Vogel: Vision for the Game and a Way With People
Gold championship banners hung from high above them. Frank Vogel and LeBron James were technically together in the Lakers’ practice gym last week—albeit with many, many others—as Vogel was being introduced on the floor as the new Lakers head coach. James stood, quietly pressed against a side wall to offer background support.
Completely separate from all that has been accomplished out West in this franchise’s history since relocating from Minneapolis, Vogel and James mostly know each other from their fierce competition at the highest levels in the East. It was after losing to James’ Miami Heat for second consecutive year in the Eastern Conference finals—and the third consecutive year overall—that Vogel as Indiana Pacers head coach lamented trying to overcome “the Michael Jordan of our era” in James.
That was back in 2014, after the home-court advantage Vogel’s team worked to earn as the East’s top seed was rendered moot by James’ team. Who could’ve known that the two men would join forces five years later, committed to building a team via James’ preferred weapon of the pass, in hopes of relaunching the Lakers’ championship threat?
Even though Vogel spent the 2005-06 season as a Lakers advance scout, he and James have basically both been longtime Lakers admirers from afar. They’re here now as two men who shared a manifest destiny desire to bring their families to live in Los Angeles, where Vogel had his wife and two daughters on vacation last year.
“We fell in love with the area,” Vogel said, smiling. “We left just thinking, ‘Man, that was like the best vacation ever. This is an amazing place to be.’ ”
Also as recently as last year, Vogel was referring to James as the “best player in the world.” And last week, among the very first words Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka spoke in welcoming Vogel to town was that same reminder.
I’m really, really excited for the chance to instill my beliefsFrank Vogel
“There’s just so much optimism thinking about where we are as a franchise right now,” Pelinka said. “We have the world’s best player on our team, we acquired the No. 4 pick in the June draft, we have the cap flexibility to continue to finish out this roster that we’ve been building over the last couple of years, and today we are announcing the hiring of our extraordinary new coach Frank Vogel.”
Vogel’s skills as a strategist are well known around the league. His ability to design an aircraft and then follow that flight path amid in-game turbulence stood as a major reason the Pacers took at least two games from James in each of those three series against him. Vogel is a career coach far more than he is a former player, and his start in this profession was him huddled away in the video room, pouring over X’s and O’s for Rick Pitino at the University of Kentucky and then with the Boston Celtics.
Vogel’s ability to build relationships, however, is also key to what will come for him as Lakers coach, and that aspect of him is not as well understood.
As a college kid with no credentials or justifications, Vogel had to sell himself and his passion to Jim O’Brien and Pitino at Kentucky, which got Vogel’s foot in the door to set the entire stage for this coaching career. Notre Dame football has Rudy as its consummate underdog tale, but Kentucky basketball’s equivalent is the wholly unlikely story of Vogel showing up, disarming and charming people, and then working endless hours to prove himself.
Pitino brought O’Brien and Vogel from Kentucky to the Celtics in 1997, and when O’Brien became the Pacers head coach in 2007, he brought Vogel with him—which led to Vogel getting to be interim head coach upon O’Brien’s 2011 departure. Vogel, at the time the youngest head coach in the NBA at 37, made more of that shot than anyone expected.
Vogel is a guy who has won the Rudy Tomjanovich Award from the Pro Basketball Writers Association for deep cooperation with media and fans in addition to professional coaching excellence. Highly regarded Celtics coach Brad Stevens leaned on Vogel as his adviser when Stevens was making the jump from college coaching to the NBA. Vogel’s such a good guy and earnest communicator that then-Pacers president Larry Bird acknowledged in 2016 that Vogel perhaps could’ve talked him into reconsidering the decision not to renew Vogel’s contract as Pacers coach.
Vogel’s positivity and desire to connect are coming clearly across from his beginning with the Lakers.
“I’ve got a strong plan for how we’re going to play as a basketball team,” Vogel said. As he spoke, Vogel placed his right hand over his heart, perhaps subconsciously conveying the depth of his truth.
“I’m really, really excited for the chance to instill my beliefs,” he said.
Stevens didn’t play in the NBA. Neither did Nick Nurse nor Mike Budenholzer, who just coached the Eastern Conference finals. Terry Stotts, who just got a contract extension after reaching the Western Conference finals with Portland, didn't either. Gregg Popovich’s success in San Antonio paved the way for people other than former NBA players to have a shot at the highest levels of coaching basketball, and plenty of sharp guys have taken advantage.
