Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak raised eyebrows last week by declining to comment on Lakers coach Byron Scott's performance this season, specifically regarding Scott's management of the team’s promising young players, the hottest issue surrounding the team this season.
In the wake of season-long criticism regarding Scott’s penchant for limiting their playing time in what is on pace to be the Lakers' worst season ever, Kupchak’s silence raised questions about Scott’s status moving forward, particularly since many basketball observers believe that Scott will be fired this summer.
Scott has two seasons left on his deal, with the Lakers holding a team option in 2017-18. He has won less than 24 percent of his games with the Lakers, the worst record by any Lakers coach that has coached the team more than one season.
But on Friday, the most powerful voice in the Lakers organization spoke up for Scott.
“I think he’s been channeling his inner Zen,” Lakers star Kobe Bryant said after his team’s loss to the San Antonio Spurs. “It’s been very tough for him. It’s been very tough. I think he’s managing it very well. He’s remaining consistent and continuing to try to bring the best out of these young guys and demanding the best from them. He’s doing the best that he can in the situation.”
Speaking of criticism that Scott has faced, Bryant said, “I’ve seen [former Lakers coach] Phil [Jackson] win 67 games here and get criticized. What does that tell you? Doesn’t make any difference. People are always going to criticize. You just continue to do the job the best way you know how.”
One of the biggest knocks against Scott -- and one that Lakers fans have fiercely voiced through social media -- is his reluctance to play some of the team’s young players at various points, such as late in the game. Specifically, Scott has benched rookie point guard D'Angelo Russell, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft, during the final minutes on multiple occasions, including once for "trying to take over the game."
Scott has also come under fire for his “tough love” and “old school” approach with the Lakers’ fledging players, especially for some of the harsh criticism he has frequently doled out, often comparing them to children.
“It’s just like raising your kids,” Scott joked Friday regarding what it’s like to develop young players. “You’re going to have those times where it brings a big smile to your face and you have those times where you want to get your belt out and I can’t do that now, but [you want to] whoop their butt a little bit. But I enjoy the process. I really do.”
At 11-45, the Lakers' .196 win percentage would be the worst ever for the franchise; the previous worst was last season (.256). This season will also mark the first time in franchise history that the team has missed the postseason three consecutive times.
So given the team's historic struggles, now would seem like the perfect time to allow the young players to stay on the floor for long stretches and play through mistakes, further allowing them to grow and develop while also displaying promise that could help lure potential free agents this summer or later on.
Scott has maintained, though, that his priority this season is first and foremost to win, and he reiterated that point Friday.
“The objective is still to win games,” Scott said. “The No. 1 thing is to win. The No. 2 thing is to continue to develop our young guys. So that hasn’t changed. With  games left, obviously the focus is a little bit more on developing those young guys, give them a chance to play a little bit more. With that being said, it’s still No. 1 and No. 2 as far as I’m concerned.
However, contrary to Scott’s beliefs, the Lakers need to lose as much as possible to keep their 2016 top-three protected first-round pick, which otherwise falls to the Philadelphia 76ers if it falls outside the first three spots. After Friday’s loss, the Lakers have the NBA’s second-worst record (11-45) behind the 76ers (8-46).
Still, developing the Lakers’ young players with Bryant on the floor presents a complicated challenge, as Bryant still dominates the ball at a high level, as he has for many years. And, as expected, Bryant is still dominating the ball as much as ever during his grand farewell tour. Over his last seven games, in fact, Bryant has attempted 157 field goals. Only New Orleans Pelicans star Anthony Davis has attempted more during that time frame and he played one more game.
Taken all together, development was always a near-impossible task this season, and Kupchak admitted to ESPN that the season is a “justified farewell” to Bryant and that “it's really hard to go forward until he’s no longer here.”
Scott recently suggested that during the Lakers' final 26 games, he may reduce Bryant's role somewhat to allow the younger players more playing time. While such a possibility seems highly unlikely, Bryant said he's open to whatever Scott wants to do.
"It really doesn’t matter to me," Bryant said. "I’m going to go out there and play. Whatever minutes I have, I’m going to play. It doesn’t make any difference to me."
Bryant was also asked if there was anything he could do to help defer to younger players more.
"I’m not really sure how to answer that question," Bryant said. "I do a lot of coaching on the floor and try to help them through angles and all this other stuff. I think if you’re looking for 'step-back, let-others-shoot' [approach] and all this other stuff, that’s very surface content. You’re not looking deep enough.
"So to help a player, you don’t simply help a player by stepping back. You help a player through details, through angles, through nuances, through understanding tempo. A lot of that stuff is conversation. A lot of that stuff is coaching on the floor. By saying a player is helping somebody by simply stepping back, that doesn’t do a damn thing. So it’s constantly coaching, it’s constantly teaching. It’s constantly being in their ear and I’ve done a lot of that and will do much more."