Last year, Byron Scott won Coach of the Year. This year, there's talk that he might be done with the Hornets. What exactly caused this radical shift? This post is an attempt to cover all the factors that will go into the front office's decision, looking not only at Scott's performance this season, but also at his New Jersey Nets in the early 2000's and what that portends for his future in New Orleans. In other news, this is also the longest post in the history of At the Hive.... getcha popcorn ready!
The X's and O's
The disparity between Byron Scott, the offensive coach, and Byron Scott, the defensive coach, is staggering. While the Hornets' offensive and defensive ranks both ended up above league average, his approach to both sides of the game were radically different.
Byron Scott on Defense
The 2007-2008 New Orleans Hornets were the league's 7th most efficient defensive squad, ceding 105.7 points per 100 possessions. They were led by Tyson Chandler, who appeared in 79 games and for almost 2800 minutes. In 2008-2009, Chandler appeared in half as many minutes- 1445- and in a mere 45 games. And yet, the Hornets still finished 9th in the NBA in defensive efficiency, ceding 107.0 points per 100 possessions. For half the season, the Hornets had one of the best defensive centers in the league replaced by two of the worst big men defenders in the entire NBA (S. Marks, H. Armstrong).
How? "Junk" defenses. Scott frequently turned opposing offenses' shortcomings right back against them. He purposely put Peja Stojakovic on the best wing players in the league, baiting them into jump shots so that they would not attack the extremely vulnerable interior. He frequently packed the paint with defenders; the move led to a very high rate of 3 second violations, but it also resulted in a fair number of drawn charges and fewer opportunities for dunks and layups. Byron's basic strategem on defense was to allow opposing offenses opportunities, but to allow them in such a way that offenses didn't realize that there were actually far more efficient avenues of scoring than the ones granted to them (ie, dunking in Hilton Armstrong's face).
Did the strategy work every time? No, of course not. Far from it. There were games that the Hornets lost by 25, 30, 58 points, where they didn't have the slightest of chances. Those were the games where offenses realized Byron Scott's game and drove it down the Hornets' throat, play after play. But if New Orleans' cumulative defensive efficiency indicates anything, it's that those were the exceptions to the rule. Getting caught up in the fact that those gigantic defense lapses occured is to overlook how often they should have been happening.
He doesn't have the reputation that other great defensive coaches have. This may come off as homerism, but I don't think it is- I believe Scott did as good a defensive job as any coach in the league this season. When Sean Marks (60) and Hilton Armstrong (70) lead a team's big men in games played, the best big man plays 45 highly ineffective minutes, and the team finishes 9th in defensive efficiency, that is very impressive. Is this underselling Chris Paul somewhat? Sure. But post defense is the most important form of defense there is in the NBA. The Hornets played an entire season literally without any interior defense! David West was abysmal, James Posey wasn't nearly as good as advertised, Hilton needs no comment, and while Marks blocked a few shots, he's as flat-footed a defender as you'll find in your local gym. Scott put a bunch of really poor defenders in a position to succeed as often as possible, and that can't be emphasized enough.
Byron Scott on Offense
This is where things get dicey. At first glance, the Hornets weren't too bad; they did finish 12 in the league in offensive efficiency. A closer look reveals that at 108.7 points/100 possessions, they were a mere 0.4 points over the league average and almost an entire 3 points worse than in 2007-2008.
To an extent, the same injury arguments outlined above for defense also apply to the offensive end. The Hornets replaced a highly efficient offensive player (Chandler) with two very inefficient offensive players (Marks, Armstrong). It's worth noting that I'm not referring to efficiency in an absolute sense. Marks' 106 points/100 possessions, and Armstrong's 102 points/100 possessions aren't shabby until you consider who their point guard is. Chris Paul can quite literally make any center in the league look above average, so it's important to note that when comparing Chandler with Marks and Hilton. But anyways, yes, just as on offense, the Hornets replaced a good player with poor ones.
Wait a second... why is Julian Wright the one with the giraffe inspired nickname again?
So why do I give the Hornets a pass on D (going as far as to offer considerable praise), and yet bash their offense? Simple: lack of creativity. As innovative as Byron was on the defensive end, he was just as uncreative on the offensive end.
