LOS ANGELES — As he has patrolled the sidelines, Lakers coach Frank Vogel has dealt with the possibility that the next rotation tweak or new play call could be his last. Yet, Vogel downplayed whether he feels vulnerable about his lacking job security.
“I don’t feel like I’m under siege,” Vogel said. “It’s not hard to do my job. I’m very focused on the task at hand. I’ve always been that way.”
It hasn’t always been that way. In his first year as coach only two years ago, Vogel helped the Lakers win an NBA championship. Though that outcome largely had to do with a healthy LeBron James teaming up with Anthony Davis, the Lakers credited Vogel for helping them navigate unique circumstances.
The Lakers experienced a disrupted training camp in China amid the country’s outcry over former Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, currently the Philadelphia 76ers’ GM, tweeting out support for the Hong Kong protesters. The Lakers experienced heavy emotions with franchise luminary Kobe Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, being among nine people that died in a helicopter crash. The Lakers experienced logistical hurdles amid a season stoppage at the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak and a season restart on a campus bubble.
Only 1 1/2 years later, Vogel has gone from the team’s steady leader to possible scapegoat for the Lakers’ uneven season. The Lakers labored through a 111-104 loss to the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday after squandering a 15-point lead and allowing Caris Levert to score 22 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter. The Lakers have spent most of the 2021-22 season hovering just above or below the .500 mark. And despite entering the season as expected championship contenders, the Lakers (22-23) currently rank seventh in the Western Conference.
“It’s really not up to me on whether it’s fair or not,” Vogel said before the game. “It comes with the territory. It comes with being the Lakers coach. There’s high expectations. This fan base really cares. It’s a big market. And I wouldn’t want it any other way, to be honest with you. I want people to care. I want people that want the best and to command excellence of our group. That’s what we command of ourselves.”
So after the Lakers’ latest loss, Vogel hardly minced words on who deserves the blame.
“It’s on all of us,” Vogel said. “We have to coach better. We have to play better. Everything has to be better.”
It’s a fair question to ask, however, why Vogel has received most of the blame for the Lakers’ shortcomings.
The Lakers entered Wednesday’s game with players missing a combined 141 games due to injuries and illnesses as well as a combined 37 games due to COVID-19-related protocols. The Lakers have fielded mixed progress with integrating All-Star guard Russell Westbrook and a handful of other role players.
I feel good about what we’re doing with our team. I don’t always feel good about the results. But I believe in what we can do this year.”
— Lakers coach Frank Vogel
After the Lakers lost to Phoenix in the first round of the 2021 playoffs, the Lakers mostly chalked up the shortcomings to Davis’ post-season injuries and James not playing at full strength. But then the Lakers spent the offseason blowing up nearly the entire supporting cast around James and Davis.
After ranking among the NBA’s best defensive teams during Vogel’s first two seasons, the Lakers have ranked toward the bottom of the league partly because they lost their defensive-oriented players through the Westbrook trade (Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) and free agency (Alex Caruso). The Lakers have signed various defensive stalwarts that have excelled in their career at the wing (Trevor Ariza) and at the rim (Dwight Howard, Deandre Jordan), but those players have not played as effectively as they did in their prime.
“The coaching staff has been great,” James said. “They’ve put us in a position to succeed. It’s up to us to go out and handle the business. There’s always ways we can all do better. But there’s no blame.”
"Coaching staff has been great. They've put us in a position to succeed and we have to take care of business… There's no blame." @KingJames on the coaching staff and tonight's loss. pic.twitter.com/1M4yi4HUYZ
— Spectrum SportsNet (@SpectrumSN) January 20, 2022
Yet, it’s not surprising that Vogel has received blame. Vogel’s contract runs through the 2022-23 season after the Lakers granted him only a one-year extension last summer. Westbrook is not expected to yield much value before the Feb. 10 trade deadline. And the Lakers’ front office remains bullish they made the correct roster moves and that the team should have a better record despite the team’s injuries and new players.
“I don’t pay attention as to whether it’s surprising or not,” Vogel said. “In this business and this team, if you’re not winning at a super high level, you’re going to get this type of noise. So, I’m good at blocking it out. I feel good about the job that we’re doing. Obviously, I believe the results are going to come. But through the course of an 82 game season with a new group, you’re going to have some ugly nights.”
No wonder Lakers controlling governor Jeanie Buss offered neither praise nor criticism when NBA.com asked for her evaluation of Vogel last month. “Until we’re healthy, I don’t think you can really make any judgment,” Buss said.
About a month later, have those circumstances changed? Yes and no.
James has stayed heathy, available and consistent with his play in the past month (29.7 points on 49.4% shooting, 7.4 rebounds, 5.9 assists). The Lakers have more bodies available amid improved health and zero players in the Health and Safety Protocols.
But Davis has only received clearance this week for contact work after staying sidelined for the past 14 games because of an MCL sprain in his left knee. Lakers guard Kendrick Nunn has stayed sidelined all season with a bone bruise in his right knee. Veteran forward Carmelo Anthony played against Indiana after missing the past three games because of lower back tightness.
