On Sunday, the Lakers formally announced the dismissal of head coach Byron Scott, ending their former player’s brief and largely unsuccessful tenure as the director of one of basketball’s most storied franchises.
Scott had been hired to begin a rebuild of the team, but it turned out he had few ideas about what to do with the program’s diminished assets and a star personality who was still unwilling to yield the spotlight. Now, the Lakers will need to search for a new steward to rebuild Scott’s rebuild, a process that they hope will culminate in the team regaining the competitiveness that it has been almost entirely without since the 2011-12 season.
Of course, it’s still tremendously unclear how the Lakers will accomplish this goal. With long-time star Kobe Bryant now beginning his retirement, few tradable assets on their roster and most of their short-term draft picks bound to be sent away at some point, about the best thing the team can hope for is that its abundant cap space and historic pedigree will be enough for them to sign a star free agent. If this hypothetical player is willing to take a leap of faith and wait for the Lakers to build a team around him, the Lakers will theoretically repay him by helping him to a long, high-grossing career.
The desire to preserve this sales pitch to potential franchise players is much of the reason why the Lakers have fallen so low in the first place. While almost everyone figured that the team would force Bryant to take a pay cut so that he could remain with the organization while it began preparing for the next generation, the Lakers instead handed him a contract that kept him as the highest-paid player in the league. The message was clear: Whether Bryant could play as well as anyone or couldn’t play at all, he had earned the right to be the team’s superstar and would remain as such for as long as he wanted.
On the surface, this was a classy move that should have raised some eyebrows around a league that often expects players to make concessions so their teams can sign as much talent as possible. Yet, after making this move, the Lakers have been unable to land anyone of consequence and have come up almost laughably short in most of their attempts at marquee deals. Someone may eventually become impressed by the mountains that the team moved to keep Kobe satisfied, but so far it appears their efforts have been in vain.
The reality for Lakers players who aren’t all-time greats like Kobe has been a good deal more bleak. Take Scott, for instance. The team’s now-former head coach played with the Lakers for 11 of his 14 NBA seasons, winning three NBA Championships in the process.
Scott wasn’t a legend as either a player or a coach, but he had given a lot to the team’s legacy and to the fans in Los Angeles. The franchise repaid him with two poor seasons in an impossible situation and a highly public termination.
Admittedly, coaches are usually held more accountable for the poor play of their team as a whole than individual players are, and the team’s management may not have felt they had much choice but to let him go. Still, it’s become painfully clear that being a star with the Lakers is not the same thing as receiving star treatment from the Lakers. The team practically ran highly-rated Dwight Howard out of town after he spent one season drawing the derision of Kobe and failing to captivate the team’s followers. Pau Gasol took a pay cut to leave the Lakers because he had lost the good opinion of the team’s coaches and fans.
It’s more than a little strange how the team has largely ignored these secondary stars, especially considering how important they could be to landing the next great Laker. Offering a strong supporting cast is one of the most important things a team can do to land a primary celebrity, yet the Lakers have seemed almost totally uninterested in enhancing themselves in this manner. Rather than following on the lessons of Cleveland, San Antonio and even the Clippers, the Lakers seem to want to attract their next star before they start considering who he might pair with. For a franchise that likes to project the stability that the Lakers do, it seems like quite a gamble.
The Lakers haven’t hit rock bottom yet, and they still have some options at their disposal. Maybe they’ll win the lottery and snag Ben Simmons, or maybe their cap space will be enough to attract Russell Westbrook or James Harden back to his hometown. But these inconsistent management decisions and level of cognitive dissonance in their messages to players have left them in rebuild mode with a value proposition that only appeals to a very small subset of NBA talent.
It’s a status quo that’s only likely to change through luck. Unless, of course, they can find their next Kobe.
Send Andrew Mather a virtual medal for actually turning in his column on time at amather ‘at’ stanford.edu.