Frank Vogel is the new head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. The path to hiring Vogel, as discussed on the latest Laker Film Room Podcast, was jagged and messy. This, along with the inclusion of Jason Kidd on Vogel’s staff as a “prominent” assistant coach, will serve as a daily reminder of Vogel’s perceived spot on the totem pole of the team’s power structure. The implications of that are not yet known, but they’re difficult to view through a positive prism, regardless of Vogel’s credentials as the last candidate standing.
Those credentials, though, are where we should start because it’s the saving grace of the hire in the bigger picture.
Vogel is a respected head coaching candidate, with real accomplishments on his resumé, and respect around the league. He made his name as a head coach working the Pacers’ sideline in the early part of this decade and his best teams were elite defensively, twice posting the NBA’s top defensive efficiency rating and three other times ranking in the top 10 during his 5 full seasons as coach.
We can debate how much Vogel himself is responsible for the schematic strengths of those teams – in a recent Hoop Collective Podcast on ESPN, Kevin Pelton astutely noted that assistant Dan Burke was a holdover from both Larry Bird and Jim O’Brien’s staffs and the a coach Larry Bird not only thought of as the “defensive coordinator”, but a coach he insisted on retaining when Vogel was hired in Orlando. That said, Vogel is the one who still had to put the team in the best position to execute what was taught while holding the players accountable, maintaining buy-in, and pulling the right rotation strings to ensure results.
The maintaining buy-in part of that equation is especially important here and should not be glossed over. Vogel in his heart of hearts is a coach who tries to connect with his players and consistently portrays them positively publicly (and to their faces behind closed doors) which helps keep his guys pushing forward for him and the betterment of the team. This anecdote/quote from David West in a piece on Vogel from The Athletic, I think, speaks to that idea better than I ever could:
“It doesn’t matter how well you played or how bad you played, he doesn’t waver on his belief and trust in how well you can, when everything is right and you’re playing at your best, how good you can be. That hasn’t changed. That’s been a mainstay of his — the ability to keep guys afloat, keep them engaged in the fight.”
Vogel, then, provides a certain amount of loyalty to his players and has been rewarded in kind. That led to a high level of success with the Pacers, including playoff berths in 5 of his 6 seasons and two trips to the conference finals (both times he was eliminated by LeBron’s Heat). Again, these accomplishments are real and shouldn’t be dismissed or downplayed to fit a narrative about the Lakers’ bungling of process or the general optics depicting their circumspect decision making around this hire, among other things (we’ll get to this soon, trust).
Getting back to X’s and O’s, Vogel’s reputation as a defensive tactician does not extend to the other side of the ball. His best Pacers teams were around the middle of the pack and his teams in Orlando were in the bottom 10 in the league both years he was there.
His second season with the Magic offered encouraging trends, however, and it would be good if some of the lessons Vogel admitted to needing to learn about the evolution of the game — which he than began to implement in Orlando — are brought to the Lakers.
That 2017-18 Magic team offered a profile that could work for this iteration of the Lakers. As noted in the linked to piece above, Orlando showed a good distribution of the attributes you want to see in a modern NBA scheme — shot selection, ball movement, player movement, and pace. This past season, the Lakers played fast in order to optimize their best players, but their overall shot quality was hit or miss and the good shots they did get too often did not fall — especially those from beyond the arc.
Vogel, then, will have an uphill climb offensively and will need to sort out not only how to best use the talent at his disposal, but to help develop the young players he (currently) has on the rosters to produce better results as finishers. Lonzo, Kuzma, Hart, and Ingram all have the ability to be impact offensive players with varying rates of usage, but it will be on Vogel to optimize them. Here’s hoping his staff has some considerate offensive minds to help him and the team get there.
Speaking of his staff, what better time than now to dive into the Jason Kidd situation. Kidd, reportedly, was hoisted upon Vogel and was seemingly made a conditional addition to the staff of any coach who took the head job. Tyronn Lue apparently bristled at this while Vogel did not — though maybe he should have.
Kidd, of course, carries the weight of past legal convictions in his personal life (he pled guilty to spousal abuse and to driving while intoxicated) and the burden of being a scheming power-hungry personality in his professional one. The former is bad enough in its own right and matters for reasons big and small from an optics and workplace perspective, but the latter matters tangibly to the job at hand.
As a player, Kidd was believed to have gotten more than one coach canned and when he became a head coach he leveraged relationships with decision makers from the Bucks to try to parlay a team presidency to pair with his head coaching gig in Brooklyn. When that failed, he ended up in Milwaukee anyway to coach a young Greek Freak to mixed results.
Now Kidd will be an assistant to Vogel in Los Angeles, viewed as the de facto number 2 in charge to a coach who is already viewed from the outside as no better than the organization’s 3rd choice. Combine all of this with Kidd’s pre-established relationship with LeBron from their time as Team USA teammates and you can understand why the optics on this are so poor.
Because even if this actually won’t be a problem, it will be viewed as one in the making and any energy devoted to pushing back against this idea is too much. The best run organizations carry a singular focus and devotion to winning games. The Lakers, with all its history, it’s major media presence, and LeBron freaking James in tow are already disadvantaged when it comes to controlling the daily narrative around the team. Kidd’s hire, even if the best intentions are behind it, only adds more fuel to this fire.
I blame decision making for this and you should too. This isn’t to say things are going to go poorly, but if it does…you can trace the roots of the issue to those in charge and how they managed to steer the process down this path.
Getting back to Vogel, then, the difficult job of coaching these Lakers was probably made harder simply by the circumstances in which he was hired. The way that can be smoothed out, of course, is by giving him a better team to coach than the one that finished last season. With the Lakers remarkably leaping to 4th in the draft lottery, a max salary slot available in free agency, and trade options ever present, this front offense has the ability to remake the roster into a real contender this summer. Doing so was already going to be the chief priority of the next 4 months, but now it might be necessary.
Nothing is ever easy in Laker-land. At least not lately. And while it’s easy for those in charge to point at outsiders as to why that is the case, looking in the mirror would be a better course of action. And, if they do, they’ll find they also have the power to fix it.
I think Vogel can be a part of the solution. But those who decided to put him in charge need to help him help them buy building out this team to be the best it can be.