CLEVELAND: It didn’t cross my mind until Feb. 13, when the Cavaliers fell by one point to the San Antonio Spurs, that this might be the end for coach Byron Scott.
Then the Cavs went 7-5 in February and I dismissed the thought.
Since then, the Cavs are 4-19. Barely two months later, Scott’s firing seems inevitable after the season ends Wednesday night at Charlotte.
In recent days, I waffled over whether letting Scott go is the right decision. I respect Scott from his playing days with the Los Angeles Lakers and admire his professionalism. Even in the face of questions about his future recently, Scott did not chide media members for their “league sources,” like former Browns coach Pat Shurmur did on his way out.
Scott did give the media pause after the final home game Monday night when he said, “I am going to be back to coach ’em next year.” Asked if he’d been told that, Scott said, “I’ve got a year left on my contract, that’s how I figure it. Unless I’m told differently, that’s the way I approach it.”
But more than anything as I wavered over Scott’s future, I wondered if Cavs owner Dan Gilbert can find someone better, especially with eight to 10 coaching openings expected.
Gilbert has already learned that sending the corporate jet to pick up a college coach like Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, as he did before hiring Scott, is not a viable option. The list of up-and-coming NBA assistants isn’t scintillating, although there are some who deserve a chance. Retreads like Stan and Jeff Van Gundy don’t inspire me.
But the way the Cavs are finishing the season, I’ve accepted the fact that Gilbert has no choice. In losing 15 of their last 17, the Cavs have regressed. They fell to the Heat 96-95 Monday on Fan Appreciation Night at Quicken Loans Arena even though the visitors rested LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Mario Chalmers.
“After February I think all of us thought things were starting to turn the corner,” Scott said before the game. “Guys are starting to understand what it takes, then ‘boom,’ you kind of get hit in the face again. You’ve just got to keep picking yourself back up, you’ve got to keep fighting.
“There’s probably four games in March we just gave away. That probably hurt more than anything.”
What also hurt were four losses when leading by 20 or more points. Those came against the Heat (27 points), the Phoenix Suns (26), the New York Knicks (22) and the Indiana Pacers (20), the last on April 9.
Scott hasn’t been able to change the Cavs’ culture of losing. By the looks of miserable efforts like Sunday’s blowout at Philadelphia, the young Cavs seem content, believing they have made it in the NBA.
This season only one player — Tristan Thompson — has improved.
The starting lineup’s defense is practically nonexistent, especially when it comes to All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving.
The Cavs played their best against big-name teams, which Scott attributes to immaturity.
Not only have the Cavs apparently quit listening to Scott, but they’ve tuned out their veteran leaders. This season Scott seemed strapped in that regard, with Luke Walton and Shaun Livingston sharing that role. But Scott had Antawn Jamison around for two of his three years and Jamison’s influence brought no tangible results.
Under Scott, the Cavs didn’t develop a familial sense of responsibility not to let their teammates down.
But the problem that bothered me after the Spurs game had nothing to do with team chemistry or young players’ improvement or the black cloud of losing. It was Scott’s in-game strategy, or lack thereof.
That evening, Scott told them in a timeout not to give up a 3-pointer only to see rookie Dion Waiters leave Kawhi Leonard open in the corner for just that. When it came time to set up a final play, Scott admitted his instruction was, “Get the ball to Kyrie.” Irving slipped as he caught the inbounds pass and fell again as he tried to shoot, barely getting the ball off the backboard.
I asked myself if the league’s elite coaches like Gregg Popovich or Doc Rivers would go into the final seconds with such a weak plan.
Nearly the same scenario arose again Monday. Down by one with 13.9 seconds remaining and coming out of two timeouts, no one handled the ball but Irving. Driving to the basket, he was stripped by Heat guard Norris Cole two steps past the free-throw line.
Many of the Cavs’ struggles under Scott can be attributed to injuries and youth. But a coach’s in-game shortcomings would have no place if/when the Cavs become a playoff contender.
Last week I believed if Gilbert felt strongly about letting Scott go, he should have had someone researching the top assistants in the league to find the next Tom Thibodeau, now with the Chicago Bulls. I thought if that proved fruitless, Gilbert should keep Scott. That doesn’t seem possible now.
Perhaps Gilbert will find the right replacement, even one with previous NBA experience. There is much to consider, like how he would get along with Irving and perhaps even James if he returns as a free agent in 2014.
I wish it didn’t have to happen this way for Scott. But the post-February slide has become an avalanche too catastrophic to ignore.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.