During his 14 seasons as an NBA player with the L.A. Lakers, Indiana Pacers and Vancouver Grizzlies, Byron Scott said he always felt like an underdog.
The intensity and fight Scott displayed as a player will be sorely needed in his third stint as a coach as he tries to lead the Cleveland Cavaliers back to respectability this season and beyond.
In ESPN's ''Future Power Rankings,'' which projects teams' success in the 2011-12, 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons, the Cavs are ranked 28th out of 30. ESPN cited owner Dan Gilbert's letter after the departure of LeBron James, which was read by players around the league. ESPN expects Gilbert's diatribe to affect free agency for years to come because agents won't want their clients to sign with the Cavs because of the letter. Even the draft picks acquired from the Heat won't help, ESPN said, because the selections will likely be in the range of No. 30 and won't bring building blocks for the future.
Scott is the one man in the organization who can repair the damage Gilbert's letter wrought. He's been a coach for 9 1/2 seasons. He rebuilt the New Jersey Nets, taking them to the NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003. His New Orleans Hornets went to the playoffs in 2008 and 2009. In 2005-06, when Hurricane Katrina forced the team to play in four different locations, the Hornets made a 20-game turnaround, the NBA's best that season.
''We have a new coach now. We all respect him for what he did in the past,'' Anderson Varejao said Monday at Cavs media day. ''We heard he's a tough coach, there's going to be hard practices. But we're all ready for that.''
New general manager Chris Grant is still raving about Scott, who was hired on July 1.
''I feel lucky we were able to get him,'' Grant said. 'You see why he's been successful.''
Scott knows what a tough task it will be to replace two-time MVP James, especially when Gilbert did not want to gut the roster and start over, the tactic most teams in this situation would take.
"I'm putting a lot of pressure on certain guys to kind of step up to the plate and be more of a leader,'' Scott said of replacing James. ''I think we can make up for it, but it's going to take a collective group to do it. It's not going to take one player. I don't think we have one player who can make up for what LeBron brought to the game every single night. But I do think we have three or four guys who can.''
Scott has already begun selling an 'Us against the world' mindset to his team, aided by the fact that league analysts don't expect the Cavs to make the playoffs.
"I think the No. 1 thing for us right now is that we understand that we've got to get better each month,'' Scott said. ''As far as all the naysayers, I kind of love that. I've been an underdog my whole life. In my conversations with guys this summer, they felt the same way and that's a good thing. So hopefully we can bring that into training camp and it's going to carry over into preseason and into the season and then we'll see what happens.''
Asked if Cavs players had chips on their shoulders, Scott said, ''I hope so. I hope they are pissed off, to be honest with you. I know I would be. Back in my day when I played, if all the talk was about one player, with no disrespect to LeBron, he's a great player we all know that, but all of a sudden to be relegated to a team that can possibly win 15 games?
''I coached a team that won 18 games and we didn't have near the talent that we have here right now. If I'm them, and I'm sitting in their seat, I would be a little ticked off about it.
''This team is going through a little transitional phase because they have a new coach and a new system and that's going to take a little time. I am a very patient person, but I think when we get into the new year, hopefully everything is going to be rolling.''
As he's insisted since the day he came to Cleveland, Scott said the Cavs have more talent than the teams he took over in New Jersey and New Orleans.
''There's another factor to that as well,'' he said. ''I'm also taking over a team that has talent, but is used to winning. We weren't used to winning in New Jersey. You have to learn how to win in this league.''
Even the mere mention of the James' Miami Heat, which come to Cleveland on Dec. 2, sent Scott's heart racing just as if he were still playing.
''A matchup like that? I'm looking forward to it,'' Scott said. ''That's just me. I'm just hoping the other guys a re looking forward to it as well. But we're not worried about that. We're worried about taking it each game at a time.''
But Scott wasn't so delusional that he painted a rosy picture for fans.
''The message to the fans is simple. Be a little patient with us right now,'' he said. "I know the fans are used to this team winning 60-plus games a year. This is a totally different team than the one they've seen over the past couple seasons. Just be a little bit patient. But I can guarantee you they'll enjoy how hard this team plays and they'll enjoy the style of basketball we bring on the court.''
With the words of a scorned owner still ringing in their ears, future NBA free agents may want nothing to do with the Cavaliers at the moment. Scott has the power and the determination to make Cleveland a preferred destination again.