Having an identity is a quality of elite, long-standing franchises across the NBA and professional leagues as a whole. For example, you can watch a certain player or prospect and say “Oh, that’s a Spurs player” or “Man, that guy is built for the Heat.” Jimmy Butler? Long been clear he was a #HeatCulture guy. Boris Diaw excelling in San Antonio made perfect sense.
The Lakers had an opportunity to become one of those franchises. They won an NBA title in 2020 with a distinct style of play. They swallowed teams up defensively, using a mindset of “bigger, faster, stronger” to overwhelm the rest of the league in the bubble.
In that moment, they had a championship-winning core led by a superstar duo that had fully bought into the playstyle set by coach Frank Vogel. In that moment, the Lakers could have — perhaps should have — gone all-in on the playstyle that won them the title.
Instead, over the next two years, so many of their roster moves ran contradictory to that identity, particularly last offseason. The team swapped out rangy wings and guards like Kyle Kuzma, Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — all strong defenders — for offense-first gunners like Malik Monk, Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony.
The front office gave Frank Vogel, one of the league’s best defensive coaches, a roster full of shooters and aging veterans, hardly any of which were strong defenders. It turned bigger, faster, stronger into smaller, slower, older, and no matter how much they relied on “The Coach Vogel Effect” to fix that, it was too big a task for one sideline tactician.
As we all know, eventually the team determined Vogel was the problem here and fired him. He wasn’t blameless, but he also was a title-winning head coach two years ago. And if I didn’t know any better, the moves made by the front office would make me believe they were sabotaging him. They obviously didn’t do so intentionally, but if the result looks like self-sabotage, maybe the process needs to be reevaluated.
For the Lakers to find success moving forward, there needs to be a synergy between the front office and coaching staff that was not there for much of the last three years, or for any real stretch of seasons since Phil Jackson and the triangle left. The two sides need to work as one unit, not at odds with one another.
The one recent season where this current front office brain trust provided a coach with players that accentuates his strength? The Lakers won the title. Vogel had multiple above-average defenders and functional size in the frontcourt in 2019-20, and parlayed that into a ring. Certainly, that won’t happen every time a front office puts together a roster built around the strengths of the coach, but that should have been a moment of clarity for the Lakers, and ultimately wasn’t, as evidenced by them running as fast as they could in the other direction for the next two years.
When that synergy exists between front office and coaching staff, you’re only improving your chances at success. Not every coach can be malleable like a Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra because those are among the truly elites in the league. But good front offices serve up the necessary ingredients to allow a coach to cook up his specialty rather than asking them to turn TV dinners into Michelin star meals.
In one of the few moments of self-awareness from general manager Rob Pelinka on Monday, he stated the need for coach and general manager to work in unison in building a roster around its superstars.
“I think our roster did not work,” Pelinka said. “We did not have the season that our fans expect, and we have to fix those things, and I think one of the things that we’ve done and will do as we look to hire a new coach is include that coach in the process of how to make a roster work together. And in terms of the future decisions that we have to make about our roster, some of those will come before we pick our coach, which will thoroughly be before free agency in July, but there has to be a strong alignment between coach and GM in terms of roster decisions.
“That said, I don’t think every time you make a roster decision you’re going to make a perfect one or have no mistakes. That’s just part of making choices. But there will be a strong sense of collaboration on our future roster decisions, as there was with Frank in his tenure here.”
Even in his moment of self-awareness, Pelinka had to insert that last bit that just wasn’t true. Collaboration with Vogel would have seen the franchise continue building on the defensive principles of its head coach, not signing free agent after free agent this past summer that flew in the face of what he’s good at using. There may have been some sense of collaboration between front office and coach — both Pelinka and Vogel were fans of Malik Monk before he was a Laker, for example — but a “strong” sense of it? It’s hard to believe.
The Lakers front office has long lacked a directive, a guiding identity when signing players. For too long, it’s felt like they’ve just signed a player because he was good and/or available, not because he fits any kind of system they have. There is no Heat Culture, no Spurs style. Just a bunch of players routinely thrown together with hopes of success.
If the Lakers want to avoid more years of uncertainty moving forward and if Pelinka wants to avoid an embarrassing exit from the franchise, finding a head coach and a joint identity should be priority No. 1 this offseason.