When Vogel entered the NBA’s Health and Safety Protocols last month, assistant coach David Fizdale went only 1-5 during his absence. After Vogel returned, the Lakers reeled off a four-game winning streak. The scrutiny returned, however, after the Lakers labored through a three-game losing streak that included a 37-point loss to the Denver Nuggets.
The Lakers rebounded with a signature win against the Utah Jazz on Monday, but The Athletic’s Bill Oram and Sam Amick reported afterwards that the Lakers’ front office had considered firing Vogel following the Lakers’ loss in Denver. Yet, Vogel said that the Lakers’ front office did not discuss his job performance in the past week. He added that he typically has talks extensively the day after the game with the Lakers’ front office, which includes Rob Pelinka (vice president of basketball operations, general manager) and Kurt Rambis (director of basketball affairs).
ICYMI, story from this morning on Lakers coach Frank Vogel being in serious jeopardy even after the win over Utah, and a deeper look at where it might all go from here, at @TheAthletic (w/ @billoram)https://t.co/lmzOqgKHSV
— Sam Amick (@sam_amick) January 19, 2022
“Same as it’s been for three years; it’s healthy,” Vogel said of his collaboration with the Lakers’ front office. “Everyone is working together to leave no stone unturned in terms of getting this thing going in the right direction. We have a great working relationship where we’re trying to figure things out together. We won a championship this way. And I feel good about our process.”
Do the Lakers’ players feel just as good about Vogel’s process?
“He’s handling it,” Anthony said. “He comes in upbeat every day. He gets on us when he needs to. He does a good job of showing us and putting us in that position to see what we’re doing wrong. I think the easiest thing to do is to blame Frank and to blame the coaches. But we’re out there playing. We are the ones that got to go out there and do it.”
Westbrook presumably would not be as complimentary. He left the arena without speaking to reporters after finishing with 14 points on 5-of-17 shooting. Vogel replaced Westbrook for Malik Monk in the final 3:52 while the Lakers, trailed, 101-94. And Vogel defended the move, saying, “playing the guys that I thought were going to win the game.”
James chuckled when asked if Westbrook’s benching upset him. He then asked a reporter a series of questions: “Have you followed Russ throughout his career? Have you followed Russ throughout this season? Would you think that would bother Russ not being in that game?” The reporter’s response: “I would imagine.” James grinned before saying, “there’s your answer.” James then added, “you should quote yourself. You guys want to quote us all the time; quote yourself.”
Did those remarks capture Vogel offering some brutal honesty on his way out? Not necessarily. As Yahoo! Sports first reported, the Lakers do not plan on firing Vogel immediately and he will travel for the team’s six-game trip that includes stops in Orlando (Friday), Miami (Sunday), Brooklyn (Jan. 25), Philadelphia (Jan. 27), Charlotte (Jan. 28) and Atlanta (Jan. 30).
But how Vogel handles Westbrook moving forward represents the latest wrinkle in how he has handled the Lakers’ tenuous roster.
“It’s an adjustment,” Anthony said of Westbrook’s benching. “I think I know what he’s dealing with and going through, I’ve been there before. I don’t think it was anything personal from coach. You would think somebody like that would be on the court. But with the flow of the game, there’s times I haven’t been in the game or other guys haven’t been in the game. I don’t think it’s something personal. We just got to help him figure it out.”
“Playing the guys that I thought were going to win the game.” Frank Vogel on his decision to sub out Russell Westbrook for the final four minutes of the game. pic.twitter.com/M1PgbMNF0F
— Spectrum SportsNet (@SpectrumSN) January 20, 2022
Vogel has taken the same approach with his own coaching. Vogel said he and his coaching staff are “working around the clock” to ensure a better product. The Lakers have fielded 22 different starting lineups to adjust both to injuries and matchups. Vogel has shifted from big to small lineups in hopes to foster chemistry and improve spacing. And Vogel said he has made schematic changes in the team’s defense in hopes to minimize learning curves with a new roster.
Will that be enough? Vogel has coached long enough in professional sports not to presume anything.
Despite leading the Indiana Pacers to five playoff appearances and two trips to the Eastern Conference finals in six years (2010-16), the Pacers declined to renew Vogel’s contract. The Orlando Magic fired Vogel after being part of the franchise’s rebuilding project for two seasons (2016-18). Vogel became the Lakers’ coach only after agreeing to the three-year contract that Tyronn Lue and Monty Williams both turned down. He suddenly has become vulnerable.
Because of that, Vogel said various unnamed coaches and players have texted him supporting messages in recent days.
“It’s really something I’m blocking out, honestly,” Vogel said. “People can text me, and I appreciate the supportive text. But I feel good about what we’re doing with our team. I don’t always feel good about the results. But I believe in what we can do this year.”
Time will tell, however, whether the Lakers’ front office believes in what Vogel can do this year.
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