November 21, 2014

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Is Byron Scott the right man to coach the Cavs going forward?

Part of me thinks Byron Scott is the right man to coach the Cavaliers going forward. Part of me has serious questions.

Scott

It’s a topic worth raising not just in the sports section, but also in the Cavs front office, where general manager Chris Grant and his staff should at least be talking about their head coach’s future.

Right now, here’s what we know for sure: Scott, who will turn 52 on Thursday, is under contract for next season. Since he took over as coach, the Cavs have gone 19-63 in 2010-11 (the second-worst record in the league), 21-45 in 2011-12 (tied for the third-worst record) and are 22-47 this season (third-worst record). That’s a cumulative mark of 62-155, for a winning percentage of .286.

Another undisputed fact is the Cavs have three rookies on their roster (Dion Waiters, Tyler Zeller and Kevin Jones) and a pair of second-year players (Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson).

From Anderson Varejao missing extensive action due to a foot injury, a fractured wrist and a blood clot in his lung to Irving being sidelined by injuries to both shoulders, a concussion, a fractured finger and a sore knee, there can be no denying that good health has not been on Cleveland’s side during Scott’s tenure.

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Also virtually indisputable is that the Cavs have not really tried to win since Scott took over as coach, and totally indisputable is that Cleveland ranks last in field-goal percentage allowed this season — despite having an updated chart on its locker room wall to remind players of the importance of that statistic.

We could find more facts, but we’ll conclude by pointing out the Cavs have lost games this season that they have led by 27, 26 and 22 points.

Having said all that, let’s return to my uncertainty at the beginning: It is not easy to determine, with absolute certainty, how much credit Scott should receive for positive strides made by the Cavs and how much blame he should get for all their failures and shortcomings.

To be sure, the extremely cordial, likable and media-friendly coach has a number of strengths, foremost among them being he’s a confident man who relates extremely well to his players, particularly Irving.

The importance of that can’t be overstated, because while the 21-year-old Irving seems like a reasonable young man who would play hard for any coach, it’s always better to have a happy superstar than an unhappy one. Right now, Irving is extremely happy with Cleveland’s coach.

Scott supporters can also point out the careers of franchise building blocks Irving, Thompson and Waiters have progressed nicely under the coach’s tutelage (though detractors can suggest that probably would have happened under most any coach, due simply to the youngsters’ talent and how much they’ve gotten to play given the makeup of the roster).

Indisputable is that Scott has been perfectly willing to abide by Grant’s long-term plan of building through the draft and maintaining salary cap flexibility, not once complaining about the talent — or lack thereof — he’s had at his disposal.

That speaks volumes about Scott’s immense self-confidence and willingness to be an organizational team player, and it also raises a bit of a moral issue.

That is, since Scott has totally supported the long-term plan and endured all this losing, doesn’t he deserve a chance to coach the Cavs once they start adding some more veteran pieces and become committed to trying to win?

If you answer yes to that question and think it trumps everything else — if Grant answers yes to that question and thinks it trumps everything else — then Scott should definitely be coaching the Cavs next season.

However, that really doesn’t address the question, “Is Scott the right man to coach the Cavs going forward?”

Regardless of what Grant has done, hasn’t done or might do in the offseason, regardless of the lack of talent and all the injuries, there are legitimate reasons to think Scott might not be the right man going forward.

Most center around in-game coaching, but we will start with one that doesn’t — defense.

Though defense requires more skill than most people realize — and though Irving, for all his greatness, is one of the worst defenders in the league — it is also an area of the game where scouting, game-planning and X’s and O’s can play huge roles.

Scott constantly talks to the media about the importance of defense, yet his team continually double-teams players it doesn’t need to, rotates to force the ball out of the hands of poor shooters and repeatedly leaves quality shooters wide open.

Even great defense is sometimes burned due simply to the immense offensive talents of many NBA players, but over the long haul it’s about proper, pre-planned rotations and playing the percentages.

Watch Frank Vogel’s Indiana Pacers or Tom Thibodeau’s Chicago Bulls or even Scott Brooks’ run-and-gun Oklahoma City Thunder. When those clubs double-team someone in the post, or when a pick-and-roll leaves them scrambling, they help and rotate in a pre-planned way that has the best chance of forcing the ball into the hands of the opponent’s worst perimeter shooter.

The Cavs don’t do this nearly enough, which is why they are dead last in field-goal percentage allowed. For that, a decent percentage of the blame must be placed on Scott (though in fairness, it must also be pointed out that, at this stage of his young career, Irving is so bad at keeping his man in front of him, it often leads to everyone scrambling wildly).

The rest of my concerns involve in-game coaching. From how Scott uses (and doesn’t use) timeouts to how he substitutes (and doesn’t substitute) to halftime adjustments, there is a definite need for improvement.

A number of those issues were apparent a week ago when the Cavs blew a 27-point lead against the Miami Heat. Scott didn’t call timeout when Miami raced back into the game in the third quarter, he stuck way too long with the immensely struggling Luke Walton and Daniel Gibson and he used Tyler Zeller, who was having one of his best games in weeks, for just two minutes in the fourth quarter.

Scott also didn’t call a timeout late in the game with the Cavs down one and in possession of the ball, waiting instead until Cleveland’s Wayne Ellington had missed a long jumper and Miami’s LeBron James had made two free throws to make it a three-point game.

The only negative missing in the Miami debacle was Cleveland’s traditional collapse at the start of the third quarter — it occurred midway through the period instead — but that has happened so often this season it makes me wonder what the Cavs do in the locker room at halftime.

So the decision to fire Scott should be an easy one, right?

It’s not nearly that simple, in part because of the positive things Scott brings that I listed above and in part because of the unknown.

Maybe Scott’s game-planning and X’s and O’s are perfect and his young players just continue to make the same defensive mistakes over and over again.

Maybe at halftime he goes over every change the opponent is going to make and exactly what the Cavs need to do and they still come out flat.

A former player who won three NBA titles with the Los Angeles Lakers, maybe Scott will be a better coach when his players mature and are better able to capitalize on all the on-court freedom he gives them.

Maybe Scott is the right man to coach the Cavs going forward, maybe he’s not.
I’m not sure. Grant had better be.

Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or rnoland@medina-gazette.com.