About a month ago, I sent out the following tweet: “This may be complete nonsense on my part, but I feel Byron shaving his mustache signals more openness towards the modern game.”
Granted, I was being a wholly facetious smart a–, but there was something vaguely reassuring about Byron Scott’s appearance no longer resembling “drill sergeant,” “cop on the edge,” or… well… “Byron Scott.” Dude looked at least 30 years younger, and way the hell more hip. As I freely noted, this might have been talk decidedly out of my a–, but I couldn’t help but wonder if a slowly shifting attitude was in the works.
Then came a recent NBA.com piece by the great David Aldridge, featuring a section that further raised my eyebrows.
Russell played alongside second-year guard Jordan Clarkson for long stretches, a hint of what Scott plans to do next season. Scott sees Russell, Clarkson and newly signed Lou Williams composing the Lakers’ new three-guard rotation. And he sees Bryant playing more small forward next season.
“If we don’t get another guard, then Kobe’s in that mix,” Scott said. “I’m kind of going through those scenarios. But not necessarily as far as who’s starting and who doesn’t … I think (Bryant) will play more three than two. If we can get him at the elbows and at the mid-post, the more effective he’ll be. I don’t think he needs to be using up the whole 94-foot floor. If we can cut that down some, I think that saves his legs as much as possible. But if we can get him where he operates best, which to me is elbows on each area, top of the key, at the pinch post, at the mid-post, then I think he can be real effective for us.”
There will no doubt be nights when Russell and Clarkson look like the first- and second-year players they are. But their size and athleticism in combination will be much more in line with the kind of backcourt that can excel in the triangle. Add Williams’ ability to get white hot in a hurry off the bench, and the Lakers should be much more dynamic in the backcourt, no matter where Bryant lines up.
“I think that’s the beauty of it,” Scott said. “The one thing that we wanted to do and accomplish through this draft and through free agency was to try and be a little more versatile, have some versatility. So I think all three of those guys can definitely do that. Kobe can play one, two and three. There’s no doubt in my mind. And there’s some games. against some teams, where he’ll probably play four. With his tenaciousness, the way he guards people and when his mind is set, if I say ‘Kobe, you’ve got him,’ he takes that as a challenge. You know how he is. He’ll compete.”
What makes Scott’s comments potentially significant isn’t the viability of Kobe playing the four. He’s clearly talking about select scenarios dictated by matchups, rather than playing Bryant primarily as a seriously undersized power forward. For what it’s worth, I do think Kobe can find success as a four in a pinch. He’s deceptively strong, perhaps even pound-for-pound the strongest player in the league. (Remember him successfully bodying Dwight Howard in the post on a few possessions during the 2009 Finals?) That strength may allow him to bang bigger bodies if necessary on either side of the ball in doses. And save perhaps Tim Duncan, nobody in the NBA boasts better footwork in the post, and he’s as good a guard as I’ve ever seen posting up, period. The elbows are Kobe’s comfort zone, and even while surrendering size, I think Kobe’s skills and trickery can lead to buckets against taller defenders. And if all else fails, Kobe can absolutely create space for others by drawing the big checking him away from the basket, because he’ll never go unguarded as long as he’s on the floor. That’s just reality.
(Yes, there are obviously cons, not the least of which is the beating Kobe’s already fragile body could take surrendering size even over five minute stretches. Although honestly speaking, Kobe’s availability will be a game-to-game crapshoot, and I’m not confident in his ability to stay healthy no matter how he’s deployed. I really, truly hope I’m wrong, because a player like Kobe deserves a better sendoff, but the last three seasons’ worth of evidence heavily backs my hunch.)
But again, I’m not looking to analyze Kobe at the four. What’s noteworthy to me is that Scott would even float the idea, on his own time, without provocation. This is a coach who, to put it mildly, appears entrenched in “old school.” Three-pointers have been dismissed as a championship non-factor, despite staggering evidence to the contrary. Analytics have been pooh-poohed. Iso-ball ran rampant in a league where ball movement is king.
Byron appeared way more concerned last season with toughening his players — and proving beyond any shadow of a doubt that he’s not Mike D’Antoni — than actually making them better at basketball, much less challenging himself to become a better and more imaginative coach. It wasn’t the 61 losses that left me largely unimpressed. Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich couldn’t have co-coached that team to a .500 record. Instead, the rigidity of Scott’s approach and mindset prompted my constant skepticism.
But lately, there have been signs of mindfulness towards a bigger picture, and tailoring his approach to the game being played in 2015. In that same interview, Byron mentioned a premium placed this offseason on versatility, which feels in concert with today’s increasingly positionless basketball. That he’s slated Kobe as the starting three should mean by definition D’Angelo Russell and Jordan Clarkson will man the backcourt, which by further definition signals an openness towards rookie mistakes, bumps in the road, and losses that may be necessary to fulfill a process. In other words, beyond the well-deserved focus placed on Kobe’s probable ride into the sunset, he may accept that next season is more about 2018 than 2016.
This feels in stark contrast to last season’s early insistence on playing Kobe nearly 36 nightly minutes in a desperate quest for empty calorie wins. Ditto Carlos Boozer maintaining such a large role for so long on a team whether the development of young and/or tradeable bigs — Boozer qualifies as neither — should have been the first priority. Scott’s refusal to showcase Jeremy Lin, who could have been a potential deadline asset, was equally inexcusable.
For much of his first season in L.A., Byron coached like a man donning horse blinders, able to only see what was directly in front of him, which was absurd for a team clearly unequipped to even reach the playoffs, much less spark a run. Such squads require a longview approach. Until the writing was on the wall in flashing, neon, oversized block letters, Scott operated with the exact opposite mindset, which resulted in time and opportunity wasted.
Maybe, just maybe, Scott now understands the value of flexibility, rather than macho nonsense. That the NBA has changed, and keeping up with the Joneses is necessary if for no other reason than figuring out how to beat the Joneses. That moving forward, his value as Lakers head coach will be determined by a signs of clear, concise, and workable vision for Russell, Clarkson and Julius Randle down the road than the team’s record next season.
That maybe he’s turned a philosophical corner.
If, however, Lou Williams or Nick Young begin the season as starters for any other reason than injury or Russell so embarrassingly and incompetently over his head that a bench role isn’t just a must, but a legitimate mercy act… nuke this article and pretend I never wrote it.[divide]