I still remember the day Byron Scott was hired to coach the Cleveland Cavaliers.
I remember driving in my car and thinking to myself, “You know, I think I really like this hire. Even if LeBron does leave, at least the Cavaliers will play an exciting brand of basketball and be fun to watch.”
Three years later, Byron Scott is no longer the coach of the Cavaliers, and I find myself thinking about how refreshing this is because maybe now the Cavaliers will be fun to watch again. I would call that irony, but in Cleveland, we know it as reality.
It’s funny because up until about three weeks ago, I was positive Byron would be back next season. My confidence in the wisdom of that had long since deteriorated, but I felt that in the spirit of fairness, Byron probably was going to get another year to see what he could do with a healthy roster.
Of course, nothing about Byron Scott’s tenure in Cleveland was fair. It wasn’t fair when the best player on the planet walked away from the franchise before he could even coach him in a single workout. It wasn’t fair when The Left Behinds refused to play and suffered an NBA record losing streak. It wasn’t fair that Anderson Varejao couldn’t stay healthy when the team needed him the most. It wasn’t fair that Chris Grant was giving Byron Scott undrafted D-League players and forcing him to give them meaningful NBA minutes. It wasn’t fair that Byron had to coach a starting five containing two rookies and two second-year players. And it certainly isn’t fair that he was fired before he could see his rebuilding work through to the end.
Unfortunately for Byron Scott, professional sports aren’t about fairness. And even more unfortunate for Byron Scott, firing him at this time was absolutely the right move for this franchise.
The Cleveland Browns once gave Eric Mangini a second year out of fairness. Everyone knew it wouldn’t work. Mike Holmgren was the new boss and new bosses like to have “their guys” in key roles. Eric Mangini isn’t a Mike Holmgren guy. But because Holmgren felt it wouldn’t be fair to Mangini to fire him after one season, he decided to let him coach a 2nd year. It was an enormous mistake that caused the Browns rebuilding project to freeze in time, treading water while everyone around them in the NFL was moving forward.
So no, firing Byron Scott was most definitely not fair to him. But teams cannot make decisions based on fairness. They need to always be doing what is in the best interest of the franchise. The Cavaliers didn’t work for Byron Scott…Byron Scott worked for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Ultimately, the Cavaliers are going to do what they feel is best for their franchise, whether that is fair or not.
So why was this the best move for the Cavaliers? Well, it certainly has nothing to do with wins and losses. I’ve seen plenty of Byron supporters saying it doesn’t make sense that the team built rosters that were designed to lose, and then fired Byron for not winning. That’s not the case.
Byron Scott was never expected to win games. Despite some casual lip service about the playoffs being the team’s goal this season, nobody expected this team to make the playoffs. I predicted the Cavaliers would go 34-48 and finish 10th in the East. But even that felt a little optimistic to me at the time. I was ready for a 30 win season. So obviously 24-58 is a pretty disappointing record. But that’s not why I think firing him is the right move, and I don’t believe it’s why the Cavaliers made this move.
It ultimately comes down to common sense, confidence, and timing.
There’s an inherent quality to coaching in the NBA. Sure, the teams with the best players usually win. But when you watch NBA teams play, you know a well coached team when you see it. When you watched the Cavaliers, they showed all the tell-tale signs of a poorly coached team.
There was no offensive identity to this team. Byron came in 3 years ago and said we were going to see a high tempo running team with a Princeton-based offense in the half court sets. Other than the offense initiating from the high post, there was little resembling the Princeton offense. Not much ball movement, atrocious spacing, not enough moving without the ball. Everything boiled down to isolation plays and a lot of stationary dribbling. Sure, the Cavaliers had a good thing going with Andy and Kyrie running the pick and roll, but good coaches need to adapt when players get hurt. One thing that should never happen is a team not have an identity.
As for this fast break running team stuff, the Cavaliers were 11th in the NBA in fast break points in Byron’s first season. Last year they were 25th and this year they were 24th. The Cavaliers were 28th in the NBA (or, third-worst, if you prefer) in fast break efficiency. If you are a coach preaching fast break, high tempo offense, the team should not be 3rd worst in fast break efficiency regardless of injuries.
