Los Angeles Lakers coach Byron Scott has taken a great deal of heat of late for a great many inexcusable moves, particularly his handling of No. 2 overall pick D'Angelo Russell. The electrifying 19-year-old guard from Ohio State has been mostly invisible this season, and Scott has taken a particularly harsh tone when discussing his performance in the press:
"I think when you make a mistake over and over again, sometimes that wood has a good way of talking to your butt a little bit, too. ... I'm saying that he has to start getting it, just like the other young guys have to start getting it, and if they don't, they won't play as much."
OK, so Russell is having trouble distinguishing himself in a terribly crowded Lakers backcourt. Scott has made his intentions painfully clear: he's coaching to win now. Jordan Clarkson, Lou Williams, and even Nick Young have played better than Russell so far, and Kobe ... is Kobe. Lakers fans are right to complain, but the front office set them on this path when they paired a guard-heavy roster with a coach who only cares about the present.
Here's where things get uncomfortable for our own New York Knicks -- another team with a hotshot rookie guard in Jerian Grant. The Knicks are woefully thin in the backcourt, as we all know -- four guards are healthy, and two of them (Sasha Vujacic, Jose Calderon) border on unplayable. Yet Grant, at a very mature 23 years of age, averages 22.8 minutes per game to Russell's 24.0. Grant cracked the 24-minute mark in each of his first two games, and hasn't reached it since. His playing time has actually gone down the past four games.
Up to this point, Grant has been the epitome of the mythic "NBA-ready four-year college prospect" ideal. He has performed at slightly above the overall league average for his position, and he has by far the best efficiency numbers of any rookie guard who is getting regular minutes. His numbers dwarf those of Russell:
I love Russell, and he will probably end up being the superior player. So far, his numbers border on unplayable, and he's sharing a backcourt with the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, a 2015 1st team All-Rookie selection, arguably the second-best shooting guard of all time and a franchise icon. Byron Scott is playing for the present while doing his best (probably under at least some pressure from the organization) to honor the past. As a Yankees fan who lived through Derek Jeter's last season, I know how awkward it can be to accommodate a stubborn superstar in his final days. Sometimes that is the price you pay for all those years of glory. At the very least, they moved Kobe to small forward to help free up minutes for Russell.
What can be so frustrating about Derek Fisher is how needlessly complex he is making these decisions. He keeps Grant and Langston Galloway together with the reserves because that's where they'll play when Arron Afflalo comes back. Is that really so important? He doesn't seem to think so when the games get into the final minutes, and he is essentially forced to call in Galloway and/or Grant to play with the starters.
And why should Calderon be guaranteed a spot when Afflalo comes back? Yes, he is a veteran with another year left on his contract, but he hasn't exactly earned the right to more playing time. And Vujacic is a dude who had no other legitimate NBA options.
Jerian Grant is the Knicks' point guard of the future. Either he or Galloway is their best point guard right now. There are no good, healthy options blocking his path at the moment. There's no legacy to uphold, no fans clamoring for more Calderon and Vujacic. Byron Scott may be a terrible coach, but in this one respect I find it hard to lay the blame entirely on him. Here's hoping Derek Fisher actually follows through on his promise to talk with the coaching staff about changes in the rotation. He really has no good excuse not to.