If you had “20 games” in the “When will Byron Scott finally bench D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle” office pool, congratulations. I have no idea why your office is running such a ridiculous contest, but kudos to you regardless. We have now reached what I like to call the Ejector Seat moment of the season: In a James Bond film, 007 often uses an eject button to escape a particularly hairy situation. In Goldfinger, Bond ejects one of the titular villain’s henchmen from his Aston Martin DB5. In GoldenEye, Bond ejects himself from an exploding helicopter. Those two options are the same ones we face as Laker fans. At this moment in the season, we can either eject the bad guy or we can eject ourselves.
The nefarious individual in question is, of course, Byron Scott. I don’t mean to say that Scott shares Auric Goldfinger’s designs on world domination. In fact, if his management of this professional basketball team is any indication, he’d find it difficult to conquer the San Fernando Valley, let alone the entire planet. The promise at the beginning of the season was that this team would be fun, even while it collapsed back into the lottery. “D’Angelo Russell is a born playmaker,” we said. “Julius Randle is freakishly athletic running the break,” we exclaimed. “Roy Hibbert might get lost on the way to the arena,” we laughed. Nothing of the sort has occurred. Russell’s preternatural brilliance has been stifled in an offensive system that favors isolation over ball movement. Roy Hibbert obviously has someone making sure he finds the team bus every night. Randle doesn’t get the touches he needs to develop his mid-range game and improve his right-handed finishes. The natural place to point the finger is at the man in charge. Granted, we are not in the locker room or at the practice facility to see what Byron’s really up to. On the other hand, we have quite a bit of evidence of his incompetence in the form of a 3-18 record and baffling press conferences where he claims his first round picks must earn their spots in the starting lineup while just about everyone else on the team is playing worse than they are. My finger hovers ever so closely over the eject button next to Byron’s seat on the bench, but for the sake of fairness, let’s assume the Laker Legend has a method to his madness.
The only rational reason for Byron Scott to bench his two most prized assets is because he can’t address the real problem: Kobe Bryant. I realize that we’re supposed to be nice to Kobe again or Kevin Durant will come to each and every one of our houses and kick us in the shins for disrespecting an icon. I’m actually finding myself charmed by Kobe’s farewell tour, going as far as getting into a rather absurd Twitter fight with Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside over what I perceived to be a slight against the Mamba. Nostalgia aside, there’s the matter of statistics. Kobe’s shooting is abysmal. We know because we have these fun things called stats, which are irrefutable facts rather than the kinds of emotional reactions that cause someone to antagonize a seven-foot-tall millionaire on social media. Ken Berger of CBS Sports reported that Kobe has taken 320 shots this season — 100 more than both Randle and Russell, in three fewer games. Kobe’s farewell tour is taking opportunities away from his young teammates, so it’s possible that Byron Scott realizes that he can’t bench NBA megastar and retiring future Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant because A) People are paying to see Kobe on the court every night as he says goodbye and B) Kobe would never accept a demotion. What’s the only way to get Russell and Randle away from this basketball black hole? Move them to the second unit where they can run the show.
Adding fuel to this theory is that Russell told reporters after the Raptors game that “there’s just more ball movement” in the second unit. He even name-checked Kobe as the responsible party who has caused the ball to stick during set plays. “No disrespect to Kobe, but you know you have more opportunity because of who he is.”
But what about the results, you might ask. Well, the Lakers still lost to Toronto. I think most of us are firmly in the “Stinkin’ for Simmons” camp, other than Metta World Peace who might have hit his head on a bookshelf and thinks this is 2011, because he still believes there’s a chance the Lakers could make the playoffs (he also said that fans are “horny” for Kobe Bryant, which might be a poor choice of words, all things considered). Winning is not the goal here. The goal is player development, so let’s look at the box score. Russell scored nine points with two assists in 21 minutes. As Pete Campbell said on Mad Men, “Not great, Bob.” And Randle? That tells a different story. 15 points, 11 rebounds on 6-of-13 shooting. He won’t be winning Western Conference Player of the Month, but that’s a totally respectable line from one of the Lakers more productive players. At the very least, Russell felt more comfortable away from Bryant’s massive shadow according to his quote, and Kobe certainly benefitted from not having the two youngsters by his side.
For the first time all year, Kobe shot 50 percent from the field, scoring 21 points in 31 minutes (with four assists, by the way). His fellow starters consisted of far less heralded rookie Larry Nance Jr., a veteran in Lou Williams who seems to know his role on this team, Jordan Clarkson, and offensive liability Roy Hibbert. This is a far more hospitable environment for Kobe Bryant’s philosophy of basketball. While the future sits on the bench, the past can roam free.
In the post-game analysis, Byron Scott told reporters “It’s not so much that they did anything wrong, it was more of a change and get some other fresh blood in there.” The change resulted in another shabby defeat and another standing ovation for Kobe Bryant. If that’s what this season is, then fine. What I cannot accept is change for the sake of change. What has Roy Hibbert done to deserve his place in the starting lineup? He had six points and four rebounds. Four. Not 14. FOUR. Why not move to a small-ball lineup by putting Brandon Bass at the 5? It’s not for defense, because the Lakers were -8 with Hibbert on the court. So it must just be because Roy’s coasting on his reputation from years ago, much like someone else in that starting lineup. That’s the kind of decision-making that renders his arbitrary choice to bench Russell and Randle so baffling.
And now my finger is drifting toward the eject button next to my own seat on this hell-ride of a season. Unfortunately, I can’t toss Byron Scott from this disastrous situation. I have no power to make the change that clearly needs to be made. The only power I have as a lifelong Laker fan is to eject myself, to give up on an organization that seems oblivious to our frustrations, and so unaware of our high expectations for this storied club. If they don’t care enough about us to remove Byron Scott from his job, then I’ll remove myself. I urge the rest of you to do the same unless the right thing is done. And no, this column has not been hacked. I promise.