The Los Angeles Lakers are one of a handful of NBA teams that have a core of young and promising talent. The other teams on the list are the Utah Jazz, Minnesota Timberwolves, Philadelphia 76ers, Orlando Magic, Portland Trail Blazers and Milwaukee Bucks. Reasonable people can debate which teams have the best young core, but with D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle and Larry Nance Jr., Lakers fans have plenty of reasons to be excited about the team’s future.
Despite having a young foundation to build on moving forward, the Lakers’ season, up to this point, has been frustrating and discouraging for Lakers fans – much more so than for fans of the teams listed above. Of course, for a proud franchise like the Lakers, posting a 3-20 record will have that effect. But the disappointment surrounding the franchise’s worst start to a season isn’t at the core of fans’ frustration. Rather, the root of the frustration stems from the Lakers’ front office and its head coach Byron Scott.
Scott, currently in his 15th season as an NBA head coach, has put together a 440-602 record. In his first three seasons as the head coach of the then-New Jersey Nets, Scott guided his team to the NBA Finals twice (2001-02 and 2002-03). However, over his next 10 seasons as a head coach, Scott has only managed to put together a winning record twice.
Scott is an old-school coach who prides himself on holding his players accountable, among other things. In a league where most teams are starting to adopt lighter training schedules and the San Antonio Spurs’ strategy of resting players more frequently, Scott still runs a notoriously tough training camp. In addition, last season Scott made headlines when he stated that the three-pointer is not a part of championship basketball, which is contrary to empirical data over the last decade.
But Scott isn’t being judged harshly this season by fans or pundits because of his performance in past seasons or because he chooses to not embrace some modern principles of NBA coaching (though he received a lot of criticism for that last season). Rather, he is being criticized for his failure to develop his young players, and favoring veterans who are unlikely to be with the Lakers past this season.
Lakers legend Kobe Bryant recently announced that this will be his final season in the NBA. Considering how many games Kobe has missed due to injuries over the last few seasons, and how this season will be the last time fans will be able to see him play in person, it’s no surprise that he is being featured heavily on his farewell tour. The problem, however, is that Kobe is clearly on the decline, posting a career-worst 10.0 player efficiency rating and 41.3 true shooting percentage in 30.9 minutes per game.
Scott has unquestionably supported his superstar player, even when he was taking an alarming amount of contested jumpers and low percentage three-pointers. Furthermore, he has in general given veterans like Roy Hibbert, Lou Williams, Nick Young and Brandon Bass playing time in key situations, rather than using those moments as a teaching lesson for his younger players. He has had a short leash with his younger players, stripping them of playing time seemingly at random throughout the season. When asked why he has such little patience with his young core, Scott explained that he expects them to learn and understand their assignments and execute them consistently.
“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 before the Lakers played 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.
“I don’t know about sitting [Russell] for games. 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.”
The issue here is that Russell (19), Randle (21), Nance Jr. (22) and Clarkson (23) represent the future of this franchise and making mistakes this season will help them learn how to avoid them down the road. The Lakers are going to have significant salary cap over the next few seasons and free agents will be more likely to sign with Los Angeles if they know the young core has a promising future. Simply put, these players need as much experience and reps as possible to show the league how good they can be. Scott cutting their minutes, refusing to play them in crunch-time and criticizing them while pandering to his veterans should be a red flag for any young players who might consider the Lakers as a free agent destination.
Earlier this week, Scott removed rookies Russell and Randle from the starting lineup. While benching young players generally isn’t a major transgression, it is an issue when the players don’t understand why they were demoted or are unaware of what caused them to be benched.
“I have no idea [why]. I’m just going along with it,” Russell said. “I finally was starting to figure it out and then this happened. … I didn’t expect it to happen like that so if I was the problem, or if I was the change that needed to happen to better the team, then I guess it was worth it.”
“You’re never going to be thrilled about it as a competitor but it’s not in our control,” added Randle. “Our control is to go out there and play hard, like we’ve been doing, and just keep getting better. … It’s not my decision so I don’t know.”
Again, this is the major problem. Rather than sitting his young players down and explaining what caused them to be benched, Scott simply stated that he hoped his players used the demotion as motivation to play better. This approach, along with repeatedly telling his players through the media that they need to “man up” isn’t what will turn this season around for the Lakers, or help its young core develop, which is what really matters at this point.
The Lakers were never going to compete for anything meaningful this season. The focus was always going to be on Kobe and his final season in the NBA. But the priority for the Lakers moving forward should be on developing the young players and setting the stage for life after Kobe. Instead, Byron has spent this season criticizing and benching his younger players while unconditionally supporting his veterans, which doesn’t help the Lakers in the short-term or the long-term.
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