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Lakers vs. Nuggets Preview: What is Frank Vogel going to do next?

After one of the most confusing rotations Frank Vogel has deployed all season resulted in another loss, one has to wonder what he will do on Sunday vs. the Nuggets with the Lakers’ backs against the wall (again).

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Los Angeles Lakers v Utah Jazz Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

It’s not looking good for the Los Angeles Lakers.

Their 114-111 loss last night against the New Orleans Pelicans last night left them once again — on the outside looking in at the play-in tournament, as they’re now one full game behind the currently 10th-seeded San Antonio Spurs. Both the Lakers and Spurs have five games remaining, with San Antonio holding the tie-breaker over Los Angeles, meaning the purple and gold have to win two more games than the Spurs do between now and the end of the regular season to clinch a spot in the play-in.

It was a dour ending to what should have been a joyous night, as Anthony Davis returned for the first time since Feb. 16, while LeBron James was also back in the lineup after missing the past two games with his ankle injury. Even if those guys were only 75%, it seemed that could be enough to beat the Pelicans given the drubbing the Lakers put on them in the first half of Sunday’s game without Davis in the lineup.

Sure, the Lakers went on to squander the 20-point lead they had at halftime of that game, but that second half also included what seemed to be a one-legged LeBron after he sustained the aforementioned ankle injury.

And the Lakers got much more than 75% from the two superstars, as they combined for 61 points on 52.5% field-goal shooting in what was a welcome sight to see for Lakers fans. Of course, the failure in another must-win game against the Pelicans left it nearly impossible to appreciate another great performance from the duo.

The loss dropped the team to 11-11 on the season when the two were in the lineup, and an embarrassing 0-2 on the season when the superstars combine for 60+ points (h/t @pickuphoop on Twitter).

And to be fair, it wasn’t all pretty from James and Davis, as they only made one of their six field-goal attempts in the final five minutes of the game, with one of those misses being LeBron’s potential game-tying 3-pointer that fell WAY short.

But still, the performances make you wonder why the Lakers couldn’t pull out a win. Or at least think about it until you take a look at the rotations used by Frank Vogel... which brings us to our preview of Sunday’s game against the Denver Nuggets.

What is Frank Vogel doing?

The most notable omissions from the Vogel’s rotation last night were the two youngest players on the team, as Talen Horton-Tucker and Austin Reaves were glued to the bench all night. Vogel instead opted for a large increase in minutes (and a return to the starting lineup) for Avery Bradley as well as a small bump for Stanley Johnson, with the return of Davis also factoring in.

The decision to sit both of those two marks what is probably the most drastic change to Vogel’s rotation since he finally decided to start benching DeAndre Jordan after starting all season. THT hasn’t been held out due to a coach’s decision all season (this last happened to him in Game 4 of the 2021 first-round series against the Suns) while it hadn’t happened to Reaves since a Dec. 9 game against the Grizzlies.

Vogel explained his rotation in the loss afterward, saying the following:

When you think about the fact that Vogel has shown time-and-time again that he values Avery Bradley’s on-ball defense combined with his love of having a ton of size and length with a center in Dwight Howard alongside Anthony Davis, the rotation decisions aren’t surprising.

They become even less surprising when you consider the quote below that came from Vogel prior to the loss against the Jazz on Thursday. The “30-point deficit” he’s mentioning came in the preceding game against the Mavericks, a game in which Reaves started, ending with a -20 plus/minus.

But still, this all seems to contradict nearly everything we’ve heard from Vogel in recent months. It was only a little over a month ago that he called THT, Reaves, and Monk “consistent forces for us this year” while also saying he liked what he saw with Reaves in his first-ever start of the season in a post-All-Star-break loss against the Clippers.

Go back farther, and you’ll see quotes from Vogel praising THT’s defense in December, as he seemingly has far different thoughts now when going with Bradley’s defense instead against the Pelicans. That move didn’t really work, as Bradley covered C.J. McCollum nearly all evening “holding” him to 32 points on 23 field-goal attempts. Not exactly defensive stalwart stuff, nor was it surprising after watching Bradley get burnt in such situations for most of the season.

It wasn’t only the absences of Reaves and THT that raised some eyebrows. Wenyen Gabriel had just one single shift in the game, amounting to only a little over 4 minutes of playing time. It was the first time he had played less than 10 minutes in a game since Mar. 9, with Vogel’s decision being a little surprising given the injection of effort and energy Gabriel has given over the past month to a team that had been severely lacking in that department all season. Even when considering his hurt ankle, the minimal amount of minutes for Gabriel is perplexing, especially considering the team was already short on forwards with Carmelo Anthony out.

The confusing rotation decisions didn’t stop at the choices of who did or did not play, as his decision to take LeBron and AD out at the same time at the end of the first quarter seemed a bit foolish. Whether or not you deem the move to be smart or not, it’s just not something that Vogel has ever really done with the two during this year or the two preceding seasons.

Normally, just as he did in the two superstars’ last full game together, he staggers the two’s time together on the floor at the end and/or beginning of the first and third quarters, leaving the Lakers with as high of a floor as they can in terms of on-court talent. Once he took them both out for the final 2:19 of Friday’s first quarter, the team was promptly outscored by 4 points before heading into the second, points that could have been valuable to have in an eventual 3-point loss.

So what’s going on with Vogel? His rotations have been criticized all season, but they’ve never been as puzzling as they were Friday. And with little blame to be cast on the team’s three biggest names (even Russell Westbrook didn’t have a terrible game), it’s probably safe to say the rotation decisions were the ultimate difference in a pivotal game the team lost by just three points.

At this point, given how puzzling it all was even as it was happening (much less afterward) it’s honestly fair to wonder if last night is Vogel’s final middle-finger to the front office before they inevitably can him this offseason. He’s thrown subtle jabs at the bad roster his bosses put together all season in media availabilities, and the decision to give a DNP-CD to THT especially their biggest signing of the 2021 offseason, fourth-highest-paid player, a Klutch Sports client and the guy they chose over Vogel favorite Alex Caruso — is probably not going over well with the people above Vogel.

We’ll see if he sticks with these decisions despite their failures when the Lakers host the Nuggets on Sunday. If he does, and they continue to fail, then the Lakers could be inching ever closer to being officially eliminated from play-in contention entirely.

Notes and Updates:

  • Carmelo Anthony was out with a non-COVID-19 illness on Friday, but it sounds like he will be good to go for Sunday as he’s listed as probable on the injury report.
  • James and Davis will come in as questionable, but that was the case for Friday as well, with LeBron being listed as questionable for about a month straight now (aside from the two games he missed where he was doubtful).
  • And, as expected, Kendrick Nunn will once again be out (reportedly for the rest of the season).
  • The Nuggets’ injury report hasn’t been released yet at the time of this preview. For their Friday game against the Timberwolves, the team was without Zeke Nnaji (knee soreness), Vlatko Cancar (foot surgery), and Jamal Murray (knee surgery recovery). They were also without Michael Porter, Jr. (spine surgery), who has reportedly suffered a setback when trying to return.
  • Around the league, the Grizzlies continue to win without Ja Morant, with their most recent win without their superstar possibly being the most impressive one of the season as they beat the fully-loaded Suns while also being without Desmond Bane, Jaren Jackson, Jr., and Steven Adams. The Grizz are locked into the second seed for the Western Conference playoffs, and getting ready to face whoever wins in the 7 vs. 8 matchup of the play-in tournament.

The Lakers and Nuggets will tip off early at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday. The game will exclusively be televised nationally on ABC.

For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow Donny on Twitter at @donny_mchenry.