Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center. “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.”

Scott expanded his comments:

“I don’t know about sitting him for games,” Scott said. “But I do know that all these guys have to start progressing a little bit faster. Playing time in this league is a very precious thing, and I don’t want our guys to take that for granted. So missing assignments on a continuous basis is not going to go unnoticed. You’ve got to start developing and doing a better job on [the defensive] end of the floor.”

You get it? You’ve got to get up to an NBA level if you want to play at the NBA level! Just because we drafted you doesn’t mean you get your minutes. Take that, you one-and-done spoiled brat! Go machismo!

But then he also told the assembled media, per Matt Moore of CBS Sports:

“Our young guys got to continue to develop and they will,” he said. “They got to get it a little bit quicker and as a coach you want them to get it now. But you also have to be realistic and understand you have a 19 (year-old) and a 20-year-old in your starting lineup that played one year of college basketball.

“So, it’s going to take those guys some time. Like I said I just got to continue to be patient. But like I told them, I’m not going to be patient for long. I expect guys to get it on both ends of the floor in a relatively quick manner.”

The bold is mine for emphasis because it’s contradicting what else he said. And just what in the wide world of sports does it mean, “I’m not going to be patient for long?” Isn’t the word for that impatient?

So how does one exhibit impatient patience, but not for long — or whatever it was that Scott was doing?

Maybe there’s a bit of old-school coaching going on here, making him work for his minutes. Maybe it works; if it does, I can dig it. And maybe it did. Russell’s defense has been better of late. So, now that it’s working, put him in during the final frame, right?

In a blowout loss to the Miami Heat, where winning and losing isn’t going to factor into who’s playing for the simple reason that the loss is a done deal, Russell should get some run, right? I mean, especially considering his improvement in the problem areas.

In the words of the great Lee Corso, “Not so fast, my friend.”

First this:

Then this:

And then this, just for the neat follow up.

So now he’s not playing Russell, and he’s not explaining why. And all this might not matter much in the narrow scheme of things, but it bodes doom for the long run.

Then he came out with another convoluted excuse later:

The “wolves,” in this case, would’ve have been Tyler Johnson, who finished out the game at the point guard spot for the Miami Heat in the game in question. If Johnson is a “wolf,” just where are the lambs? If you’re afraid of going against Johnson, who’s safe?

And yes, you probably need to play him in the fourth quarter, “just because he’s the No. 2 pick.” I mean, that’s the entire point of things here, isn’t it? He is the No. 2 pick.

Think of it this way. If you’re the Lakers, you have two priorities this season:

  1. LOSE!!! You owe your pick, but it’s top three protected. With a kid like Ben Simmons out there, this isn’t the time to play for “pride.”
  2. DEVELOP!!! The future isn’t Kobe Bryant. This is on the truth-level with things like gravity is an actual thing, and Santa Clause isn’t. The future is Russell and Julius Randle, and the only priority you have right now is helping them to learn everything they can this year.

Being fair, whether he’s trying to or not, Scott is accomplishing the first on his own. It makes it comical that he talks about winning because he doesn’t seem to be aware that his team is getting crushed. And he’s been doing that for a while, so let’s not make excuses. His teams are 86-233 with Cleveland and the Lakers since 2010-11. No worries there.

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Kevin Sullivan/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

The second point is another matter. Scott’s is the kind befuddled and muddled mind you’re asking your point guard of the future to learn from. This Whack-a-Mole approach to fourth-quarter minutes is going to mess with Russell’s head. It’s also going to slow his development process. Not to mention you don’t know what other kinds of philosophical arsenic Scott is pouring into that young man’s brain.

Furthermore, by sitting him the fourth quarter of meaningless games, you’re giving him meaningless lessons that won’t help him develop. And you want that for two reasons. The first is self-explanatory. Sooner is better than later. Duh.

But the other reason is it could have a far greater impact on next season’s free agency than you might think. Let’s say Kevin Durant does think about leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder. There’s no shortage of teams which could offer him a max contract. And hey, max is max. It doesn’t matter that the Lakers have more cap space because they can’t offer him more than anyone else who can offer him the max.

So how’s he going to make his decision? Maybe hometown plays in it a bit, but that’s rarely been the case with other free agents, and Durant hasn’t said anything to indicate that he’s thinking about it. But maybe the Washington Wizards are on the list, maybe not.

What I can almost assure you is that if he leaves, it’ll be to win. He’s leaving money to do it.

The minimal difference between going and staying lies in the annual raise he can get. If he stays in OKC, he gets an annual 7.5 percent raise, or $2.0 million. Over four years that comes out to a difference of just a shade under $6 million, which isn’t chump change, but compared to the $140 million he’d be getting, it’s not a deal breaker.

But that’s a bit of a convenient way of looking at it. If he stays in Oklahoma City, Durant can do what LeBron James did and sign a two-year deal with an opt-out in it. Then, in 2017 when the cap goes up again, and he qualifies for 35 percent of the cap instead of 30 percent (because it would be his 11th season), Durant can really get paid. If he did that, he’d have roughly $246 million in guaranteed income over six years — or more than $100 million more than the Lakers (or any other team) can offer him.

And the thing is he can’t just do that with any team. He can only do that with the Thunder. And that’s a lot of money.

So, if he’s going to leave one-hundred-million dollars!!! on the table, he’s not going to do it just so he can wear the purple and gold and be a part of the storied past or whatever platitude the LA media wants to slough off on its readers. He’s not going anywhere he doesn’t feel he has a chance to win. Maybe he would for $6 million, but not for $100 million.

And if the Lakers’ coach isn’t playing Russell in the fourth quarter, that’s sending a signal to Durant and every other free agent that there’s something unreliable about him. Scott is causing Russell to lose value, not just this year, but in the future.

And, if you don’t believe me, think about this: If the Lakers had a chance for a do-over tomorrow, who should the Lakers take? I’m betting there’s a lot more “Kristaps Porzingis” and “Jahlil Okafor” answers than there were a few months ago.

And there’s a version of this question that’s a lot less hypothetical next year’s free agents will be asking. Why would Kevin Durant choose the Lakers if their young stars might be unreliable in the clutch? How will he know they are if they’re not given the chance to prove they are? And if the young stars in Orlando, New York or Washington are proving themselves so, why would Durant choose the Lakers over those teams?

Scott’s present priorities are out of whack with the team’s future priorities, and since the present is obscene, unholy vomit, there’s no point in nurturing it over the future.

It’s bizarre that the Lakers haven’t fired Scott yet, but it could be they’re afraid of offending Kobe Bryant. Go ahead, what’s the worst that can happen if you do? Demand a trade?

The Lakers are ruining their future to protect the feelings of the last vestige of their past. Probably the only thing more stupid than Scott not playing Russell in the fourth quarter is Jim Buss letting him do it.

Edit: After this article was written, the Lakers played a close game against the Orlando Magic. Russell played the last 7:00 minutes of the game (minus one second on the final play). Nikola Vucevic made the game-winning shot on that play. Scott still managed to get in his own special brand of obtuse, though, running a failed iso for Lou Williams right before Vucevic’s winner. Also, youngster Jordan Clarkson only played two seconds of the final frame. 

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