LeBron James, fair or not, has not always had a reputation as the most coachable player in the NBA, a rep that started long before he joined the Los Angeles Lakers. His current head coach, Frank Vogel, however, says that couldn’t be further from his own experience.
“He’s been extremely coachable for me and our coaching staff here this year,” Vogel told the media in his Friday morning Zoom call.
That statement won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has watched the Lakers closely this season, but heading into the campaign, such a prediction would have qualified as a fairly bold one for a few reasons.
For one, there was a reason James had the reputation he did. There was his infamous shoulder bump with Erik Spoelstra and (reportedly) trying to have him replaced as head coach of the Miami Heat. Or that he was evidently so “frustrated” with then-Cleveland Cavaliers head coach David Blatt that two of the beat writers who covered him during that first season said the James-Blatt dynamic was a big part of the reason the star took a two-week, in-season vacation to Miami during his first year back in Ohio. For those that don’t want to look even that far back, just check out the dynamic from last season that James had with then-Lakers head coach Luke Walton.
Now, to be absolutely fair to James, outside of Spoelstra — who eventually earned his respect — neither of the latter two really warranted blind fealty from James on their own merits. James, one of the smartest basketball minds the NBA has ever seen, shouldn’t necessarily have to listen to someone just because they’re his coach. That person has to earn it. That was clearly the case for Vogel as well, who didn’t exactly seem set up for success in that respect, either.
Don’t forget, Vogel was hired after Tyronn Lue — a former coach of James who he clearly respects — felt “disrespected” by the Lakers’ contract offer to him. The team also brought on Jason Kidd — someone James has a good relationship with dating back to their days as Team USA teammates — as the highest-paid assistant coach in the league. The visual of James at Vogel’s introductory press conference, standing in the background, not speaking or offering any endorsements, but just watching and making his presence known, only reinforced the idea that if James had wanted a change, the stage seemed to be set for it to be relatively seamless.
What’s happened has been the furthest thing from that. Vogel has earned James’ respect through both the success of his basketball decisions and the collaborative relationships he’s gone to lengths to build with both of his stars during his first season in Los Angeles, but seemingly James in particular.
“He and I have established a great partnership. I rely on his input on day-to-day decisions and the way we’re doing things,” Vogel said, even if he occasionally has to push back on James’ preference.
“I ultimately have to veto him in certain situations,” Vogel said, offering the example of how sometimes James wants to go longer in practices than Vogel thinks the team can handle, and he has to shut it down.
But while some of their symbiotic partnership is a credit to Vogel’s basketball obsessiveness in conjunction with his egoless and affable, aw-shucks personality, it sounds like some of it is also due to the way James has changed, too. Look no further than what James’ former Cavaliers teammate — and newest Laker — J.R. Smith had to say to the media when asked how James has changed since their Cavaliers days.
“More than anything, he’s more patient now. I think when he was younger he had more of a shorter fuse with things,” Smith said. “He lets things roll off the back of his neck pretty easily now.
“He’s always been so focused on his drive and winning and stuff like that, but I feel like that pressure is off his shoulders. He can just be him. He doesn’t have to try and orchestrate the offense or the defense,” Smith continued. “He can let the coaches do their job, and I think that’s a true testament to him growing. Because so many times I’ve watched interviews and stuff when people try to say he’s quote-unquote ‘not coachable’ because he knows so much about the game, but he’s probably the most coachable person out there. Just because he gives you his side or his opinion, and he might be right.
“More than anything, I just think he’s so much more patient in his delivery and how he goes about the process of the game. If he sees something that he don’t like, of course he’s going to say something, but I think he gives people more of a chance and an opportunity to voice their opinions and do their job.”
That essentially lines up with Vogel’s experience in his first year with James, too.
“He’s been absolutely wonderful, and I couldn’t ask for anything better from his coachability standpoint,” Vogel said.