The smile widened as Byron Scott talked about Kobe Bryant. Scott’s eyes lit up as he recalled mentoring Bryant his rookie year during the 1996-97 season, sensing then that Bryant was already “something special” with his strongly developed game, unmatched work ethic and inquisitive curiosity about NBA history. Scott gushed about Bryant organizing informal workouts this summer with a handful of teammates.
Underneath all of those positive vibes revealed Scott’s unrelenting optimism on how Bryant will actually perform in the 2014-15 season. Scott chuckled at all the doubt surrounding Bryant, who lasted only six games last season because of overlapping left Achilles and left ankle injuries.
“I see a guy who’s going to average 20 something points a game, will have a great year and have a lot of people eating crow,” Scott said Tuesday in a wide-ranging interview with this newspaper. “I’m glad people are saying [otherwise]. Keep adding it. It motivates him that much more. It makes my job easier.”
Yet, Scott’s job as the Lakers coach will hardly be easy. He will oversee a team that finished last season with the worst record in L.A. franchise history. Scott will have to bolster a defense that finished 29th in points allowed (109.2), 24th in defensive field goal percentage (46.8) and 30th in fast-break points allowed (16.7). And Scott will also have to put his strong relationship with Bryant to good use, finding the right balance in leaning on Bryant’s expertise and skillset without overly taxing his 36-year-old body.
Scott reported Bryant as fully healthy from his left knee injury and looked impressed with his offseason workouts. Yet, Scott said he will have to limit Bryant. He will probably sit out in the second practice of the three two-a-day sessions Scott tentatively has scheduled once training camp begins in three weeks. Bryant will likely skip select regular-season practices so he can receive additional rest and treatment. Scott also conceded the possibility that Bryant will either miss the second night of back-to-back games, or face reduced minutes the first game so he can play the following night.
“The key is our communication,” Scott said. “Kobe knows me pretty well and I know him pretty well. I know how stubborn he is. He knows how stubborn I am. There’s going to be times we’re butting heads. But it’s all because we want to win. But I also don’t want to play a guy like Kobe in game 58 just to get that win and then risk his health for game 82 when we have a chance to go into the playoffs. I have to be real smart that I stick to my guns as far as minutes are concerned even if it costs us a game or two.”
Scott envisions a similar scenario with Nash, who averaged only 20.9 minutes in 15 games last season because of recurring nerve root irritation in his back and hamstrings. Nash sounded amenable in his exit interview in April about playing limited minutes even as a reserve. Scott tentatively has penciled Nash in as the starting point guard ahead of Jeremy Lin, but noted that Nash’s “minutes are a lot less than I’m thinking at this particular point than Kobe’s minutes.”
And what will those minutes for Bryant entail?
“I have a set number in mine,” Scott said with a chuckle. “I don’t care to share it with you guys yet, but I have a set number in mind.”
That is because Scott plans to talk with both Lakers trainer Gary Vitti and Bryant to ensure a collaborative effort. But it seems likely Scott will want play Bryant fewer than the 38 minutes he averaged in the previous two seasons under Mike Brown and Mike D’Antoni before tearing his left Achilles in April 2013, an injury that sidelined him for eight months. During those stretches, both Brown and D’Antoni publicly talked about needing to limit Bryant’s playing time. But both ditched those plans out of awareness that Bryant’s presence played a large part in the Lakers’ success.
Scott plans to feature Bryant heavily in the post and elbows in an offense that he said will have elements of the Princeton offense that bode similar to Phil Jackson’s triangle system, a strategy Scott believes will both maximize Bryant’s skillset and preserve his body. But how challenging will it be for Scott to stay disciplined with Bryant’s undisclosed playing time restriction?
“To me, it’s not a challenge,” Scott said. “We have a set amount of minutes. I’m going to stick to my guns if I think that’s going to be in his best interest. One thing I’ll never do is sacrifice a players’ health for a basketball game. I won’t do it. If it can hurt him in the long run, I won’t do it. I might get grief and get criticized for it. But in my heart, if I know this is the best for a player, that’s what I’m going to do.”
What if Bryant checks himself into the game against Scott’s wishes?
“I might have to tackle him and hold him back,” Scott said with a heavy chuckle. “I don’t know if I’m strong enough to do that anymore. But I’ll have to get one of the coaches to come with me and grab him and hold him back. I know how competitive he is. But for me, I’m looking out for him. That’s my main objective in making sure he’ll be okay.”
And even if they ultimately yell words at each other unfit for print, Scott believes he has built enough equity with Bryant as a former mentor and long-lasting friend since then to ensure such arguments will not spill over onto the court.
“He trusts me. He knows I want nothing but the best for him,” Scott said. “I’m one of the main guys that wants to help him get that sixth ring.”
The prospect of that difficult quest kept Scott in good spirits, determined he can both rely and limit Bryant the right way in ensuring a fruitful partnership.