Every Hornets fan knows that the offense was 99.99999999% based on the screens of Tyson Chandler. A healthy Chandler is as good a screen-setter as there is in the league. He takes great angles, never lets defenders know he's coming, rarely gets called for moving, routinely wipes out defenders simply by standing still, and rolls very smoothly to the hoop. Oh, and dunks a lot. When Chandler first came over from Chicago, Scott was smart enough to quickly pick up on this attribute of his and maximize its potential in the offense. The coach can't be blamed for the player getting injured and throwing a wrench in a working system.
The coach can be blamed for not trying to change up the system in the slightest. I mentioned a couple weeks ago that the most depressing aspect of the Hornets' non-Chandler offense was its startling resemblance to the Chandler offense. In other words, the plays remained exactly the same. Instead of Chandler setting the screens, it'd be Hilton "setting" the screen (also known, as getting called for moving). Instead of Chandler rolling, it'd be Marks "rolling." While every person in the arena could tell that Hilton/Marks did not have near the screening ability of Chandler, Byron consistently went to the same plays.
Of course, the plays failed over and over again. Chris Paul's turnover rates regressed back to 2006-2007 levels again, and his decision making is entirely absolved of all blame. The primary increase in his turnovers came in three ways: (a) the screener would roll too quickly, allowing the big man defender to step straight into a hard trap on Paul, (b) the screener would roll too slowly, forcing Paul to attack the paint on his own, leading to a league-high offensive fouls rate for a point guard, or (c) the screener would roll in rhythm, only to display a stunning incompetence at catching basketballs.
Over the next few weeks, many words will be written on how Byron Scott simply rode the coattails of Paul, Chandler, and West in 2007-2008 and how 2008-2009 was more of a "true" indication of his coaching acuity. Those words will be mostly wrong. Scott did not ride anyone's coattails last year. He designed an offense perfectly suited to his personnel, and he reaped what he sowed when those personnel proved themselves healthy and very capable at basketball. Scott's shortcomings lay not in his ability to game-plan, but in his ability to adapt. The Chris Paul/David West offense didn't perform as it could have. This was not because Scott didn't have the ability to design a new offensive strategy for a team changed by injury. Rather, Scott refused to use his ability to strategize. He stubbornly fell back on what worked the year before. Does that make him a bad coach? What really constitutes a "bad" coach? It feels like Scott is a good coach whose stubbornness got him in trouble this season. Is stubbornness an unfixable character flaw?
A History Lesson
Byron Scott's previous job followed an eerily similar path. He coached one of the elite point guards of the league in Jason Kidd. He coached an 18/19 PER type talent at power forward (Kenyon Martin), who in the eyes of many, was "created" by his point guard. Despite frequent success (in the form of Finals appearances), Scott never escaped criticism from either the media or his own players. Indeed, his New Jersey experience stands to shed much light on our current situation.
Deja vu all over again.
Scott's Nets history indicates that successful defensive game-planning is nothing new to him. In 2002, his New Jersey squad was the most efficient defensive team in the NBA, ceding 99.5 points/100 possessions. In 2003, his Nets again topped the NBA, ceding 98.1 points/100 possessions. In 2004, they slipped in the rankings to 4th, but only allowed 98.0 points/100 possessions. Since his departure following that season (and Kenyon Martin's it should be added), the Nets didn't come close to that kind of defensive success.
Given this defensive history with the Nets, Scott's defense with the Hornets should come as no surprise. He has really similar personnel, in the form of an elite perimeter defender in Paul (Kidd) and an elite post defender in Chandler (Martin). Like with the Hornets, the Nets had no significant defensive talents around their two best defenders.
The parallels continue on the offensive end. Scott inherited a very poor Nets team in 2000, and the Nets won just 26 games. In 2004, Scott inherited a very poor Hornets team, and New Orleans won just 18 games. In his second year with the Nets, Scott acquired one of the best point guards in the league in Jason Kidd. The very next year, his team posted a 104.0 offensive efficiency. In his second year with the Hornets, Scott again acquired one of the best point guards in the league in Chris Paul.
RANDOM TANGENT BEGIN In the spirit of talking about positive things... I should mention that Paul's rookie year was about equivalent to the best season Jason Kidd ever posted in a 15 year, Hall of Fame career. His ROOKIE season. And that season by Kidd occurred during the 1998 lockout year, where a bunch of weird things happened since only 50 games were played.
Can't keep a good man down.
