Is Byron Scott the forgotten man?
The Cavaliers are about to start the second year of the Kyrie Irving era, and the first year of the Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller experience. All eyes are on the youth movement and rebuild, or recovery, from the summer of 2010. The man in charge of that youth movement is Scott, and as you would expect, he's taking a quiet role as fans and writers dissect the capabilities and weaknesses of his young weapons. Scott's time with the Cavaliers has been a ridiculous rollercoaster ride that precludes a fair assessment of his job performance.
He was brought to Cleveland to coach LeBron James. His first major duty as Cavs coach was to woo the homegrown superstar during the round of free agency presentations. He was hired to be a key piece in the pitch. Five days after he was brought on board, he visited LeBron at Akron University during the superstar's skills camp. James and Scott reportedly never talked, as the Cavs coach simply watched from the sidelines. One day later, LeBron was gone and the franchise Scott came to coach was changed forever.
It's impossible to judge Scott in that first season with the team. It was the cruelest of winters, marked by a losing streak that matched the longest in the history of the four major profressional sports. He stood shellshocked, bemused, and incredulous on the sidelines for an 82-game march of embarrassment and woe. Some did judge, however, as one Fox Sports writer said Scott was overseeing a "second betrayal" of the city's fans. "Start over. Clear the roster. Fire Scott."
But Dan Gilbert didn't react swiftly to the disastrous 63-loss first season post-LeBron. It was hard to blame Scott for the chaos that ensued after James left. It was a mishmash roster, exacerbated by injuries, with one huge, glaring hole. The tank was on and Scott was billed as the coach to lead the team back to respectability.
Scott and Cavs fans didn't have to wait long, as a little lottery luck landed what looks to be the next superstar to build around for the future. Irving brought hope and excitement, but injuries, a relatively thin roster, and some late-season tanking landed the Cavaliers at the bottom of the Central and near the top of the lottery for the second straight year.
Scott has handled the ugly transition admirably. He's done nothing to lose his job or make anyone think he's doing a poor job. But can you say he's done a good job? He was in unchartered territory, and it's difficult to come up with a reasonable job evaluation given the circumstances. As the 2012-13 season begins, Scott, despite his importance, is somewhat of a forgotten man. Understandably, Cavs fans are much more eager for Irving 2.0 after a breakout summer, and both excited and nervous about Waiters as his backcourt running mate.
The Waiters pick was so important because if Irving continues on his expected trajectory, it's unlikely that the Cavs end up at the very top of the lottery again. They should be trending upwards. They're attempting to follow that seemingly unattainable OKC model you constantly hear cited around Cleveland. As the Thunder ascended, head coach Scott Brooks was often lambasted for his puzzling management at the end of games. In the eyes of many, Brooks redeemed himself a bit with some savvy moves during the 2012 postseason but he'll continue to be a target when things go wrong.
The Cavs have been among the worst teams in the NBA in defensive efficiency in Scott's two seasons (and in the bottom five of almost every defensive statistic). They've allowed more than 100 points per game in each of the past two years. These stats aren't necessarily unsurprising, it's a team that was 40-108 in that stretch -- nearly all the stats, both on offense and defense, are unkind.
But can Scott get his young group to improve on the defensive end? There are plenty of questions for every NBA team at the start of a new season -- and that should be a big one in Cleveland. He insists on a fast-paced offense, an up-and-down attack that will be lead by his superstar point guard. But Irving, along with Thompson, Waiters, and Zeller, have to improve on the defensive end if the Cavaliers will ever build themselves into a competitive playoff team, let alone a contender. Thompson relies on his athleticism and often seemed lost defending the pick-and-roll, as well as when, where, and how to provide help. Like Irving, it appears Waiters on-ball defense will certainly be a work in progress.
It's not totally unexpected for rookies to be overwhelmed, particularly on the defensive end of the floor. There's a grace period there for both them and their coach. But shouldn't this be a season where improvement is expected, or there's some sign that there's at least the ability to improve on defense? If not, where exactly is this rebuild going? The Cavs are a long way from contention, but like Brooks when the Thunder started to improve, Scott will come into the crosshairs as his young core plays more together.
By all accounts, the Cavaliers have their next franchise player -- the one to build around. But as we saw with the Cavs last franchise player-coach combination, the clock is always ticking on that build, and the Cavs can't spend several seasons trying to figure out if they have the right man pulling the strings on the court.
LeBron leaving took all the pressure off Scott, and absolved responsibility for the resulting disaster. His two prior stops as a head coach started with success and ended with messy exits. He seems to be well-liked by the Cavs owner, front office, players, and fans. One week before his third season, the organization picked up the option on his contract for next season. No one would argue that was the wrong move or wasn't warranted. But the present, this season, is an important stretch for evaluating whether he's the man to lead the Cavs to the heights that certainly won't come until after that option year.
This season is about the arrival of Kyrie and the development of Waiters, Tristan, and Zeller, but it's also about Scott. This is the first real year where a fair assessment of his job performance can be rendered. While there may be no expectations of contention hanging over his team, there are still expectations.