Things weren’t looking great for Frank Vogel on Sunday. In the midst of a three-game losing streak, his Los Angeles Lakers were down 17 points to the 3-12 Detroit Pistons with LeBron James ejected from the game. There was no energy, no communication and no sign that things were going to get better.
Then shots started falling.
That, more than anything, has dictated the amount of effort the Lakers have shown on both ends of the floor this season, which shouldn’t come as some big surprise — the Lakers are a veteran-heavy team full of questionable defenders, and most of those veterans relied on their offense to get them going even in their prime years.
But while offense might be top of mind for a majority of the players, it’s not a strength for their head coach. Since becoming a head coach in 2010, Vogel has hung his hat on the defensive end of the floor with a ton of success. In his 11 seasons a head coach, he’s had five teams with top-three defenses, including three teams with the best defensive rating in the NBA.
His most recent success story? These very same Lakers.
After taking a one-year hiatus from the sidelines, Vogel coached the Lakers to a top-three defense — and a championship — in his first year with the team. In his second season, the roster was built with an emphasis on adding more offensive power around LeBron James and Anthony Davis, but there were defensive pillars in place to keep them from a hard regression. And even though they lost some of their best defenders in free agency, they finished the season with the best defensive rating in the NBA.
Unfortunately, with the exception of Anthony Davis, those pillars are now gone. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma were traded to the Washington Wizards with Montrezl Harrell in exchange for Russell Westbrook, and Alex Caruso signed with the Chicago Bulls after the Lakers passed on signing him to a bargain deal in free agency. In the span of a year, the entire culture of a championship-winning team changed.
Now, Vogel is being asked to do what only a handful of coaches in NBA history have been able to do: Completely change his style to fit the roster he was given. That’s like asking Carmelo Anthony to be an All-NBA defender in his 18th season, or telling Russell Westbrook to be a spot-up shooter after leading the league in triple-doubles in six of the last seven seasons.
That’s not to say Vogel’s hands are completely tied. There are definitely things he can and should do to make the offense flow better than it has, like provide Russell Westbrook with ample spacing and implement more actions that allow his primary ball-handlers — Talen Horton-Tucker, James and Westbrook — to attack the rim with a full head of steam, but the Lakers’ shortcomings will almost always come back to two things: the team’s effort and roster construction, neither of which can be tied directly back to Vogel.
For example, Vogel can start Anthony Davis at center every game for the rest of the season, but it won’t matter if Davis doesn’t fully buy into playing that role and, for the most part, he hasn’t this season. Perhaps Davis’ enthusiasm, or lack thereof, for playing the center position has to do with how much of the defensive burden he’s had to carry, especially in the absence of LeBron James, but Davis has also expressed on several occasions that the 4 is his preferred position.
Would bringing someone else in finally convince Davis that the Lakers are at their best when he’s at center? Maybe, but it’s far for more likely that Davis continues this song and dance until the postseason, like he did in 2020, or when the stakes are a bit higher, like they were (to an extent) on Sunday. The same logic can be applied to Westbrook and his level of focus, and James and his aggression.
What about the options they have internally? Would anyone on Vogel’s bench be a better coach for this team than him? David Fizdale fits the bill theoretically with his “pace and space” philosophy, not to mention his longstanding relationship LeBron James, but his coaching record leaves a lot be desired. In 205 games as a head coach for Memphis Grizzlies and New York Knicks, Fizdale has a winning percentage of 34.6%. Everyone else on Vogel’s staff, including Phil Handy, would be a first-time head coach.
There are cases where the disconnect between a head coach and their players is so bad that any new voice in the locker room is a step in the right direction, but the Lakers aren’t in that position with Vogel yet. In fact, outside of their decision to effectively make him a lame duck head coach by only giving him a one-year extension, there’s no reason to believe that Vogel is on the hot seat: No leaks, no outbursts on the sidelines, just speculation.
In the event that Vogel and the Lakers do reach that point, then of course it would be wise for them to go their separate ways, but make no mistake: The problems they have now will still exist even without Vogel at the helm. Firing Vogel won’t undo the trade for Westbrook, firing Vogel won’t bring Caruso back, and firing Vogel won’t magically make this roster more balanced than it is.
The Lakers have a laundry list of problems they have to sort through, but Vogel is nowhere close to their biggest one. Hopefully the team’s decision-makers understand that, and offer him the same grace they’ve offered their new players to figure out a way to make this work.