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 the need to replenish some of the basketball IQ that has departed the franchise since the team won the 2019-20 championship.
Frank Vogel is sitting on the dais, his 2020 NBA Champions hat and shirt soaked in champagne. His face reflects both the career-defining accomplishment and the arduous path his team took to get where they did: a preseason trip to China that ended up feeling not so safe once there, the tragic and untimely death of Kobe Bryant, a global pandemic that put an indefinite pause on their season, and now a run to the championship while being housed in a bubble and sequestered away from family and friends for over 100 days.
As he answers each question thoroughly, and with the genuine thoughtfulness that came to define his first season as Lakers coach, he’s asked to elaborate on an earlier comment about how special LeBron James is.
Vogel, noting that providing a single example is too difficult, shifts to what it’s like working with someone who has a basketball mind like LeBron’s:
“Everyday we’re in film and we’re talking about our team. Every day I talk to him, before practice or before a game saying ‘This is what I’m seeing, this is how I’m feeling about the team and this is the direction I think we can go. I think we can move the needle some in this direction.’
“Decisiveness is an incredible quality to have. To have his mind and to able to use him as a resource, to partner with him... the things I’m seeing on tape and believing in, with his mind... to collaborate with the decisions on how to move forward with our group... I don’t know if there’s one instance you can point to. Every damn day in film, he’s leading the charge on getting our team better. I don’t think people can undervalue that.”
Vogel, a true basketball nerd, found a partner in nerd-dom in LeBron James and, along with the rest of the players and coaches on his staff, won a title. How could you not love it?
If running down a list of attributes of what qualities an NBA champion possesses, what are the first things you’d mention?
Talent? Of course. Toughness (mental and physical)? I’d hope so. Shot creation? Definitely. Defense? A given. Shooting? Certainly a baseline level, but maybe not at the top of the list (shoutout Mike Trudell). Playmaking? Sure. Size on the wing? In today’s NBA, it’s definitely a must.
What about basketball IQ? YES. Absolutely, fundamentally, yes.
But whether it’s a consequence of valuing some of those other things more, or simply not valuing it enough to begin with, I don’t think we discuss often enough just how much basketball IQ matters within the context of winning high-level NBA games. Especially in the postseason.
When you get to the final stages of any season — aka the point where the championship is decided — you can make certain assumptions about the makeup of the teams involved. They’re certainly many of the attributes spelled out above, from talent, to toughness, to a baseline level of offensive and defensive ability that — depending on their team identity — likely skews in one direction more than the other.
But, I’d argue, at that final stage, one thing that can put you over the top is just how much collective basketball brainpower you have. Because the team that has more of that, and can outwit the other by bringing more hoops IQ to the table has an undeniable advantage. In its most basic form, it’s the ability to diagnose issues, find appropriate solutions, and then turn that observation into action faster than your opponent.
I’d say that’s pretty important.
In looking back at how the Lakers went from winning the championship just two seasons ago to being out of the playoffs entirely this year, a thing that stands out is how much collective smarts has left the team, either via trade, free agency, or just plain getting a new and better opportunity somewhere else.
Consider the following list of people who, in league circles and from our own experiences of seeing them operate up close, I’d argue are very bright basketball minds who were with the organization when the Lakers won the 2020 title and who, as we navigate the offseason just 2 years later, are no longer with the team:
- Frank Vogel
- Jason Kidd
- Jared Dudley
- Alex Caruso
- Danny Green
Regardless of anyone’s perspective on each of these people individually and how their own, singular perspective might be lacking at times, the larger point is that when you get this many people in the same room and combine them with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, you simply have a greater ability to identify problems and find tactical solutions than when you remove one (or, in the case of last this past season’s Lakers, most of) them.
This isn’t necessarily a point to make only in hindsight, either. Not when so many people associated with the team spoke, in the moment, of how much their respective basketball IQ’s helped propel the team to the title and, even the following season, just kept them centered and able to win games even when dealing with key injuries.
Whether it’s reporting saying that LeBron James regards Jason Kidd as “the only person alive who sees the game of basketball with (LeBron’s) level of clarity”, Kyle Kuzma crediting the team’s work in the film room as being essential to them building chemistry and winning the championship, LeBron noting that the chemistry between him and Alex Caruso “comes with their minds”, or Frank Vogel crediting Jared Dudley’s IQ as being instrumental to how he’d help the team in the early stages of that championship season, the Lakers consistently credited their collective smarts in ways that, even if it all feels a little self-congratulatory, clearly made a difference.
Of course, then, it’s frustrating to see so many of those minds walk out the door, even if, in some cases, it’s understandable. Yes, trades happen. And, when an opportunity for a coach to move up from the assistant ranks to a head coaching job, you always want them to take advantage of those opportunities. So, in the cases of Danny Green and Jason Kidd, you just sort of understand that the team was either working to actively improve or wanting the best for one of their coaches.
But, because certain situations are just the natural attrition that occur within an organization, there’s a certain deliberateness that you need to have when making determinations on who to keep when you have the opportunity to and how you replace the people who have departed. Whether it’s essentially forcing Dudley out the door or lowballing Caruso to the point he had to leave, the Lakers haven’t necessarily done that. And, I’d argue, they’ve suffered for that choice.
This offseason the Lakers are at a crossroads and have another opportunity to reshape not only their roster, but their coaching staff. And while the goal is (and always should be) to build the most talented team possible with the resources available, I do hope those who are making the decisions understand the brain-drain that’s taken place over the past two seasons, and look to rectify that, too. Because while there are lots of reasons the team has fallen to the depths they have, it’d be doing the organization a disservice to ignore how much that part of the equation contributed to those past successes.