When Frank Vogel was hired to coach the Los Angeles Lakers, after Monty Williams and Ty Lue rejected their overtures, it felt like a short marriage because the Lakers forced Jason Kidd on Vogel as a lead assistant. It was somewhat passive-aggressive, a sly maneuver to let Kidd get some reps, and then the job would be his after Vogel lost it. Bets were being taken as to when Kidd would replace Vogel and it was no knock on Vogel who was considered nice but lacking the grit and a player’s resume to handle the pressure of both Los Angeles, and the final years of LeBron James career. It was hard to forget how James premeditated David Blatt’s departure, so what would make Vogel different?
The Kidd wagering began in late summer 2019. How soon would Jason Kidd be the Lakers coach? Thirty days? Two months? Or perhaps in March when the Lakers were desperate?
But a funny thing happened on the road to Coach Kidd. The Lakers got off to a great start. Their defense was spectacular. They won games on the road. They won games at home. The only team they couldn’t beat was the Clippers. Even Dwight Howard was happy and not complaining. All of a sudden Jason Kidd as a Judas for the good of the kingdom was a remote idea and not a dominant storyline. Frank Vogel did the unthinkable. A vanilla personality of a man who lacks glamour or hipster cred had everyone buying in.
The same seat that Vogel now occupies once belonged to Mike D’Antoni. When D’Antoni coached the Lakers he had the brilliant idea of sitting Hall of Famer to be Pau Gasol. (In D’Antoni wisdom post up basketball is the most worthless way to get two points.) When Kobe Bryant played 48 minutes in back-to-back games and then ripped his Achilles D’Antoni and not Bryant was the target of scorn. And oh yeah, Dwight Howard hated him.
Why did D’Antoni fail but Vogel is succeeding? D’Antoni’s Lakers were a broken bunch. Howard wanted to be a star and butted heads with Bryant. D’Antoni couldn’t manage the bad chemistry. And Pau brooded once D’Antoni sent him to the bench. On the basketball side of things, D’Antoni struggles with adjustments and Vogel excels at adjustments. We see it in the playoffs.
Adjustment #1: sitting Dwight Howard. Howard is too slow and not skilled enough offensively to be a positive influence in small ball.
Adjustment #2: replacing Markieff Morris with JaVale McGee. Morris allows for space and sharper cuts in the paint and he can score over smaller defenders. His defense is less bully ball than Howard’s whose elbows and shoves always occur right in front of the ref. Morris is more deceptive.
Adjustment #3: double-teaming James Harden. Harden gets worn down by double teams and he lacks the innate instinct to give up the ball, cut hard, and then get the ball back. He fades away after double teams as if someone just knocked him in the jaw and he has to take an 8-count.
Adjustment #4: playing rookie Talen Horton-Tucker. Vogel didn’t pay attention to the unwritten playoff rule that says rookies do harm. They are too nervous and get confused and don’t think the game. Playoff defense exposes their weaknesses and when frustrated their mouth gets them in trouble. See Michael Porter Jr. But Horton-Tucker has a 7-1 wingspan. He plays defense. He can create off the dribble and hit a three and he came into camp a different player which says something about his work ethic. Lakers guard Alex Caruso says Horton-Tucker has “that Chicago defense: the pressure, the long arms, getting deflections.”
Frank Vogel is New Jersey through and through. In middle school, he did a stunt on Late Night with David Letterman. Letterman’s gag called “Stupid Human Tricks” had Vogel spinning a basketball on a toothbrush.
While that was fun and games, the fire that ruined his house when he was 17 was just the opposite. He and his mother had to escape through the window and everything was destroyed. He started for Division III Juniata College then transferred to Kentucky. Under Rick Pitino, Vogel was the student manager for the basketball team. He played junior varsity.
After working for the Celtics as a head video coordinator, under Pitino, he was an assistant coach in 2001-02. Next up was assistant coachwork for the Sixers. He was a scout for the Lakers and Wizards and then an assistant for the Pacers. When Jim O’Brien was fired Vogel was the interim and led the Pacers to the playoffs. That was good enough to become the starting coach. Vogel had at his disposal Paul George who had been drafted the year before.
Under Vogel, the Pacers won 230 games in a five-year span. Three of the five years, the Pacers had a top-5 defense and two of those years they lead the league in defensive rating. Vogel’s last year in Indy the Pacers defensive rating was ranked 3rd. The Pacers never had a defensive ranking, or a defensive rating, that wasn’t in the top-10 which was the driving force behind two Eastern Conference Finals appearances.
Similarly, Vogel’s Lakers are equally defensive-minded. In the regular season, the Lakers were 3rd in defensive rating, 4th in defense, 1st in blocks, 7th in offensive rebounding, and 7th in 3-point shooting defense. The first thing Vogel did after being hired was to meet with LeBron James and sell him on his plan.
Lakers fans like the winning but wish it was more flashy and glamorous, what they are used to. But teams reflect the coach’s image. Perhaps if Jason Kidd was the coach there would be a lot of flash but this is Vogel’s image. Tons of hustle. Toughness. Defense. LeBron James. And Anthony Davis.
A year after the Frank Vogel hire, Jason Kidd better start working on a Plan B list. (Indiana, New Orleans, Chicago, Philadelphia). The Lakers job is taken.