INDEPENDENCE: The whispers regarding Byron Scott’s tenuous future in Cleveland began during All-Star weekend and grew louder as the season progressed. With every poor defensive effort and every late-game collapse, Scott was unknowingly getting pushed closer and closer to the door.
He was finally pushed all the way out on Thursday, fired after compiling a 64-166 record in three seasons. His .278 winning percentage is the lowest among all coaches in team history (minimum one full season), but that wasn’t the figure that doomed him. The fact opponents shot .476 against the Cavs this season did far more damage to his future.
“We were one of the worst defensive teams this year,” General Manager Chris Grant said. “We’ve got to get better at that.”
Grant made it clear the team’s next coach will have a strong defensive background. The candidates are endless and range from guys with previous head coaching experience (Stan Van Gundy, Scott Skiles, Mike Dunleavy and Avery Johnson) to career assistants on the fringe of their first head coaching opportunities (Mike Malone, David Fizdale and Brian Shaw).
The most intriguing name available is Mike Brown, whom Scott replaced just three years ago. As Grant described the next coach he is looking for — proven success, a teacher and strong defensively with proven systems, a grinder and a worker — he essentially described Brown.
During Scott’s three years in charge, opponents shot .475, .467 and .476 against them. They never ranked higher than 27th in the league defensively and one of the organization’s goals is to always rank in the top 15. There is even a board in the Cavs locker room listing the top 15 teams in defensive field-goal percentage.
Rumors over his future intensified over the past couple of weeks as the Cavaliers regressed during the month of April, blew big leads throughout the season and gave a sub-par effort on multiple nights.
Owner Dan Gilbert has been unhappy with the Cavs’ lack of defensive improvement over the past three years, one team source said, speaking on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the situation, and Gilbert was the driving force behind the firing.
“Although we saw progress with young individual player development, we did not see the kind of progress we expected on the team level this past season,” Gilbert said in a release. “We understand it was challenging with the injuries, but when you are at our stage in the building process, you don’t only measure team progress in wins and losses.”
Gilbert did not attend Thursday’s press conference because he was traveling to New York for the NBA’s Board of Governor’s meetings.
Players were somber and lingered quietly around Cleveland Clinic Courts during the afternoon. Grant fired Scott in a morning meeting and the players were informed shortly after.
“I feel like a piece of me is missing,” Cavs guard Kyrie Irving said after hearing the news.
The relationship between coach and star player seemed to disintegrate in recent weeks. Despite Irving’s despondent attitude over the firing on Thursday, he sulked and appeared disinterested in recent games, committing mental blunders both on and off the court. He bypassed his first opportunity to strongly endorse Scott and finally conceded prior to Wednesday’s season finale he had a lackadaisical effort on too many nights.
The long-held belief that Irving and Scott were inseparable clearly eroded over the past few weeks, although Irving insisted Thursday their relationship “didn’t deteriorate one bit.”
“They’re close, but they’re not attached at the hip,” one player in the locker room said in recent weeks as Scott’s job security came into question. “I don’t think Kyrie would be really crushed or anything if he was fired.”
Scott’s time with the Cavs will be widely viewed as incomplete, despite the dismal record. He took the job likely believing he was going to coach LeBron James, but when James left for the Miami Heat days after Scott took the job, the Cavs launched a lengthy rebuild through the draft. He was never able to field a complete roster full of NBA-caliber players and injuries sabotaged any chance the Cavs had at success this season.
They had their projected starting lineup intact for only 10 games. The most devastating injury was Anderson Varejao’s split quadriceps muscle, which ultimately ended his season after he developed a blood clot post-surgery.
Yet even when the Cavs had some semblance of a healthy roster and steady rotation during the month of February, they went 7-5 — their one and only winning month under Scott’s direction.
Scott was often given assurances he would be the coach through the rebuild and when the team returned to contention. Even as rumors swirled about his future, he still had ongoing talks with Grant about plans for the upcoming summer and targets in this draft. He made it clear recently he is interested in finding another job quickly, although he didn’t rule out another stint with ESPN. He was working for the network as an analyst when the Cavs hired him in 2010.
“If it happens,” Scott said Wednesday afternoon, “then I didn’t get a fair chance.”
Asked if Scott was given a fair chance, Grant paused.
“I think there’s certainly challenges,” he said. “I think all of us are accountable, including myself.”
Jason Lloyd can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Cavs blog at http://www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter http://www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ. Follow ABJ sports on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.