Q&A: Frank Vogel on Lakers' roster, Dwight Howard's role, plus more

L.A.'s new coach has championship expectations for LeBron, AD & company

CHICAGOFrank Vogel was just about bouncing around the banquet level of the luxury hotel on this city’s Magnificent Mile, visibly thrilled to be attending the annual NBA head coaches meetings coordinated by the National Basketball Coaches Association.

For a lot of the men who’ve been here, done that, the late-summer stop in Chicago is an obligation, even a nuisance, with training camps soon to open and a world of urgency bearing down on them. But Vogel missed out on the frivolity last season – in fact, he’d been out of the club since April 2018, when the Orlando Magic fired him after two seasons in which the team won just 29 and 25 games, missing the playoffs for the fifth and sixth consecutive years.

Vogel’s time in Indiana – five playoff trips from 2011 to 2016, including two losses to Miami in the East finals, and a 250-181 record – was more successful, however. That’s the experience he’ll draw from most as he steps into his biggest spotlight so far: taking over as the Los Angeles Lakers’ new coach.

Vogel, 46, has been charged with blending the talents of LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the rest, while navigating their personalities and clout under one of the NBA’s biggest microscopes.

Tall task? Sure. Then again, this is a guy who was happy playing Division III hoops at Juniata College in Huntington, Pa., when he rolled the dice on a future in coaching, convincing Kentucky’s Rick Pitino to let him be Wildcats student manager (and sponge as a fly on the wall) in 1996. From there, Vogel served as UK’s video coordinator, then moved to the same role when Pitino was hired by the Boston Celtics. Then Vogel kept climbing.

With the 2019-20 season on the horizon, Vogel also joked that a personal goal this year is to “win the Rudy Tomjanovich Award,” mentioning the trophy for media affability presented each year by the Professional Basketball Writers Association. He got off to a fine start Monday when he sat down with NBA.com’s Steve Aschburner for a conversation.

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Steve Aschburner: Do you feel as refreshed as you look?

Frank Vogel: I’m pretty good. I haven’t lost a game in more than a year. A year and a half, almost.

SA: You’ve probably never been able to say that since you became a coach. I know you didn’t have much of a gap between Indiana and Orlando.

FV: I had nine days between getting fired in Indy and hired in Orlando.

SA: What did you do with your gap year?

FV: It was necessary. It was a great year. I treated it like a sabbatical year, where you take a minute to exhale. And be with your family. That’s hard for coaches to do, and I really enjoyed and embraced that opportunity. My family is getting older – [daughters Alexa and Arianna are] 15 and 13 now – so it was great to have that year to be around them. Full time, 24/7. A sophomore and eighth grader now – [wife Jenifer and I] only have a few years left with them [at home]. So it was great to be a full-time dad.

But it was also great from a professional standpoint and a standpoint of learning. I studied the game from a different lens, a different perspective. I watched games all season from home, without a horse in the race. And I visited with a lot of teams. A lot of practices. A lot of coaches meetings, both at the collegiate and the pro levels. You pick up a lot of things. You coach your own system for so many years, that’s all you ever know. To be able to step inside and see how others do it was very beneficial.

SA: Anything in particular stand out?

FV: Everybody’s kind of doing the same thing [3-point focus], but in many different ways. You know what I mean? A lot of it was surprising. Some of it I wouldn’t do, but some of it, I’d shift my approach. You pick up little nuggets here and there, a little terminology that can maybe strengthen your schemes or your offensive system. I think it will help me with this next step.

SA: I would think the challenge is trusting the new stuff vs. leaning on the old stuff that has worked (or not).

FV: It’s more uncomfortable to do things differently than the way you’ve always done ‘em. But you have to be willing to do that, if you’re going to improve who you are as a coach.

There’s also the fact that the game has changed so much in the last five years, too. There’s an element of having to re-learn the style of play, from the way things were five, seven, eight years ago.

SA: I feel bad for the guys like former Pacers center Roy Hibbert and Greg Monroe (NBA big man who’ll be playing in China), the low-block bangers who’ve been rendered all but obsolete in today’s game. It’s really become a dinosaur thing of adapt-or-die, hasn’t it?

FV: I still think there’s a place for centers and big men in this league. The thing that’s gone away more than anything are lineups with two bigs. The non-shooting power forwards. Those are the guys I feel have suffered even more than the centers. They have become “fives” – but in turn, sometimes they’re just better basketball players than the [pure] fives. So that’s kind of pushing things too.

SA: So no more Kurt Rambis types? Tom Tolbert, Mark Landsberger? It’s all stretch fours and 3-and-D players now.

FV: The other guys can’t keep up offensively.

SA: We all know now that long 2-point shots are “bad.” Where you do you stand on long 3-pointers? Do the analytics support taking those shots?

FV: I call them “4-pointers.” You have guys with 3-point range and guys with 4-point range. You used to have to chart when you were preparing for a team how a guy shoots at the arc and how a guy shoots from the corner. Now you have to chart corner, arc and how they shoot from 4-point range. Maybe you want to give some guys those shots. But some guys – Steph [Curry], Dame [Lillard] – shoot a very high percentage from that range, so you have to treat them like it’s a corner three.

SA: So you’d rather have some opponents shooting from 16 feet than other guys launching from 32. You don’t think the league will add literally a 4-point line, do you?

FV: I hope not. I just found out they have the 4-point shot in the Big 3. I didn’t realize that [laughs]

SA: You faced big expectations before, especially in Indiana. But what you’re looking at now in L.A. are enormous expectations, coming from tradition, from passion and maybe from an impatience that’s unrealistic. Are you prepared for that?