So in case you were worried about Paul going forward after the Nugget series, don't worry. This guy is still a once in a generation player, and 5 games during which half his team was injured doesn't change that RANDOM TANGENT END
Anyways, so Scott acquired Paul in 2005 via the draft. Although the Hornets' process of rising up wasnt as quick as New Jersey's, New Orleans eventually busted through injury issues with a 56 win 2007 campaign. During that season, they posted a 111.5 offensive efficiency, the highest in the history of the franchise. Meanwhile, back on the ranch in Jersey, the Nets regressed to a 103.8 efficiency the next year and a 100.8 efficiency in Scott's final year. The Hornets regressed to a 108.7 efficiency this year. Injuries were to blame for a lot of it. But a team with Chris Paul and David West on it can't do better than league average? Really? From the looks of things, Scott designed an offense that worked decently in Jersey, but the offense slowly deteriorated away as defenses became wise to it. Could we be headed towards something similar in New Orleans? The early signs aren't reassuring. Stubbornness in regards to offensive systems is something Byron has been guilty of before.
Byron As An Evaluator of Talent
Most fan criticism of Scott is a direct result of this. The New Orleans "doghouse" has become famous over the years and has housed players like Baron Davis, Kirk Snyder, Mike James, and was the permanent residence of a certain Earl Smith III.
Ghosts of Draft Picks Past
I figure a quick rundown of every draft pick of the Byron Scott Era is called for (this post has gone on far too long... why not make it longer!).
Some of Scott's Picks...
J.R. Smith, 2004
The 18th pick of the draft, Smith was a highly touted talent out of Saint Benedict's Prep in Newark, New Jersey. Prior to the draft, scouts touted his 44 inch vertical and NBA three point range, while criticizing his poor shot selection, midrange game, and defense. It was the second time the Hornets had ever taken a high school player in the first round (the first one goes without mention). Smith debuted as a 19 year old rookie for a team that went an unbelievably bad 3-29 to begin the season. Smith started in 56 of 76 appearances as a rookie. As predicted by scouts, Smith had a tendency to fire up horrible shots. He finished with 281 attempts on threes, only to hit 81 of them for a 29% clip. He struggled defensively as well. While Byron Scott gave J.R. ample playing time, and didn't bench him once in the second half of the season, much of that PT was due to the team's revolving door at guard. Baron Davis appeared in just 18 games, and as a result, the team featured a total of 22 different players on the roster throughout the season.
That all changed the next year. With the trade for Speedy Claxton, a draft pick by the name of Chris Paul, and the acquisition of Kirk Snyder, the backcourt suddenly had a lot more structure. In January 2006, Smith got his first whiff of the legendary dog house. He compiled just 17 minutes over a 21 game stretch, extending into May. After getting a few minutes towards the end of the month, he was again used sparingly to finish the season. On top of it all, the 20 year old got all the negative publicity in the world. Uncoachable. Arrogant. Aloof. Trouble maker. Lost in all the noise? J.R. had rediscovered his incredible range and shooting stroke, finishing at 37% from three (which, by the way, he's never shot lower than again). He was drawing more fouls, he was working harder on the defensive glass, he was stealing, he wasn't turning the ball over.
Was J.R. Smith a head case? Oh, absolutely. Is he still? Most definitely. But he was and still is a damn good basketball player. The Hornets got rid of him that very summer, tossing him in a trade for Tyson Chandler to Chicago. The Bulls didn't actually want J.R. from the Hornets, indicating that Smith's departure wasn't an integral part of acquiring Chandler. Byron Scott simply wanted him out.
There are those that will contend that they want no part of Smith's game or attitude right now. To those people, I say this: to win titles in the NBA, you put up with things. You put up with craziness, you bring in people that can help deal with craziness. Today, J.R. Smith is a dynamite shooter. He makes poor decisions all the time, but offensive efficiencies of 112, 111, and 111 in consecutive years suggest that he consistently helps his team far more than he hurts. Today, J.R. Smith is a willing passer that turns the ball over very rarely. Today, J.R. Smith is still plain nuts. Hilton Armstrong, on the other hand, is a very nice guy. Want to know who has the higher defensive rebound rate? Yep, J.R. Smith. "Nice" rarely translates to wins, and as long as attitude drawbacks aren't hurting anyone physically, why not put up with them? The Hornets, presumably at the behest of Byron Scott, threw away a 20 year old talent that they could have had under team control, at an extremely cheap cost, for most of the next decade.
Chris: "Yeah, here's my ID!"
