Editor’s Note: Welcome to our “2020 Lakers Season In Review” series, where we’ll be looking back at every member of this Lakers roster as the offseason commences, and answering some questions about what they contributed (or didn’t) to the team’s 17th championship, as well as discussing what their situation is moving forward. Today, let’s discuss Frank Vogel.
Some situations feel like they’re scripted for Hollywood. Fate aligns so perfectly that an outcome seems destined.
The Lakers initially reached out to Vogel to be an assistant coach, but their top choices for head coach rejected them, so Vogel came to the role by default, and then his first day on the job featured an all-out PR assault from Magic Johnson. Vogel wasn’t exactly put in a position to fail, but the conditions to success weren’t optimal either.
In spite of all of that, the most glamorous franchise in the NBA and a decidedly un-flashy coach somehow proved to be the perfect match.
There were three primary reasons Vogel succeeded in helping bring the Lakers their first title in a decade, and their 17th overall: He prioritized giving the team a defensive identity, he was extremely prepared for every situation the Lakers faced, and he was adaptable when there was a need to course correct. All three of those qualities were key to earning the respect of his team — and specifically his two superstars — while creating a juggernaut that rolled through the playoffs.
Vogel came into the Lakers with the reputation for being a defensive-minded coach, but it wasn’t immediately clear if he knew how to defend in the modern game, since the strategies he had employed in Indiana were now out of date. To his credit, Vogel was aware that he needed to make adjustments and started developing a new defensive philosophy a full year before being hired by the Lakers so that he was ready when the opportunity presented itself.
He talked to Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski about his evolution on coaching defense:
“The year off, where I was let go by the Magic before I took the Lakers job, I really dove in and studied how I would have to tweak the defensive side of the ball to build sort of a modern NBA defense. The rest of the league, most of the league had gone to just lawlessly switching anything at all times. And you know there’s some benefit in that obviously, but I felt like there was a balance, you know you could find a middle ground, and we were able to put together some defined rules of what was going to be a switch, what was not going to be a switch.
“Obviously all the foundation pieces of a great defense were still in play first: the rim protection, containment, defensive rebounding and transition. All these types of things were drilled and coached in film very hard and at a high level.”
Most of that defensive instruction happened even before the start of the season, as our Harrison Faigen detailed then. Having that foundation in place early allowed the Lakers to know their system going into the season, and thus build some tweaks and counters during the year to become more flexible and more effective. Having a defensive philosophy that made sense for the team’s roster and style of play also helped Vogel earn buy-in from LeBron James on that end of the floor. It was the first example of Vogel’s preparation earning immediate results.
And despite knowing the way he wanted the Lakers to play, Vogel was adaptable when things weren’t going well. Anthony Davis had made it publicly clear that he didn’t want to play center, but Vogel started him at the five in the second half of the second game of the season, knowing that the Lakers needed that versatility against Rudy Gobert.
In the playoffs, Vogel used different starting lineups in every series, alternating Markieff Morris, Dwight Howard, and even Alex Caruso into the starting five depending on the nature of the opponent. Not every coach is willing or able to adjust on the fly; while other contenders stubbornly stuck with one style of play, the Lakers were the epitome of versatility.
Vogel’s adjustments were often the product of collaboration, as he continuously sought out advice from his assistants and from the players themselves. He did the work and research to create a plan for every scenario, but he also realized that the perspectives of others like Jason Kidd, Lionel Hollins, James, Davis, and Rajon Rondo could aid in that preparation.
But while it was one thing to lean on his assistants, Jared Dudley said on the Lakers Nation Podcast that it was Vogel’s willingness to solicit input from players that was his truly unique trait among NBA coaches:
“One thing I love about Frank is that when Frank comes up with a game plan, he tells you why, he gives you the reasons why it’s going to work, and we follow that. Now, on certain coverages with certain players, he leans on it... Now, it’s not 100% of the time we go with that. He says ‘you know what, let’s try my way first and if it doesn’t work, second or third possession, go with you.’
“And he loves players’ input. He doesn’t want film sessions to be quiet. He wants people involved because he wants us all on the same page, because he feels that if we’re on the same page, we’re going to give 100%. If we’re iffy, then guys aren’t going to adapt real hard... It’s very rare, this coaching staff was rare. Frank Vogel had the perfect temperature of the team and he’s a huge reason why we won. The adjustments he made, the starting lineup changes, Alex Caruso doesn’t start any (playoff) game except for Game 6, putting Markieff in second halves, starting Dwight Howard, it was phenomenal and you could just tell he had a lot of guts.”
Guts weren’t exactly something that was expected of Vogel when he was hired. The day he was introduced to the media, he sat politely and mostly quietly as Rob Pelinka fielded numerous questions unrelated to Vogel. However, Vogel’s unassuming presence belied the fact that he was more ready for this job than any other candidate. He had the courage of his convictions because he been preparing behind the scenes.
In some senses, Vogel had an easy job this season. All he had to do was win games with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, a task others would kill for. But he also had the burden of expectations. The Lakers’ talent was so prodigious that any failures would likely have been attributed to the coach, not the stars.
Vogel didn’t shrink under that pressure. He got more confident as the season wore on, experimenting throughout — even aggressively so during the seeding games when it looked like the Lakers had lost all of their mojo — so that he was fully prepared for every challenge the team faced in the playoffs. He knew this roster inside and out, and he successfully pushed every button en route to a title.
Vogel went from being the Lakers’ third-choice head coach to being the sixth in franchise history to lead the team to a championship. Despite his inauspicious beginnings, Vogel found his Hollywood ending anyway.