Sure, the overall offensive efficiency has gone up, from 29th to 24th to 19th this year. But the defense has never been better than 26th in efficiency. This year the Cavaliers were dead last in opponents FG%, 25th in opponents’ 3P%, 25th in opponents’ PPG, 29th in defensive eFG%, and 27th in defensive efficiency. Nobody was expecting the Cavaliers to finish in the top 10 in these categories or anything like that. Not with the injuries to key players.
But the team has to show some sign of life. Byron had to give Chris Grant something…anything…that they could point to as positive momentum and signs of development. Instead, the defense stood and watched pick and rolls, incapable of being bothered to dig in and give the effort that is required to either fight through screens or to make a good, crisp switch. And in the 2nd line of defense, players were always late on their help rotations, signaling a stunning lack of communication and defensive intensity.
Sure, the players are culpable here as well. But at the end of the day, it’s the coach’s job to make sure players are giving effort. To make sure communication is happening on defense. To make sure the players are pushing the tempo if that’s the style you want to play.
Three years of losing can do a lot of damage to a team. For all of his shortcomings, Byron certainly deserves credit for holding the morale of the team together. His players seemed to genuinely like him for the most part. I like Byron Scott and I think he can be a good coach somewhere else. But over the last month, it has become more clear to me than ever that Byron Scott just isn’t the right coach for this team.
And that leads to the last point of why the Cavaliers made this move. And this is maybe the most important one: timing. Next year is the watershed season for the rebuilding process. Another year like this and we can officially say the rebuild is a massive failure. I’m not saying the team needs to make the playoffs next year. But it’s time to get out of neutral and to start moving forward. Build an identity, show some improvement, breathe some life into this team.
If the Cavaliers did the “fair” thing and gave Byron another year, they would’ve had to have had 100% confidence that Byron was the man to take this team to the playoffs and beyond. Because firing Byron Scott in the middle of next season is the worst case scenario. Certainly a worse scenario than perhaps unfairly dismissing him now.
The Lakers waited to long to remove a coach they didn’t have confidence in. And it pretty much derailed their whole season. If they weren’t confident in Mike Brown, they should have fired him at the end of last season. And the for the Cavaliers, if they didn’t have confidence in Byron Scott, the time to move on was right now. And based on what Byron Scott has showed us for three seasons, I don’t know how Dan Gilbert and Chris Grant could have confidence that he’s the right man for this particular job.
I’ve felt for most of this season that a losing culture was settling in. That’s a hard thing for any coach to undo. But as this season wore on, it felt like the players had lost the will to fight for wins. This began to look like a team that, maybe didn’t “accept” losing, but that walked onto the court every night believing they were going to lose. When teams went on runs, there was a “here we go again” look on their faces and they were unable to keep from spiraling out of control. It’s a coach’s job to change that demeanor, but it’s hard for a coach that can subconsciously be associated with the losing culture.
So it was just time. It’s time to move forward and bring a new voice in the locker room. Sometime that’s all a team needs. Since we all love the Oklahoma City model so much, we can liken this to Scott Brooks taking over for PJ Carlesimo. PJ is a damn good basketball coach with a world of experience. But that wasn’t what the Thunder needed. They needed a new voice. A refreshing sense of new air. A spark and some excitement.
Like Carlesimo, Byron is well respected and has a ton of basketball experience and knowledge. But it wasn’t what these young players needed. They need their Scott Brooks. And so now the pressure of this rebuilding process moves from Byron Scott squarely on to Chris Grant’s shoulders. The bespectacled one must get this next hire right. The entire future of the Cavaliers with Kyrie Irving likely is riding on this next coach being the perfect fit who can coerce effort on defense out of these players while also nurturing their growth and development as players and as men.
And so here I sit, three long years after Byron Scott was hired. I feel the same excitement today as I did back then. I’m not excited that Byron didn’t work out or that he was fired. I actually like Byron Scott a lot. No, I’m just excited at the prospect of a fresh start and a new direction. Hopefully three years from now I’ll be writing a very different summary of the next coach’s tenure.
Image Source: (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)