On top of the fact that Scott and Co. traded Smith, there are many signs that they didn't realize what type of talent they had on their hands. If they really wanted to move him, why throw him onto a done (by many reports) deal? How many 20 year olds with 44 inch verticals can shoot ~40% from three? But I digress.
My question for Byron Scott is this: why exactly would you rather have James Posey? Posey has done some equally crazy things over the course of his career (throwing the ball at a ref? I doubt Smith has ever done that). Posey made almost a million dollars more than Smith this year. He posted a PER nearly 7 points lower than Smith this year. Posey is 32, Smith is 23. Scott's handling of Smith is something that will haunt this franchise for years to come- not just because we lost J.R. (he's good, but not otherwordly), but because the subsequent contracts we handed out to swingmen to replace him (Peterson, Posey) have hamstrung this franchise for the foreseeable future.
Chris Paul, 2005
I include Paul for jest... sort of. I mean... did we dodge a bullet because Paul was so awesome coming out of college? What happens if we draft a ~12 PER guy like Deron Williams, who barely scraped in 2008-2009 what CP3 achieved as a rookie? Paul may prove to be the exception to Byron's "no rookies" policy, if only because he was never really a rookie in most senses of the word.
Brandon Bass, 2005
I'm going to write an entire paragraph of just one word.
Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable. Inexplicable.
Want to guess how I'd assess Byron Scott's treatment of Brandon Bass?
Here, I'm going to throw some numbers at you:
|Off. Reb. %||Def. Reb. %||Tot. Reb. %|
Player A is Dwight Howard, Player C is Kevin Garnett, and Player D is Tim Duncan during their rookie seasons. Player B is Brandon Bass in his rookie campaign. In defensive rebounding percentages, and total rebounding percentages, Bass stacked up favorably to some of the greatest rebounding bigs of our generation. Though his offensive % was slightly lower, he posted a 9.1% as a sophomore, showing that at 20 years old, he had plenty of development left in him. While Bass played sparing minutes, defensive rebounding rates translate incredibly, incredibly well from bench to starters, from low minutes to high minutes. It's the one statistic that seems to solely depend on a player's makeup and effort. Sure, Bass struggled immensely from the floor. But for Scott and the Hornets to let him walk after playing him less than 400 minutes in two seasons, and after a disastrous defensive rebounding rookie campaign from Hilton Armstrong?
Cynics will say that Bass' defensive board rates have dropped in two years in Dallas. However, the Mavericks have two front court players that consistently post 22%+ defensive board rates in Dirk Nowitzki and Erick Dampier. By sharing time with those two, it's only natural that Bass' figures should drop. The overall point is that the Hornets literally did not give Bass a chance. In 2006, the backup front court consisted of 34 year old Aaron Williams, Chris Andersen, and Marc Jackson. In 2007, Andersen was suspended, and the backup bigs were Marc Jackson, Hilton, and.... Linton Johnson. For Bass not to get a shot among those guys?
Hilton Armstrong, 2006
I don't really have much to say about Hilton. Byron Scott has definitely given him a fair shot and probably a lot more than that. Some of that may be due to the Bass situation, some of it may be due to true belief that he can break out of his shell and excel. Byron has displayed an odd tendency to bench and play Hilton at odd and completely random intervals, but that's probably a more warranted topic with the next guy....
Julian Wright, 2007
"The steal of the '07 draft" proclaimed more than one analyst. The 2007-2008 Hornets team was a good one going into the season, but it was certainly light on athleticism at the wings. Yet, Julian Wright only picked up 4.8 minutes per game in the opening month of the campaign.
Suddenly, he saw a minutes-full and productive December, averaging nearly 13 minutes a game, and producing solid nights like an 8/6 or a 6/6/3. Right as Julian was experiencing success, the mat was taken out from under him. In January, and February, Julian averaged 1.4 minutes a contest, sitting out 17 games in entirety.
The roller coaster continued in March and April. JuJu suddenly picked up 20 minutes a night in March, and 13 minutes in April. He scored 13 in one game, 14 in two others, and 20 in another. In the playoffs, his role continued. He averaged 12.2 minutes a game, contributing at least one high energy play in literally every game. Then, as if it to create a microcosm of the regular season, Byron decided to bench Julian for the Hornets' Game 7 loss to the Spurs.
All in all, the season was a success for Wright. At a 15.4 PER, he managed to produce despite the wild fluctuations in his role.
