Editor’s Note: When a team underachieves to the extent the 2021-22 Lakers did, it is paramount that the organization’s decision-makers not only identify why things went wrong, but that they incorporate what they learned into future decisions. In this series of posts, Darius Soriano will examine some of the lessons from this Lakers’ season and why they mattered so much to their downfall. First up, we look at the dissonance between the roster construction and the head coach...
It’s September 23, 2021 and Rob Pelinka seems very content and at ease. Actually, that’s probably underselling it. Pelinka looks outright proud and confident, and, based on the initial external (and, apparently, internal) reviews of the job he’s done rebuilding the Lakers roster on the eve of training camp, his swagger is understandable.
After trading for Russell Westbrook in advance of the 2021 draft, Pelinka proceeded to reshape the team’s roster by adding (and bringing back) a mix of accomplished veterans and young players with upside to a team that still had LeBron James and Anthony Davis. This group was being hailed as a championship favorite by many, and even the skeptics had to admit they’d at least be one of the most formidable teams in the West.
So, way back on that September day when Pelinka faced the assembled media for the first time since putting this roster together, he was happy to explain what went into his masterpiece. Rob explained his goals of adding more ball-handling and shot creation, adding paint protecting and lob catching bigs, and adding high caliber shooting to flank his stars. He went over each one, explaining how the players he’d added fit into this vision, deftly speaking to how it would all fit.
I must say, none of this really raised any eyebrows to me. Looking at each individual move on its own, they all made sense.
As a collective, however, there was a thing that stood out. You see, very few of the players Pelinka signed were very good at defense, and the ones that did have that reputation were either old (Dwight Howard, Trevor Ariza, DeAndre Jordan) or had traditionally thrived in more chaotic schemes while playing smaller roles (Kent Bazemore).
Nowhere was there a traditional defensive stopper to be found, and with the departure of Alex Caruso in free agency, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma in the Russ trade, the Lakers were going to be very reliant on their stars to be high-level defenders (including Westbrook) and for the role players to play above their heads on that end by defying their career norms or jumping in the hot-tub time machine to relive their glory days.
Pelinka, however, seemed unfazed by such potential concerns or possible pitfalls. In fact, he spoke confidently about how he saw this playing out. A sampling:
“The good news is that we have seen this ‘Coach Vogel Effect’ defensively with last year’s group, and the year before where his system and his discipline, and his teaching, and his focus on that side of the ball translated into success.”
But wait, there’s more...
“And of course part of that was personnel. But part of that is also system and teaching and accountability, and so we have a belief in this group, with some of the guys that were added like Kent Bazemore, Trevor Ariza, I could go down the list, that there is going to be a massive commitment to defense and rebounding and those cornerstone elements that are key to winning at a high level.”
And, the kicker...
“I don’t have any concerns about us being a very, very strong team defensively. I believe in the group’s commitment and effort, and Coach’s teaching at that end that I think we’ll be successful as a defensive ball club.”
Uhh...yeah. Someone call @OldTakesExposed.
More seriously, hindsight is, of course, 20/20. And, to be fair to Rob, with the number games that Anthony Davis and LeBron James missed this season, the team was clearly going to suffer defensively. However, the idea that Vogel was simply going to coach up players who...
a) were not (or were no longer) good defenders
b) did not have a natural inclination to play hard defensively or
...and still find a way to field a good defensive team doesn’t need hindsight to fully see how things went wrong.
Further, neither does that approach to team-building get the benefit of the doubt in the face of injuries. No, you see, when you build a team of mostly bad or apathetic defensive players, your defense is very likely going to be bad. That Pelinka tried to act as though Vogel would have some sort of Midas touch or have the ability to fabricate a top 10 defense because he knows how to coach on that side of the ball or was going to emphasize the right things and hold players accountable was a pretty big overreach.
This, ultimately, leads us to the larger lesson here. When building a roster, it’s not enough to take the coach’s strengths into account. In fact, Pelinka may very well argue he was doing that by taking the stance he did, and thinking his coach would elevate bad defenders!
But no, when constructing a team, you need to provide a coach the types of players most adept at doing the thing your coach values most. Or, at the very least, give them players whose instincts don’t actively oppose their philosophies.
It goes beyond the mentality or the inclinations of the players working in tandem with what the coach wants, though. What complicated matters even more for the Lakers was that the defensive strengths of the players Pelinka did sign did not align with system that Vogel wants to run. Making matters worse, the players who could play in his scheme did not have enough left in the tank to contribute nightly.
Vogel’s schemes are built around rim protection, ball pressure, and extra efforts from the guards and wings to get over screens and make quick reads and accurate back-side rotations when they are the “low man” on the weak side. Vogel’s system, then, requires smarts and motor; it needs players who have a want to execute on that end and will continue to adhere to the scheme even in situations where it seems like they’re being hung out to dry. Vogel’s system is built on trust, effort, and execution as much as guys who have the tools to do it in the first place.
Not to pick on these guys, but do those sound like the qualities you find in Russell Westbrook, Malik Monk, Carmelo Anthony, Kent Bazemore or Wayne Ellington? No. Those players can’t be asked to do anything too complicated without needing to bake in an expected level of mistake-making that undoes whatever big picture advantages you’d get from the scheme when they actually do execute everything well.
Instead, then, these players would be better suited to switch everything, and then have some of their smaller guards helped out of disadvantaged matchups in the post via “scram” switches that are a natural part of being a switch everything team. Beyond that, the quality of defenders the team had would have really benefitted from playing more zone, simply because it simplifies the reads and promotes staying in front of the ball in ways the Lakers defenders simply couldn’t when playing man to man.
However, these aren’t schemes that Vogel wants to use as his primary defensive looks, and while he turned to them some, his instincts as a coach simply didn’t translate to those becoming what the team did most. And while there are arguments to be made Vogel needed to coach the team he had instead of the team he wished they were — we’ll get into that more another time — the first onus is on those who build the roster to put everyone in a position to succeed. Including the head coach.
That simply didn’t happen here, though. In building the roster he did, Pelinka gave Vogel defensive lemons and told him to make lemonade. And, beyond that, he gave him a team of mostly small guards and aged bigs, and not enough forwards to compensate when his stars got hurt. And while no one can blame the front office for those injuries, and it’s disingenuous to argue this team wins anything without their stars, a roster more aligned with the strengths of the coach very likely leads to a better ability to stay afloat, much like the team did just last season.
Instead, when the injuries hit, this team sunk and fell so far they didn’t even make the play-in. And while that type of failure can’t be pinned on any one issue, the construction of the team and the dissonance between the types of players signed and what had proven to work for this head coach being so drastic didn’t help.
Which makes Pelinka’s statements way back in September that much more glaring. We can only hope there’s better alignment with whoever the new head coach is for next season. We know it’s possible, since Pelinka and Vogel had it in their first season together in the team’s run to a championship. Recapturing that togetherness by relearning those lessons, then, is a must.