Editor’s Note: As the season gets closer, our Silver Screen and Roll staff is going to be taking a closer look back at every player on the Lakers for a refresher on stuff we may have forgotten during quarantine. Think of this as like the 30 second clip reminding you of what happened during the current season of your favorite TV show that rolls right before the latest episode starts. Today, let’s recall what was up with Frank Vogel.
A little over a year ago, it seemed like a done deal: Tyronn Lue was going to be the next head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. The team was expected to move forward with Lue as coach, according to multiple reports, and things were so close to being done that Lue’s birthday celebration over the weekend following such news even had a little purple and gold flair.
In video that seems like it’s from a different lifetime, Lue can be seen smiling at a celebration in Las Vegas, with a cake being brought out featuring a Lakers logo and the caption “Happy Birthday, Coach.”
As we know over a year later, Lue was not ultimately destined to helm the Lakers this season. The team’s contract offer reportedly “insulted” him, negotiations fell apart in public and embarrassing fashion, and the Lakers ultimately moved towards interviewing a guy that had initially been a candidate to be Lue’s lead assistant: Frank Vogel.
The situation Vogel walked into — once the team moved to hire him five days after Lue smiled around his Lakers cake — did not seem like one set up for success (at least not off the court. On it he did still have LeBron James and Anthony Davis, after all). The team leaked at exactly the same time as it moved to hire Vogel that they were bringing in Jason Kidd — another candidate for the head coaching job that actually got an interview before Vogel did — as his assistant. Then there were the reports the day Vogel was hired that the Lakers may have gone with Kidd as head coach if not for his previous domestic violence convictions and otherwise checkered legal and professional history.
Then the very next day after Vogel was announced as the choice, Stephen A. Smith was on ESPN proclaiming that Kidd would be the Lakers’ head coach within two years, and would have the job already if not for the aforementioned off-court issues and how Jeanie Buss, Kurt Rambis and others in the Lakers knew that his past would make him a tough sell to the public. Such predictions were not exactly quieted by the Lakers making Kidd the highest-paid assistant coach in the NBA. It was one of the worst and most awkward rollouts of a head coaching choice since... well, probably Mike D’Antoni with the Lakers. I guess this has been a bit of a theme here.
The only reason to mention all of this is to fully contextualize just how weird of a situation Vogel was walking into. As the team’s second (or possibly third or even fourth, if the rumors about how much they liked Kidd are to be believed) choice to be head coach at best, with a possible replacement waiting on his bench, he appeared to be a bit of a dead man walking.
That Vogel has not just survived, but thrived in spite of all of it to become a genuine Coach of the Year candidate is one of the most improbable and amazing storylines of the NBA season.
From the second Vogel came out at his introductory press conference and sat to the side, smiling awkwardly as reporters fired far more questions at general manager Rob Pelinka about the chaotic hiring process that led to Vogel’s employment than they had for Vogel about his own plans as head coach — a situation he dealt with using his now trademark dorky, aw shucks-brand of self-effacing dad wit — it was clear that this was not a guy with a big ego. It’s a trait that’s served Vogel well on a team with two stars in James and Davis, as well as respected and vocal assistant coaches like Lionel Hollins, Phil Handy and (within the locker room, at least) Kidd, the latter of whom he’s forged such a strong relationship with that they now openly joke about the rumors and speculation that Kidd would eventually stab him in the back.
Vogel has been loathe to take public credit for any of the team’s successes, deflecting an praise with sarcasm or dry humor and constantly talking about the collaboration between himself, Rambis, Pelinka, his coaching staff and his players. He’s helped establish a Lakers culture that consults with James and Davis on everything from free agent signings to when to have practice. Some coaches would bristle at that type of deference, but Vogel has clearly seen the benefits of the buy-in and sense of ownership it leads to.
The culture and chemistry he’s helped construct with the help of his players and staffers has allowed the team to stick together through arguably the most emotionally taxing NBA season any organization has ever experienced, from the China drama to start the year, to the collective and all-encompassing grief faced by the entire organization in the wake of Kobe Bryant’s death, to the unknowns that come with a suspended season and unprecedented restart during a deadly global pandemic. Not all of the credit for that goes to Vogel of course, but that’s the whole point: His tendency towards inclusive decisions helped allow for this team’s resiliency and togetherness.
But it’s not just with such intangibles that Vogel has contributed. His tireless tape study and fostering a culture where everyone feels comfortable submitting ideas and gets credit as a group has helped the Lakers construct the NBA fourth-best offense and third-best defense, standing with the LA Clippers and Boston Celtics as the only teams in the league to be in the top-five in both. Vogel has done so by getting the best out of a supporting cast that was seen as limited by many pundits (including this one) heading into the season. He’s put nearly everyone in a position to succeed around James and Davis’ gravitational force, and rarely asked players to do things they aren’t good at.
As he closes out the campaign, Vogel will have at least two more big adjustments to make. With Avery Bradley sitting out and Rajon Rondo set to miss at least the next six weeks, Vogel will have to replace a starter, and the only proven on-ball creator (aside from James) on this team. He will have to do so while integrating two new players (Dion Waiters and J.R. Smith) as well as a third fairly recent addition (Markieff Morris). Then, when Rondo returns, he’ll have to figure out the best way to mix and match his lineups again.
That’s coaching in the NBA, and Vogel would surely ask for no sympathy for it. But coaching will also be arguably more important than ever during a playoff situation that’s literally never existed before, with minutes management to avoid injuries, lineup configurations to put rusty players in a position to succeed, and strategic adjustments to give players easier opportunities at they get their wind and rhythm back all at a premium in this strange postseason. Outside of his tendency to play Rondo too much — a more defensible mistake than he often gets credit for, given that coaches tend to value little things like ballhandling and offensive initiation more than most outsiders, in addition to the fact that James and Davis clearly value Rondo and want him on the floor — Vogel has mostly nailed all his choices this season, so there is reason to have faith he can pass this final test in a year where he’s earned almost universal acclaim across the board.
But Vogel also knows that such evaluations and opinions ultimately don’t matter. There is only one result that does, something he made clear to me during a conversation earlier this year when I asked him how he’d grade his first year in L.A.
“I’d actually rather stay away from that,” Vogel said then. “We’ve got a lot of unfinished business to accomplish. I think we’ve done a good job as a team this year, but ultimately we’re going to be judged and we’re going to judge ourselves on what we’re able to accomplish in the postseason.”
In a year in which he’s had so much success while dealing with adverse circumstances since literally the second he was hired, it’s not totally fair that Vogel has to prove himself again. Luckily, if he’s shown anything this year, it’s that he’s always ready for another challenge. And if he and his team come out on top when it’s all said and done, he’ll finally get his own Lakers-themed celebration.
Ty Lue might even be able to recommend a cake place. Seems like he knows a guy.