When the Los Angeles Lakers hired Frank Vogel, it wasn’t clear how well his partnership with LeBron James would go.
Sure, there were early rumblings that James respected the way Vogel’s Indiana Pacers teams had prepared to face James’ Miami Heat powerhouses, but it’s also not like James came right out of the gate and endorsed Vogel. He attended his introductory press conference, but stood in the back. His presence loomed over the event, but James didn’t address the media that day, or for most of the summer. The message, intentional or not, was clear: we would see how they meshed when training camp started, and not before.
Now, months later, those days could’t feel further away, and not just because we’re in the middle of a season-pausing global pandemic. James and Vogel have also paired perfectly this season, with the two men (and Anthony Davis) forming a productive, collaborative partnership that appears to be built on mutual respect as they’ve helped drive the Lakers to the best record in the Western Conference.
Brett Dawson of The Athletic recent wrote a feature on how Vogel’s days working for — and being relentlessly and endlessly questioned by — Rick Pitino helped prepare Vogel for where he is now. Within that story, Pitino revealed that his time with Vogel left no doubt in his mind that James and Vogel would be a great match:
“I thought he’d be perfect for LeBron because LeBron is going to know whether you know your stuff or not,” Pitino said. “He is so tuned into basketball. He’s going to know whether you can teach the game, you understand the game. And Frank does.”
Vogel agreed that such knowledge has been important in how well he and James have bonded together:
He has to know the answers, just the way he did in the practice gym at Kentucky and in the meeting room in Boston.
“With LeBron, the bullshit radar is one of the best,” Vogel said. “And he not only wants to know that you know it, but he demands that everyone around him works as hard as he does.”
That quality has led to James and Vogel fitting incredibly well together, with the longtime video coordinator’s reputation as one of the most dedicated and prepared coaches in the league — and a guy who still does many of his own film breakdowns instead of delegating them to assistants — allowing him to answer any challenges James may have.
Additionally helping Vogel would seem to be his personality. Publicly, he does not come off as someone who seeks a whole lot of credit, or has much desire to take ownership of ideas when things go well. Vogel also never calls players out in public, and is always open about how many of his decisions are made by committee with both James and Davis. He appears incredibly secure in his value, and doesn’t feel the need that some coaches do to act as if he’s fully in charge of things. When working with a player like James, who (deservedly) exerts significant levels of power over any organization he’s a part of due to both his transcendent talent and because he’s one of the smartest basketball minds we’ve ever seen, that has to be an appealing quality.
As has been discussed at length, Vogel was not the Lakers’ first choice, but at this point it’s pretty clear he was the right one. His knowledge and egoless nature would likely make him a great fit for most jobs with contenders, but as Pitino asserts, they also might make him particularly well-suited — and maybe even “perfect” — to work with James. The Lakers are lucky to have them both.