Monday, October 17, 2011

Hidden in Plain Sight- Byron Scott With the Showtime Lakers

Byron Scott should be wildly overrated.

Does it bother you that Robert Horry, a completely average player (7 points, 4.8 rebounds per game, 13.4 career PER) when he was not saving dynasties across the Western Conference (to the tune of seven rings), will garner Hall of Fame votes (he won’t get in, but still) in the coming years, while Byron Scott will forever be looking up at the likes of Mo Williams and Jamaal Magloire on the list of career All-Star appearances? It should.

Scott was a central figure- one of the youngest and most exciting at that- in perhaps the most electrifying dynasty in NBA history. In an era in which maybe half a dozen teams received national attention, every meaningful game he ever played was for the big market, TV-friendly Lakers. For all intents and purposes, he was the backcourt partner of the greatest point guard the game has ever seen.


Though beloved in Lakerland, nationally Scott is remembered more as a role player, fortunate for the circumstance in which he found himself, than as one of the best offensive guards of the 1980s.

The 9,053 points he scored in his first seven NBA seasons (1983-84- 1989-90) qualified Scott as one of the NBA’s ten most prolific backcourt scorers during that stretch. Of that group, only four players- Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Rolando Blackman and Scott- shot better than 50% from the field. In terms of True Shooting Percentage, only the aforementioned trio, along with Dale Ellis, equaled Scott’s 56.2% mark.

Of the ten best scoring guards of the era, only Sleepy Floyd (20.7% Usage Rate) required the ball less frequently than Scott (21.6%), and only Jeff Malone (8.9% Turnover Rate) and Ellis (10.1%) turned the ball over less frequently. And while he was hardly a box score stuffer in the mold of Magic, Scott ranked in the top third of starting guards in steals (15th), defensive rebounds (14th) and total rebounds (16th).

Not the top pick in the draft like three of his fellow starters, Scott arrived in the NBA as a blue-chip prospect in his own right. A McDonald’s All-American out of Inglewood’s Morningside High in 1979, he was selected fourth overall out of Arizona State by the San Diego Clippers in the 1983 draft, and cost the Lakers (who, in fairness, also needed to clear the PG spot for Magic) an All-Star guard in Norm Nixon.

I know, I know. Scott got to play with Magic, and Magic made everyone better. This is irrefutable. Even in the context of his own team, however, Scott is omitted from the top tier of contributors. He’s remembered more as a first-class passenger than a vital cog in the engine. While playing alongside Magic certainly maximized Scott’s effectiveness, to say anything different of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in his final years or James Worthy would be lunacy.

Speaking of which…

Before we go any further, let me say that I love James Worthy. He was the perfect 3 for Showtime, with a combination of speed, and athleticism that made him a glorious complement to Magic on the break. And his first step in the half court? Incredible. No frontcourt player in the era could match it, and few players of comparable size have done so in the years since.

In 926 career regular season games in 12 NBA seasons, all with the Lakers, Worthy scored 16,320 points (17.6 per game), grabbed 4,708 rebounds (5.1 per), and handed out 2,791 assists (3 per game), while shooting 52.1% (55.9% TS) from the field, with a 17.7 PER. His 13.4 points and 5.2 rebounds per game (18.9- 7.3 per 36) in 1982-83 earned him All-Rookie First Team honors, and twice (1990, 1991) he was named to the All-NBA Third Team (1990–1991).

Of course, Worthy’s legacy was built on more than being a very good regular season player. He was a vital part of three championship teams, and was named MVP of the 1988 Finals. He averaged 21.1 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game, with an 18.3 PER, in 143 career postseason contests, and, perhaps most impressively, rebounded from a Buckner-esque blunder in Game 2 of the 1984 Finals against the Celtics to build a reputation as one of the great clutch performers of his era.

For his trouble, Worthy was rewarded with seven consecutive All-Star selections (1986- 92), three times getting the starting nod, had his #42 retired by the Lakers, was named one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest in 1996 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2003.

