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. Next up, let’s take a look at how Frank Vogel played a part in his own downfall, and what the team can learn from how he got there.
When you end up firing a head coach — especially one who won you an NBA championship only two seasons prior — there’s never one thing that led to the decision. There’s almost always a mix of several factors, big and small, that led to those in charge pulling the plug and letting that coach go.
Rob Pelinka, then, was purposefully vague when he discussed the decision to part ways with Frank Vogel, leaning on the cliche’d “we felt like it was time for a change in our leadership voice” while mixing in a series of compliments of the job Vogel had done during his tenure. Again, this is expected, even if it came off as disingenuous in the moment. But I digress.
Still, even if there’s not one thing to point to, I can imagine Vogel’s rigidity to his systems and basketball ethos in the face of a roster that wasn’t equipped to play that way was a major driver in the decision to axe him. Rule No. 1 for any head coach, in any sport or situation, is to put your players in the best positions to succeed. Every other decision you make should be based on that core tenet. Vogel, embattled as he was, and even in consideration of the roster limitations imposed on him, simply didn’t do this to the level he needed to.
In fact, there’s an argument to be made that Vogel did not account for the roster limitations of this team enough, shoehorning players into his preferred style of play even if the results were screaming at him to go in a different direction.
Again, I want to be clear on this point: No one can argue that handing a defensive-minded coach like Vogel players with the (well-deserved) defensive reputations of Malik Monk, Carmelo Anthony, Wayne Ellington, and Russell Westbrook is a recipe for success. In its own way, you’re setting up a coach to struggle under the guise that they’re supposed to “fix” those, in many cases, unfixable deficiencies in some way.
But the hope still remains that a coach with the defensive acumen of Vogel would make determinations — and quickly — of how to get the most out of those players by either trying to hide their weaknesses more, and/or using fewer schemes that require the need for quick decisions, accurate reads and making the types of taxing physical plays that amplify their respective weaknesses.
I think back to the Pacers game in January of this season where the Lakers were in control most of the game, but lost it at the end due to a fourth-quarter run led by Caris LeVert. LeVert had been plagued by foul trouble throughout the game and hadn’t found a rhythm at all. But in the final frame, he got an extended run and a steady diet of the Lakers playing in drop coverages against pick and rolls. LeVert came off of screen after screen clean and was able to walk into mid-range jumpers, and then get downhill on drives to threaten the paint as Melo and LeBron (and later, even Stanley Johnson) backpedaled in drop coverage as he attacked them.
After the game, LeBron, stating the obvious, said that LeVert had exploited the Lakers gameplan in leading the Pacers to a win. While this wasn’t necessarily said as some indictment against Vogel — sometimes really good players just beat the coverages you’ve put in place for that game — his words brought into question whether the Lakers had the right gameplan to begin with. Particularly when considering their personnel.
If you’re deciding to not play your more traditional bigs at all, and instead determine that your best chance to win a game against the Pacers is to roll out a front line that rotates LeBron, Carmelo, and Johnson as your main power forwards and centers, is playing drop coverages the best approach? Should you switch more?
And if you don’t want to switch because you worry that Domantas Sabonis might feast against your smaller guards in the post, maybe having a true zone look that you’ve worked on and have confidence in could be a good solution? Or, maybe you have drilled how to scram-switch out of post mismatches and have traps and double team looks once put into those situations in order to keep the opposition off balance?
Or really, anything to keep Carmelo Anthony from being your last line of defense?
I’m not here to act as though I’m some genius and have all the solutions on how to get a flawed roster to defend at a high level. NBA coaches are smart and have usually considered every available option. And, again, some issues really are personnel based. However, I’d argue it doesn’t take a genius to see that the players the Lakers had weren’t going to succeed in Vogel’s traditional schemes because those players, in the aggregate, simply didn’t have talent, motor, athleticism, instincts, or commitment to execute at the level required for his preferred defensive coverages to work.
Yes, we can blame the players for that (and the person who signed those players in the first place). But, it’s still on the coach to be flexible enough to pivot to things that have a better chance to work. Not because there’s some unlockable secret that suddenly turns Carmelo Anthony into a plus defender, but because it’s understood that he’s likely to never be that at all, so let’s do everything possible to make it so he’s not put into the center of the frame by the other team on every possession, putting him into a position to repeatedly fail.
Of course, in trying to adhere to your schemes, there are more ways to struggle than simply asking players who might not be able to execute to go out there and try to do it anyway. The other side of that coin is gravitating to the players who might be best suited to perform your scheme, even if they’re not the better players on the roster, or even when they might compromise your team’s best chances of being successful on the other side of the ball.
This is where Vogel erred most. Too many times this season, he turned to DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard to solve his team’s defensive issues even though — and this applies less to Dwight, but is still relevant — those players weren’t good enough to perform the ask, or their presence in the lineup simply created issues offensively that compromised the team in other ways. Once the Lakers acquired Russell Westbrook as their “third star”, the impetus to move towards stretchier lineups that focused on offensive spacing was self evident. To whatever degree you can succeed with Westbrook as a main contributor, it needs to be under a narrow set of circumstances that gear towards his more inflexible traits as an offensive force.
Vogel, though, didn’t always take that into account enough — or at least his lineups didn’t reflect that he did. On too many nights early in the season, Jordan started next to Anthony Davis and LeBron, putting Westbrook into the proverbial phone booth offensively in the hopes that this bigger group could pattern themselves after the 2020 title team and lock down defensively. Avery Bradley’s presence in the lineup — with or without the team starting Jordan — further reinforced this idea.
Of course, Jordan’s lack of motor and general foot speed doomed these groups defensively all while the cramped spacing of playing that many non-shooters led to Westbrook being a low impact player in the halfcourt offensively. Whatever benefits hoped to be achieved by going to these types of groups never truly came to fruition and, instead, the team mostly only felt the negative aspects of such lineups.
Of course, it’d be disingenuous to ignore how much injuries and the general roster construction put the team down this path to begin with, and impacted Vogel’s decision-making in the process. To start the season, injuries to Trevor Ariza and Talen Horton-Tucker left the team’s frontcourt depth barren, leading to the idea that Jordan should play in the first place if the team was going to keep the semblance of a routine rotation going over the course of the full season.
Further, as roles became established and the team went down the path of trying to replicate the strengths of the team that won the title, all while injuries and COVID compromised player availability, it was hard to shift back to an entirely different style while still managing the locker room and maintaining buy-in. Once you start down a particular path, accomplishing a course correction the size of which would have been necessary is very difficult.
But that also points back to the idea of flexibility, and the need to see some of these potential solutions earlier in the process. Vogel, for all his real strengths as a head coach and true ability to maximize a roster that fit him well, didn’t see the alternate path early enough. And, even when he did begin to change and show that sort of flexibility, when things went wrong, he was quick to second guess and revert back to his comfort zone. A prime example was returning to a two-big lineup with Dwight and AD starting when AD returned from his ankle injury late in the season rather than simply plugging Davis into the formula that had shown some semblance of togetherness over the previous weeks.
In the end, Vogel needed to coach the team he had rather than the team he wanted (or, really, should have been given). And (at least partially) because he didn’t, he’s no longer the head coach at all. In moving forward, then, the Lakers not only need alignment between their next head coach and front office in what types of players to acquire, but should also prioritize the type of coach who can be a bit more flexible and agile when the need to change course is so clear.
Otherwise, they’re simply doomed to repeat the same mistakes of this past season.
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