INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — Kyrie Irving was surprised, disappointed and deeply hurt. With everything the Cavaliers’ All-Star guard has experienced during two seasons in the NBA, nothing prepared him for this.
This was as painful as any injury.
“I just lost my head coach,” Irving said, his voice barely above a whisper. “This is all new to me right now. I’m just trying to get over the loss of my basketball father.”
A Cleveland team has ditched yet another coach.
Byron Scott was fired Thursday by the Cavaliers following three losing seasons in which the team did not play well defensively or make satisfactory progress for owner Dan Gilbert. Scott was dismissed one day after the Cavs finished an 82-game rollercoaster of a season that included injuries, blown leads, far too many uninspired performances and a dismal final month.
Scott’s firing, which seemed inevitable as the Cavs dragged themselves through the past few weeks, was especially tough on Irving. The 21-year-old had formed a tight bond with Scott and hated to see it severed.
“I feel like a piece of me is missing now,” Irving said. “Just coming into the league and being drafted by him. The relationship I developed over the two years with him has been very special. It’s hurtful.”
Scott went 64-166 in his three years with the Cavs, who were weakened by injuries this season but lost four games they led by more than 20 points and often played without passion. Scott was fired one day after Cleveland closed another frustrating season with its sixth straight loss to finish 24-58 — the NBA’s third-worst record.
And so, the Cavs, just six seasons removed from their only trip to the NBA finals with superstar LeBron James, are looking for their third coach in five seasons. They follow the city’s Indians and Browns, who both made coaching changes after last season.
With just 13 games under his belt, Indians manager Terry Francona is already the longest tenured team leader in town.
Cavs general manager Chris Grant will begin the search to find Scott’s replacement immediately. He said getting a coach in place is “our top priority.”
“We’ll look for someone with proven success and somebody who is strong defensively with proven systems,” he said. “We’ll look for somebody who is a teacher, a grinder and worker. Certainly we’re excited about some of the pieces we have, but we’ve got to get better.”
With as many as 10 head coaching jobs expected to open, the Cavs may have to act quickly to find a successor for Scott, whose .278 winning percentage is the lowest in team history. Among the coaches they are likely to contact are: former Cleveland assistant Mike Malone, now with Golden State, Indiana assistant Brian Shaw, Miami Heat assistant David Fizdale and former Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy.
There’s a chance the team might even pursue former Cleveland coach Mike Brown, who is moving back to the area so one of his sons can finish high school. Grant would not answer a direct question about the defensive-minded Brown, fired this season by the Los Angeles Lakers.
Brown left Cleveland on decent terms after he was fired following the 2010 season and he’s close with Grant so a reunion is possible.
Grant told Scott of the team’s decision early Thursday and said the 52-year-old, who previously coached in New Jersey and New Orleans, handled the news with typical class.
“He acted as you would have expected, a true professional,” Grant said.
He disputed the Cavs quit down the stretch on Scott, who publicly expressed his frustration at points during the season with his young squad — even calling his team “soft.” Cleveland finished with a six-game losing streak and lost 16 of its final 18.
“It’s tough,” forward Luke Walton said. “All the players really liked him. He came into work every day hard. He respected us and gave us respect. When you put in the hours and sweat and battles with people, you build a pretty good bond with them. It’s a tough day.”
Scott leaves with one season left on contract that will pay him roughly $4 million next season. The Cavs picked up his option for 2014 in October.
The Cavs’ three seasons with Scott were among the worst in franchise history. He isn’t solely to blame, but his young team in 2013 seemed to tune out his message down the stretch, leaving Gilbert no choice but to make a change.
“Byron is a class guy, both on and off the court, and I thank him for his three years of coaching the Cavaliers,” Gilbert said in a release. “I fully support the difficult move that was made. Although we saw progress with young individual player development, we did not see the kind of progress we expected this past season.
“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.”
The team did make some history with Scott during the 2012-13 season, but none the Cavs want to be remembered for.
They lost four games in which they led by at least 20 points, becoming the only team to do that in at least the past 10 years, according to STATS LLC. One of those four losses — on March 20 at home against James and the Miami Heat — may have sealed Scott’s fate.
Leading the NBA’s defending champions by 27 points, the Cavs collapsed and lost 98-95. Scott was harshly criticized following the game, not only for some of his substitution patterns but not calling a timeout during a pivotal stretch in the second half to slow Miami’s charge.
Scott was handed a young team, and despite the many losses, he deserves credit for Irving’s development and rise to All-Star status. However, Irving’s second season as a pro included more injuries and a peculiar final two weeks when he seemed to distance himself from Scott.
Irving, though, was adamant he remained close with Scott.
“It didn’t deteriorate,” he said of their relationship. “Not one bit. From the first time I met him to now, our relationship has only grown stronger.”
Irving said his final meeting with Scott was emotional.
“I talked to him, but no words really were spoken,” he said. “Just kind of both of us looking at each other because we’re speechless. That was basically it.”