Vogel was a point guard at Division III Juniata College in Pennsylvania before leaving to chase his coaching dream with Pitino at Kentucky, determined to experience big-time college basketball and then the NBA. It’s a reasonable parallel to how Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was a point guard at the University of Portland, went to be a player-assistant coach in Germany and got his NBA start as the Heat’s video coordinator before becoming an advance scout.
LeBron James and Frank Vogel
Spoelstra, all know by now, coached James to four consecutive NBA Finals in Miami.
And as much as it was viewed as Pat Riley casting a vision for James’ success in Miami, it was what Spoelstra did—both analytically and optimistically—that worked so well for James on the court. The aspiration is for Vogel and James to do the same now as Lakers leaders, using the head start of being immersed together in those Pacers-Heat battles back in the day.
“Having tried to attack him, having tried to defend him, I have a good feel for the way I want to use him,” Vogel said. “And then hopefully on his end, [there is] the respect that we were a formidable threat to his teams in Miami each year, and we put a really competitive team out on the basketball floor that was just really tough-minded on the defensive end and really played with the pass, and you can see what that type of environment can do for winning. So hopefully our past experience together will serve as a foundation for the relationship that we’re going to have here, and that we can do great things together here.”
It will be a combination of basketball strategy and human connection. Vogel made clear he will challenge and engage all his players, including James.
And solving the puzzles that make players their best selves, then make a team its strongest group, is clearly Vogel’s calling. It’s his love. It’s how and why he dreamed his long shot into this true Hollywood story.
It’s actually not unlike Pelinka’s passion for solving roster puzzles, preparing various plans to execute and then moving through them with the same detailed thought Pelinka used to attack his favorite class in high school, Advanced Placement Calculus.
Last week, Pelinka described Vogel’s lead quality as being “incredibly prepared”—reflecting their common thread.
Pelinka’s love for the game was similarly stoked by what he saw at the highest level of college basketball, playing for the Fab Five at the University of Michigan. But Pelinka didn’t play in the NBA either.
In this age of appreciating analytics, NBA playing experience has become optional in the front office and among coaches. Court vision now goes beyond what someone such as James possesses and showcases in live action.
Part of the Lakers’ vision will no doubt be what Vogel’s bleary eyes pick up from a few too many hours of rewinding, freezing and scrutinizing video.
“In the sessions that we did at the whiteboard during the interview process,” Pelinka said, “he stood out with his vision for the game and the structure he wants to play with—and the way he would use our roster was really, really impressive.”
Two months ago, doing one of his ESPN spots to provide “former NBA head coach” insight into the upcoming playoffs, Vogel was asked how much NBA insiders view James differently in light of the Lakers’ struggles in his first season in L.A.
“I know it’s been obviously a disappointing and surprising year for the Lakers and for LeBron, but when you’re in this league long enough, you recognize that sometimes there are just things that happen throughout the course of the season that derail a team,” Vogel answered. “That certainly happened with LeBron’s injury, with [Rajon] Rondo’s injury early in the year, Lonzo Ball, [Brandon] Ingram now being out; they’ve had a lot of issues with that.
Phil Jackson is a role model, and basically a coaching idol of mineFrank Vogel
“It’s just been a disjointed season for them. They know they’re capable of better. And I don’t think the perception of LeBron has changed much at all.”
One of the Pitino mantras that Vogel adopted was: “Just make sure you win—and everything else will work itself out.” It’s a concept Vogel echoed last week in proposing that a winning season is the lone cure-all for the Lakers—although Vogel channeled Phil Jackson with repeated “stay-in-the-moment” references as the key to getting those results. Vogel has also been known to splice fun movie or TV clips into his video sessions, same as Jackson.
“Phil Jackson is a role model, and basically a coaching idol of mine,” Vogel said. “He’s someone I really tried to model some of my coaching philosophies after. A lot of times those things are shaped by coaches you work with, but other times they’re shaped by coaches you admire and study. That was the case with Phil.”
When you retrace the few seasons that Vogel’s teams did not win, injury issues were certainly a factor—one reason Vogel so understood what undercut the 2018-19 Lakers. In Vogel’s final season coaching Orlando, the roster was decimated by injuries to key players. Nikola Vucevic, who blossomed into an All-Star this season, went down in late December 2017 and was out for Vogel even longer than James was out this season.
Vogel was clear that he is looking forward to “one hell of a bounce-back season from LeBron James.”
If that comes to pass, it should be the start of some wonderful new memories for Vogel and James as partners.
And as Lakers.
“This is obviously a proud and historic franchise,” Vogel said, “and it’s a big honor to be here and to be responsible for this next chapter of our history.”
Kevin Ding is an independent sports writer, and the statements and views expressed by him do not necessarily represent the views of the Los Angeles Lakers.
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