Just a couple of weeks ago, it appeared that the Lakers firing Frank Vogel was somewhere between “inevitability” and “formality,” especially when a torrent of rumors came flooding out through the media that his seat was white-hot and Vogel uncharacteristically dissed Russell Westbrook after an embarrassing loss to the Indiana Pacers last week.
While the pressure on Vogel appears to have (somewhat surprisingly) subsided, and he is now expected to remain with the Lakers through at least the rest of the season, another interesting twist in this whole saga is who would have replaced him on the bench had Vogel indeed been fired.
According to Chris Haynes of Yahoo! Sports on the latest episode of his “Posted Up” podcast, assistant coach Phil Handy — and not lead assistant David Fizdale — would have gotten his first shot as a head coach if Vogel had been dumped at midseason (emphasis mine):
“The Lakers are moving forward and going to allow him to finish out the season as head coach. It was dicey there over these last couple weeks. Definitely the Lakers were considering making a move.
“Sources told me at that time if there was going to be an interim coach to take over, I think a lot of people probably would have assumed it was going to be David Fizdale, but I had a lot of people telling me that it would have been Phil Handy to take over as interim head coach at that time.
“Phil is somebody who is a well-respected guy. I covered him in Cleveland. Great dude. One of the best player developmental coaches, if not the best, one of the best in the league. X’s and O’s guy. Great relationship with stars throughout the league.”
As Haynes said, this will probably come as a big surprise to some given Fizdale’s past head coaching experience in Memphis and New York, his ties to LeBron James from their time together with the Miami Heat, his previous stint as acting head coach earlier this season when Vogel had COVID-19, and rumors going back literally years connecting Fizdale to the Lakers job.
But a closer look at the situation reveals why elevating Handy instead of Fizdale would have made a lot of sense. Handy’s resume is one of the best — if not the best — among current NBA assistant coaches. He got his coaching start as a Lakers player development coach working closely with Kobe Bryant among others in the early 2010s before joining the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2013. While in Cleveland, he was an assistant coach on the LeBron James teams that reached the NBA Finals four straight times and won it all in 2016.
After James left to join the Lakers in 2018, Handy departed Cleveland as well — for Toronto, where he won another ring as an assistant with Kawhi Leonard and the Raptors in 2019. He then joined Vogel’s staff in L.A. where he of course won another title in 2020. In other words, three of the past four NBA champions not named the Golden State Warriors have had Handy as an assistant coach. Thus, it’s pretty obvious why he’s so well respected within the NBA and especially among its superstars.
The Lakers nearly lost Handy twice, but rebuffed interest from Steve Nash and the Nets in 2020 to keep Handy as an assistant, before Handy was interviewed by the Washington Wizards to be their next head coach this summer (the team ultimately hired Wes Unseld Jr). So the Lakers are not the only team that sees Handy as a potential candidate for the lead chair of a team someday.
And while it seems like Vogel is safe (for now), Handy wouldn’t have been the first time a first-time head coach was elevated to the position in the middle of the season on a LeBron James team. The 2015-16 Cavaliers famously did that with Tyronn Lue and, as pointed out above, won a title that season. Lue, of course, nearly got the Lakers’ head coaching job instead of Vogel in 2019 before contract negotiations between the front office and the former Lakers guard fell apart at the 11th hour. Lue is now the Clippers’ head coach and is regarded as one of the best in the NBA at his job, even in a down year for L.A.’s other team due to injuries.
As for Handy, it bears watching whether the Lakers still give him consideration for the head job if they move on from Vogel in the offseason. If not, another NBA team will likely give him a shot to lead them before much longer.