FV: We have the pieces to compete for a championship. To have expectations that it’s all going to come together immediately might be reaching a little bit. I’m sure we’ll have some bumps in the road. But hopefully as these guys jell … we have a number of guys with terrific resumes, but they have to learn each other. And they’ll have to learn each other quickly. Then we’ll be in the mix for the regular season and positioning ourselves for a playoff run. You just never know how quickly that process is going to play out. So hopefully, whatever the regular season looks like, by the time you get into the playoffs you’re jelling at the right time and playing your best basketball.

SA: Everyone is talking about more competitive balance in 2019-20.

FV: I agree that it’s more open. But I think people are sleeping on Golden State if they think they’re still not going to be a great team. I definitely think that they are. But it does seem more balanced. There’s a lot being written about Big Twos instead of the Big Three era. To me, there are more teams that seem to have a reasonable chance to win it all.

SA: Is that a good thing? People used to talk about the value to a sport when, say, the Yankees are dominant or the Steelers are dominant, and your league has had the Warriors in that role. Even though fans of other franchises might not have appreciated it.

FV: It’s cyclical. I think those type of dynasties are good for the big picture. They’re fascinating when they’re taking place, and they’re fascinating when they fall and it becomes open again. It breathes life into many markets that maybe didn’t feel like they had a chance when the dynasty was in place. You can have the dynasty and then the No. 1 contender – that’s always interesting too.

SA: Well, you and Doc Rivers are the only two coaches who have to sort out who the No. 1 contender is in your own building. What do you expect out of Lakers-Clippers this season, two really good teams that want the same thing?

FV: No doubt. They have a terrific team and a terrific coach, and their front office is doing really well. But we can’t focus on their location. We still have to focus on ourselves and the task at hand. Not just worry about what’s happening crosstown. There are a lot of teams capable of winning the West, so we’ll be focused on our process.

SA: How different are LeBron and AD from players you’ve coached in the past?

FV: Talent-wise, they’re the two best players I’ll ever have had the opportunity to coach. That brings a lot of fun, a lot of excitement to what we’re able to do on the court. It brings a lot of challenges too. You have to make sure you’re managing them the right way and putting them in the right positions to feel good about their roles and what’s happening around them. There are challenges involved with that. So I’m looking forward to how that all is going to play out.

SA: LeBron and his coaches have been a storyline at each of his stops, and not always in a pleasant way. What do you anticipate?

FV: I only know how he’s been with me. That’s the only measuring stick I’m going to use. I’m not going to look at how it’s been with his past coaches. That really doesn’t concern me. I want to shape my own opinion of him as a person and one of the greatest ever. I’m going to take my approach and work together with him to hopefully do something special.

SA: Denver’s Mike Malone was an assistant in Cleveland when LeBron was there. He told me “LeBron makes anybody a better coach. Trust me – LeBron is coming off the first year in a long time where he didn’t make the playoffs. For Frank to be coaching a pissed-off LeBron James, that’s pretty good timing.” Do you expect LeBron to do the same sort of damage for you now that he did to your teams before?

FV: For sure. That’s going to be part of the excitement of this process.

SA: This might be more of a training camp question, but is it important to determine whether Davis plays power forward or center?

FV: It is, in this regard: To me, he’s effective in both positions. But I don’t think it’s wise when your mindset is to be at your best going into the playoffs, to have him banging with centers for 82 games full-time. Does that mean he’s never going to do it in the regular season? No, of course he’s going to play some center in the regular season. But we want to make sure we keep the end goal in sight and getting him to April, for that playoff run, the right way.

SA: So have you embedded the term “load management” in your vocabulary?

FV: I know. Everybody’s using it now. We’re not sure what level we’re going to use it with our guys. But it’s part of today’s culture, for sure.

SA: Where is Dwight Howard at physically and mentally? Do you have a sense for what he wants to accomplish now and for his legacy with however much longer he hopes to play?

FV: I think he’s excited about this opportunity with the Lakers. It’s very different from the first time he came through. Then, he was a mega-star coming in with two other mega-stars [Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash]. This time around, he’s had a few teams where they haven’t had great success. And he’s at a different point, age-wise, in his career. So he’s excited just to be part of something, in any way he can help. He knows it’s going to be more of a role player type of role.

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SA: And that’s acceptable to him?

FV: It’s definitely acceptable. He’s excited about it. And he has the ability to be one of the best at it in the league. He’s going to be concentrating on that. I’ll be defining what we’ll be expecting of him, in terms of defending and rebounding and screen-setting and lob-catching and all those things. He’s willing to accept any role that I lay out in front of him. We’ve had a great start to our relationship. He’s in a great place mentally.

SA: What do you like about your coaching staff?

FV: Everything. We really have it all. We’ve got great experience in Jason [Kidd] and Lionel [Hollins]. They had terrific head coaching stints. Both played at a high level and won championships. Jason obviously was a Hall of Fame player and his pass-first mindset carried over to his coaching. That will be a big part of what we do with our group. First we’ve got to be a team, despite the great talent that we have.

And then we’ve got other guys with a wealth of credentials behind that. Phil Handy being in five straight Finals and having an established relationship with LeBron, to help me put him in the right positions to succeed. Mike Penberthy comes in as one of the best skills or shooting coaches, respected league-wide, and has a relationship with AD from the Pelicans the last couple years. He can help me put Anthony in great positions as well.

Miles Simon has been great in terms of bridging the gap with this transition, and is a great young coach. And then we’ve got my guy Quinton Crawford from Orlando who was my head video guy. He has an immense coaching talent – he cut his teeth the same way I did.

SA: I was going to say, video guys grabbing that first rung on the coaching ladders must be a key position on your staff.

FV: It really is. Not all of them are made for taking that jump. But Quinton is. He’s a talented guy, so we really have all the bases covered with our staff.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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