The 2015-2016 Los Angeles Lakers season hasn’t gotten off to the start that most were hoping for. With a relatively easy schedule early on, most figured that the team would be able to get a few confidence-boosting wins under their belt. That hasn’t happened and the record stands at a dismal 1-7, with their lone victory coming against the floundering Brooklyn Nets.
Still, the prevailing thought heading into the season was that patience would be needed for this Lakers team, with nine new faces (including Julius Randle) to integrate, most of them young players with little NBA experience. Fans would need to ride out the roller coaster while an inexperienced talent like Randle and D’Angelo Russell got their sea legs under them. It wouldn’t be easy, but there is some joy in watching a player develop, in building something from the ground up knowing that it can become great someday.
Yet, in spite of these lowered expectations, a vocal majority of Lakers fans are calling for head coach Byron Scott’s head. An uncomfortable murmur has been steadily building in the Lakers legion of supporters and now just eight games into the 82-game season, it has reached a boiling point.
There are plenty of reasons to be frustrated with Scott. He played Kobe Bryant way too many minutes last season, which helped exacerbate the high-mileage on his body and may have been a contributing factor in Bryant’s season-ending shoulder injury. This season, Scott has said he is “fine” with Kobe’s shot selection, even though every metric available screams that he shouldn’t be.
His rotations have also been head-scratchers, with the failed Brandon Bass/Ryan Kelly small-ball frontcourt experiment coming across like a half-hearted attempt at modernization. Scott’s draconian training camp and practice sessions have also come under fire, seemingly ignoring the importance rest has in limiting an athlete’s risk of injury.
Scott’s insistence that his team just needs to “man up” and that they are “soft” rather than admit any fault with the X’s and O’s is also a bad look that doesn’t do much to win the confidence of the fans or his players.
However, as troubling as all of that may be, the main reason for the backlash against Byron Scott hasn’t had anything to do with Kobe, the backup bigs, or whether or not the team needs to man up like Arnold Cunningham.
No, it has been Scott’s handling of the prized rookie that has got him into hot water. Specifically, Scott’s refusal to play Russell in the fourth quarter has been frustrating, especially when rookies like Emmanuel Mudiay, Jahlil Okafor, Kristaps Porzingis, and Karl-Anthony Towns have been thrust into the spotlight. Their success has made Russell’s struggles to find minutes that much more noticeable. Somehow, the No. 2 pick hasn’t made it to the party, and most blame Scott for it.
Currently, Russell has played in the final frame in only five of the possible eight games and when he has played, he has seen an average of just 5.4 minutes of action. While it’s true that the young guard hasn’t quite shown himself to be ready for major minutes, the consensus is that he hasn’t been given the right environment or opportunities that he needs to thrive. At least that’s the hope anyway, because considering that Russell simply isn’t quite as good as we thought, at least not right out of the gate, is a disturbing one.
Keep in mind that Russell, to Lakers fans, means everything. He is the prize for last season’s futility, and his development (along with Randle and Jordan Clarkson) will ultimately determine how quickly the beloved franchise is able to right itself. With Kobe Bryant all but admitting this season will be his last, the Lakers faithful are anxious to anoint a new king, and that has created an environment where every play Russell makes, good or bad, will be magnified. Fair or not, that’s the reality of a Lakers team that is desperate to find an heir to Bryant’s throne.
With that being the case, Lakers fans were optimistically hoping to see two things this season: The development of the young players and victories.
In a perfect world, the team would find a way to simultaneously develop their young core and win games, but that’s a thin line to walk. Fans would understand benching Russell during the fourth if it resulted in wins. Victories have been few and far between recently, and proving that they are a threat to win on any given night would do wonders for the Lakers reputation with free agents. Winning means positive press, happy fans, and free tacos — all good things.
However, fans would also be thrilled if the team was committing to building the future by giving Russell the keys to the kingdom and letting him learn from his mistakes. Even if it cost them wins, the logic behind building the future through the young players is solid, and let’s not forget the possibility that the Lakers could retain their top three protected pick in the 2016 Draft. Moving forward with a more seasoned Russell, Clarkson, and Randle along with (potentially) a tasty top three draft pick is certainly appealing as well.
Unfortunately, currently Scott and the Lakers are neither winning games nor committing to the future. It’s far too early for panic, but for an emotionally frayed fan base, Scott’s handcuffing of Russell has poured salt into the wound of every loss. It’s not fun watching the Lakers get their teeth kicked in night after night, but if the future is being built then the much-needed balm of progress (and with it, hope) would help to ease the pain. To most who understand the rigors of building an NBA team, losing while letting the young players learn serves a purpose. Losing with veterans on the floor simply prolongs the misery.
Adding to the frustration, Russell himself has acknowledged multiple times that he isn’t sure what he needs to do in order to get on the court in crunch time. Following a difficult loss to Miami, Russell was asked if Byron had explained it to him. When Russell said “no,” it brought the anger of Lakers fans (and pundits around the league) to a crescendo. From the outside looking in, it appears that Scott is actively stifling Russell’s development, which is a capital offense on a rebuilding team.
This wasn’t the scenario that most expected, even with Scott’s penchant for making his young players “earn” their minutes. Jordan Clarkson didn’t see much floor time until January last season, but as the No. 2 pick, it was expected that Byron would give him all the minutes he could handle, although some would argue that he has done just that.
Heading into the season, it appeared that Scott would be a strong tutor for Russell, as he had success in developing Clarkson, Kyrie Irving, and Chris Paul in prior years, and also coached Jason Kidd to the NBA Finals during his days with the Nets.
For his part, Scott claims that he is doing what he can to develop Russell without overwhelming him. Before taking on the Orlando Magic on Wednesday, Scott said, “I’m not going to throw him to the wolves just because he is the No. 2 pick. I’m not going to put him out there to put him out there. If I do that and he’s not prepared and he’s not learning, then I’m preparing him to fail. I’m not going to do that. I think this kid is too valuable to us.”
Of course, this comes on the heels of the massive backlash against Scott’s handling of Russell, and the protective comments are a marked departure from his typical hard-nosed, walk-it-off attitude. Still, Scott’s words led to action, and Russell played 31 minutes against the Magic, by far a season-high. He also posted the best numbers of his young career with 14 points, six rebounds, three assists, one steal and one block. More importantly, Russell looked comfortable on the floor, and appeared to be having fun for the first time in purple and gold. Perhaps something was said behind the scenes, but he played as though he knew he wouldn’t get benched for making a mistake or two.
Even better, with the ball in his hands during crunch time, Russell was steady and clearly relished the opportunity to display his skills.
That doesn’t mean Scott is in the clear though, nor has he gained the trust of Lakers fans. It’s going to take more than one game for that, even if that game was something of an olive branch to Russell’s supporters. In terms of building the Lakers future, Scott still left much to be desired. Unbelievably, Russell’s minutes came at the expense of Jordan Clarkson, who took D’Angelo’s spot on the bench in the fourth quarter while veteran guard Lou Williams attempted to close out the game. One step forward, one step back.
For now, all fans can do is hope that there is method to the madness, and that ultimately D’Angelo Russell will live up to his draft status. Whether or not Byron Scott will be around long enough to see it happen isn’t clear, but he has his work cut out for him with just one win in seven games, youth to develop, and a growing army of detractors.