Byron Scott had a rough first year in his dream job. In the process of accumulating the most losses by any Lakers’ team ever, Scott took hits from fans and media alike for antiquated takes on analytics and general basketball philosophy. But there may not have been any topic in which Scott took more grief — and felt more guilt — than his handling of Kobe Bryant.
After a training camp that saw the then 19 year veteran win conditioning drills and exceed expectations in practice sessions, Scott proceeded to ride Kobe hard once the real games started. Kobe consistently saw heavy minute loads — many times playing entire first quarters and eclipsing 35 minute totals — and physically suffered for it. Game after game, too many possessions showed a player looking all of his 36 years with over 50K minutes on his odometer.
By the time Scott finally seemed to realize the error of his ways and started to adjust Kobe’s workload downward, it was pretty much too late. A shoulder injury — which, to be fair, may or may not have had anything to do with any sort of overuse — ended Kobe’s season and that was that. After the injury Byron admitted he overworked his star, but as they say hindsight is 20/20.
A new year is nearly upon us now and Kobe has been fully cleared for all basketball activities a little less than two weeks before training camp. To his credit, Scott has seemingly learned his lessons and will treat the player he mentored 20 years ago differently than he did last year at this time.
Scott said he and Bryant have discussed how many minutes the veteran should expect to play in the upcoming season. While he didn’t address the details, Scott said he intends to be much more conservative than last year, when Bryant played 35.5 minutes per game over the first 27 games, did not sit out on the second night of back-to-backs, and played more than 40 minutes on four occasions.
“The one thing I want,” Scott said, “if this is his last year, I want him to go out standing. I don’t want him to go out hurt. I want to make sure I do everything in my power to make sure we stick to the game plan, as far as his minutes and as far as back-to-back games.”
Scott’s words mirror those of Mitch Kupchak, so while this isn’t much of a surprise it’s still very good to hear. I was hard on Scott regarding many issues last season, but the one which irked me the most was how he seemed to enable Kobe more than coach him; how he rarely used his clout and mutual respect between the two to enforce what was clearly best for the player instead walking in lockstep with him towards the cliff in defiance.
The prospect of this changing, however, seems real now. Scott really did seem shaken up over the slightest possibility his overuse of Kobe led to last year’s injury. And, per his quotes above, he is making it a top priority to keep his Hall of Fame guard upright in what may very well be his final season.
Taking this approach, though, has more than the benefit of aiding Kobe. It’s also not the only priority which can relate back to a minutes restriction and back to back policy.
The Lakers are a team transitioning to a new era. Kobe may still be the face of the franchise, but as he begins to fade like one of his patented turnaround jumpers, the young players on this roster dart into the forefront (hopefully) ready to claim the future. That will only truly happen when Kobe is no longer a centerpiece player, but that transition begins in earnest now and will be aided by the same policies meant to help ensure he can end his career strong and on his own terms.
Yes, these young players can learn from Kobe this season. And as valuable as those lessons can be, as much — or more — will be gained from them testing their own limits without their mentor there to try to help them along. Reduced minutes and more nights off for #24 will only accelerate this process. The learning curve will be steep and failures will occur. But, if anyone knows the benefit of learning by doing — and failing — it’s Kobe. Lakers’ fans will only be so lucky if Russell, Randle, and Clarkson take a similar path.
Ultimately, though, Scott will be the one managing it all. And while things haven’t gone well to this point, the lessons he’s proclaimed to have learned should help keep his priorities aligned through training camp and into the season.