Of course, then the summer happened. Byron decided to randomly give Wright heavy point guard minutes, a role which he struggled to adapt to, and a position in stark contrast to his high-energy, low ball-handling position of the past year. Scott went so far as to profess a desire to convert Wright into Chris Paul's backup at the point guard position. While most of us took it as a crazy summer project, there were a few- including Marc Stein- that reported that Scott was dead serious.
Fast forward to 2008-2009. Scott's ideas of JuJu playing point guard vanished, as did Wright's minutes. He averaged just 2 minutes a game for the first seven. Just as abruptly as the year before, he averaged 12 minutes a night for the rest of the month. December? Down to 6 minutes a game. January? 12 minutes a game. Sat out almost half the games in February. 24 minutes a game in March. 17 in April. Back down to 8 a game in the playoffs against a highly athletic Nuggets team.
Is it any surprise that Wright's PER dropped from 15.4 to 12.6 in a season he should have been developing? He had no role, Scott publicly called out his decision making in a press conference, and he played a variety of positions on a moment's notice.
Sum of Scott's Picks...
There are signs that Scott knew something about the types of talent he was dealing with. In crucial situations- late season, playoffs- he routinely went back to Julian instead of other wings. He drew up big, down the stretch plays for J.R. Smith during his time here. The biggest issue seems not to be a total lack of confidence in youngsters, but rather inconsistent confidence, regardless of what young players actually provided on the floor. While Scott has thrust rookies into the spotlight on many an occasion (and certainly in the careers of Smith and Wright), he tends to yank them out of the spotlight just as quickly. Young players have a hard time sticking to Scott's rotations; with Smith, the explanation was that he was defensively challenged, but the Wright situation certainly challenges that notion. Meanwhile, veterans- even veterans that aren't producing- have stuck around rotations without producing at all. The overall conclusion has to be that Scott is not the best developer of talent. Some talents like Smith and Bass were forced out of town, and other talents like Chris Paul didn't need much development in the first place.
Scott has a year left on his contract. While coaching salaries aren't readily available, many have suggested that his final year is quite lucrative. The Hornets figure to shed salary through other avenues this summer, with Tyson Chandler and others likely on the way out.
Will Scott stay? My hunch is yes. The immediate aftermath of the humiliating series loss to the Nuggets has been one of pure disappointment. That's to be expected when a team drops a game by 58 points. But the further we move from this Nuggets series, the more likely it is that the front office decides to hang on to Scott. There were numerous, non-Scott factors that heavily contributed to the four losses, and that will only become more clear as time elapses.
Should Scott stay? On the one hand, he did a very poor job adapting his offense to new challenges, health aside. Historically, he hasn't been able to turn around a sliding offense. He's done a poor job in developing young players; with Julian Wright still on the roster and the Hornets in dire need of a young, productive player in this year's draft, the Hornets' coach next year has to be able to deal with youth. On the other hand, Scott's a phenomenal defensive coach. I've always believed that defensive coaching is inherently more valuable than offensive coaching. History suggests that it is more difficult to design a good defense with average defenders than it is to design a good offense with average offensive players. That is, offense "coaches" itself in many ways when you have elite offensive players (which we certainly have in Paul and West). Scott brings that rare coaching skill, the ability to take average defenders and allow them to play successful defense.
Is it worth taking the risk that the offense slides even more next year, in order to have a stable defense? Is a better offensive coach the key to helping Paul develop into a 30-33 PER guy and West into a 20+ PER player? Scott has a history of gradually slowing down pace as he coaches a team; the Hornets already played the league's second lowest pace last year. Is a faster pace the key to unlocking the offense? Is moving away from the pick and roll imperative in making the offense less predictable? Would letting Scott go impact how Chris Paul views his future with the franchise? How about the rumors that Scott has lost his players?
There are many questions to be answered. The Hornets certainly do not have a black and white decision to make. There are many, many shades of grey, many pros that must be weighed against many cons. And yet, Scott's future is likely to have far less of an impact on the team than the futures of Chandler or David West. This is one decision amongst a plethora of important choices.
In my mind, the best option is to roll the dice on Scott. Hang on to him, regain some health, field a solid defense, allow good and healthy players to self-correct some offensive shortcomings, and hope the front office can draft a solid rookie to Scott's liking. Byron has his flaws, but in an offseason promising to be among the most turbulent the franchise has ever seen, a little stability can go a long way.