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Frank Vogel is playing role player roulette, and it’s working

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Frank Vogel is optimizing his role players by leaning on them as a collective and making smart choices on who can help his team win each night.

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NBA: Los Angeles Lakers at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Almost every coach in the league would love to be Frank Vogel. In an NBA where superstars reign and give you a head start in the race for a championship, Vogel and the Los Angeles Lakers have two, in LeBron James and Anthony Davis, as the foundation of the roster he coaches nightly. And with his team sitting at the top of the conference and possessing the NBA’s best record, Vogel is certainly benefiting from the work his superstar duo puts in nightly.

With James and Davis leading the way, then, it would be relatively easy to diminish the work Vogel does nightly to help his team win. After all, like I said above, most every coach in the league would love to switch chairs with Vogel, tell LeBron and Davis to go out there and play like the great players they are, rack up the wins, and cash the checks that come every two weeks. Dismissing Vogel’s contributions, however, would be a mistake.

Because even as Vogel leans heavily on his stars, he’s also finding ways to get the most out of a group of role players many analysts second guessed coming into the season. Sure, Danny Green was heralded as a great free agent signing, but when it came to players like Avery Bradley, Quinn Cook and Dwight Howard being added as outside free agents, or when it was decided Rajon Rondo, Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope would be prioritized as returning ones, the reviews weren’t just mixed. More than a few were not kind at all.

Even when moving past some of the jokes made at the Lakers’ expense (after all, it’s always fun for the internet at large to get some jabs in at the Lakers expense — especially after a tumultuous offseason), practical questions remained. Was this group good enough to supplement James and Davis? Did they have enough defense? Enough playmaking? Could they be relied upon to consistently perform?

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Los Angeles Lakers Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Through 14 games and a 12-2 record, the answer, at least to that last question, is yes. Though maybe not in a way that one might expect.

You see, rather than setting a clear hierarchy early in the year by elevating certain role players while diminishing others, Vogel has leaned on this group as a collective by giving nearly all of them opportunities each game to play at least one shift and earn more minutes based on performance. Consider that, through 14 games, 11 players have made appearances in at least 10 games and a 12th, Rajon Rondo, has now become a regular rotation player in his 4 appearances since returning from injury. Of those 12 players, all are averaging at least 14 minutes a game, getting chances most every night to go out there and make a difference and not just being given token minutes as end of rotation guys in garbage time.

At shootaround before the Lakers’ win over the Thunder on Tuesday, Vogel was asked about his decision making around what role players get minutes each night, and whether their performance early would dictate their minutes later in the game. Vogel responded diplomatically and showed love to the group as a whole, but also gave us real insight into how he makes some of these lineup determinations over the course of a game (emphasis mine):

“It’s a tough thing, because we’ve got guys on this team that deserve bigger roles that I don’t have minutes for. Especially with Rajon coming back, and we know the impact (Jared Dudley) has on the game, and Troy Daniels and Quinn Cook with their shooting and overall floor game, and there’s not big minutes for those guys right now.

“So we look at matchups, we look at who’s been out. I don’t like to see any of those guys sit over there too long, too many games in a row without getting some run, and we just take it game by game with that. And then obviously like you said, once you see the game play out, you see how the guy that we put in there performs and then make a decision on whether we want to extend his minutes or go with someone else.”

That last point is super important and, I think, is one that Vogel is not getting enough credit for that he really should be. In a game of role player roulette, Vogel is making the right choices nearly every night and giving his team a better chance of winning that game.

A perfect example of this, in what probably should have been foreshadowing for things to come later in the year, came in the matchup with the Jazz in the team’s 2nd game of the season. After not playing at all in the opening night loss to the Clippers and used only sparingly in several of the team’s final preseason games, Vogel started Alex Caruso in favor of JaVale McGee in the second half vs. Utah. Vogel would say during an in-game interview that he wanted to spread the Jazz out by having Davis play center against Gobert, which is fine and good. But the decision to turn to Caruso specifically, rather than any of the other guards on the roster, was a gutsy and prescient move that paid off.

Beyond the Jazz game, there are examples over the rest of the season, too. Be it going away from Dwight (who has been fantastic this season and closed games often) in favor of JaVale in the fourth quarter of the aforementioned game vs. the Thunder, playing an all-bench unit who erased a double digit lead to start the fourth quarter vs. the Bulls, or relying on Caruso and Kuzma to close the game in a “small-ball” lineup with Davis at center to beat the Suns, Vogel has made decisions both big and small that have not just helped turn games entirely, but have incrementally moved his team closer to being able to win. Which, you know, is what coaching is all about.

I think the thing that stands out most to me — and why I think Vogel deserves recognition here — is that there is a certain flexibility and open-mindedness that is required from the head coach of this specific team with these specific players. Nearly every non-LeBron and AD player on this team has certain positives and negatives in their respective skill sets that often times don’t fully overlap and need to be managed in ways that find the right fit in the right lineups to be fully optimized. Game to game, Vogel is put into situations where he needs to adjust the playing time of his role players in order to maximize matchups and counter what the other team is doing.

In a league where many coaches find it easiest to simply identify their best seven to nine players and send them out there for big minutes each night, Vogel is looking at a roster of 11 to 12 players, finding a role for each of them, and then deploying them strategically where they can be put in a position to succeed. And while it doesn’t always work, it seems that even in those instances, he recognizes where the shortcomings are and is able to go down the line to his next option in order to help the team. He has not, at least early in the year, gotten so married to an idea he has been unable able to reconsider and choose a viable alternative when it’s been needed.

If there is one thing to watch moving forward, however, is whether this approach has staying power or if this is some sort of honeymoon period where a new coach and a new roster of players come to a middle ground that ultimately cannot last. As noted above, this approach is not typically how coaches operate and there’s a reason for it — role players often thrive on routine, and knowing what will be asked of them night to night. Vogel’s challenge, then, will not only be in continuing to make the right choices, but to keep this group of secondary contributors engaged and buying in even as their roles shift, not only from game to game, but within individual contests themselves.

The flip side of this, though, is that as Vogel continues to tinker and gathers data points on each of his players, learns where they are and aren’t successful, and how to best deploy them, he gains the needed intel on what his best long term strategy for this team might be. Maybe that means going to a more regimented rotation, or maybe he finds that the approach he’s taking now really can work over the course of a full season.

If nothing else, the success he has had going this route and the willingness to change up should give him the benefit of the doubt that he is able to see the big picture. And flexibility like that should be applauded. It should also be rewarded. And, through 14 games and sitting at the top of the standings with a group of secondary talents who are seemingly buying in to their roles, both the Lakers and Vogel are reaping those rewards.

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