Meanwhile, Byron Scott’s only sniffs of All Star Weekend came in the 1987 and 1988 3-point contests. For him, there is no spot on the any list of the greatest to ever suit up. There is no plaque in Springfield. Rather than being immortalized in the rafters, his #4 has been demoralized on the back of Luke Walton.

Even if you think Worthy was a significantly better player than Scott, that gap in recognition is a bit much. Consider…

In 767 games as a Laker between 1983 and 1993, Scott scored 12,254 points (16 per game), grabbed 2,416 rebounds (3.2 per game), and handed out 2,266 assists (3 per game), while shooting 49.2% (55.3% TS) from the field and 37.1% from beyond the arc. His 10.6 points (on 48% FG) and 1.1 steals per game (17.3 and 1.8 steals per 36) in 1983-84 earned him All-Rookie First Team honors as well.

Scott’s prime, while shorter in duration, is worthy of a place alongside anything James produced at his peak. From 1984 through 1990, Scott never averaged worse than 15.4 points per game (18+/36 minutes five times), never shot worse than 47% from the field (at least 51% three times) and three times made at least 39.9% of his 3-pointers, including a league-best 43.3% in 1984-85. He averaged 19.4 per game during three straight Finals runs from 1987 until 1990, two of which (1987, 1988) ended in champagne showers. In 1987-88, it was Scott (with a career-high 21.7 points per game), not Magic or Worthy, that was the leading scorer for the first NBA team in 19 years to repeat as champions.

As a rookie, Scott was a part-time starter (49 times in 74 games) before more or less (127 times in 157 games the next two years) slotting into the starting lineup. Like Worthy, he immediately made it clear that he was tailor-made for the role into which he’d been cast. Say what you will about Magic’s ability to elevate the game of anyone with whom he played, by embodying much of what Magic was not, Scott was his ideal backcourt mate.

Stylistically, he was a perfect complement to Magic- a low usage sharpshooter that could pass extremely well (especially feeding the post), filled a wing on the break and possessed top-shelf athleticism. His most frequently utilized offensive weapon- that gorgeous shoulders-squared-to-the-rim pull-up 18-footer from the wing- was an essential element of the Lakers’ attack, and one that could not be duplicated with the same consistency by anyone else on a 1980s Lakers roster.

Scott also added a dimension to the Lakers’ collective personality that, like his outside shot, was unlikely to come from anyone else. He was the two-guard of the 1980s Lakers. From age 22, he achieved this, sliding seamlessly into an established unit and earning the trust of his championship teammates. More than merely a job title, Scott was staffed with the task of deferring to Magic’s genius while maintaining his respect.

As much as anyone in NBA history, Scott understands what it is to work closely with a superstar point guard- in other words, a player that is inherently unselfish, but not without a sizable ego. There are certainly other factors at play, but it’s probably not a coincidence that Jason Kidd and Chris Paul, the two best point guards of the past 20 years, have enjoyed their best seasons on Byron Scott-coached teams.

Another role that Byron Scott played with the Lakers in a style that was uniquely his own- the understated badass. Magic, as ruthless a competitor as the game has ever seen, channeled his anger into humiliating opponents with his unfathomable talent, but was rarely overtly confrontational. Kurt Rambis personified toughness, but did so in the style of an NHL goon- he’d kick your ass, but wasn’t really going to outplay you. Worthy had skill, but not the mean streak, and Michael Cooper had “it”, but didn’t quite possess the offensive skills to maximize it. Scott, on the other hand, in addition to being fantastically skilled, was the guy that would outskill an opponent, emphatically embarrass him and, as Purvis Short can attest, let him know about it:

Byron Scott added a dimension to the Showtime Lakers’ collective personality that, like his outside shot, was unlikely to come from anyone else. Few players in Laker history have ever played a more important role, and fewer still have better embraced and embodied those roles.

In the process of researching this piece, I came across this excellent article, by Mary Schmitt Boyer of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which addresses many of the points I've touched on here, along with thoughts from the man himself. If you've enjoyed this article, hell, even if you hated it but are a fan of Showtime, I strongly urge you to check it out.

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