The Los Angeles Lakers’ season did not go the way anyone was hoping for, and Frank Vogel is bearing the first real consequences. So after rumors throughout the year that he would be fired, as expected, the team has finally pulled the trigger on that move, and will walk away from the head coach they won a title with less than two calendar years ago.
Adrian Wojnarowski broke the story right as the final buzzer sounded on the team’s 33-49 season.
Vogel led the Lakers to the 2020 NBA Championship and assuredly will be a candidate again in the league’s future head coaching cycles.
— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) April 11, 2022
I, uh, feel like he might find out before that now, Woj! Especially considering that the report came out before he did his postgame interview.
Vogel on the reports that he has been fired: “I haven’t been told shit. I’m going to enjoy tonight’s game…and we’ll deal with tomorrow tomorrow.”
—Jacob Rude (@JacobRude) April 11, 2022
But even outside of the team’s disappointing season, the writing has been on the wall that the organization was not fully committed to Vogel for a while now. After whispers that they would either not give Vogel an extension on the final year of his deal, or not extend him for longer than one year, the team announced his extension in a Friday night news dump, the first sign that it was something they were trying to sweep under the rug rather than a decision to celebrate.
Not long after, the (expected) ensuing report that the extension was indeed only for one year made Vogel (in effect) a lame-duck coach. That they had previously hired an assistant coach that LeBron James loves in David Fizdale — whose prior small-ball offensive philosophies fit better with this roster than Vogel’s love for tall-ball — did little to quell speculation. By midseason, there had been multiple leaks that Vogel was on the verge of being canned at various points, and that he would have been dumped already if Jason Kidd was still on his bench. The team couldn’t even wait until the season was over to leak that their decision was already made, so it’s no surprise that the news came so quickly after it had officially ended.
So, in short, this wasn’t exactly an unexpected end to the perpetually awkward, arranged marriage between the Lakers and Vogel, who from start to finish truly never appeared to be the team’s first choice.
Now, that’s not to say that Vogel did himself many favors during a truly miserable 2021-22 campaign. Completely overhauling the team’s offensive system so that there was no continuity for a roster already lacking in it may have been a mistake in retrospect, but looming larger was Vogel’s early, dogmatic and often flabbergasting level of commitment to a big lineup with DeAndre Jordan as the starting center in the hopes of recapturing the regular season form the team found with the Anthony Davis/JaVale McGee frontcourt from the 2019-20 campaign, even though Davis had expressed a willingness to play mostly center this season.
Instead, Vogel started Jordan for 16 of the Lakers’ first 23 games before playing him just 12 times total the rest of the year before Jordan was cut at midseason. The Lakers only eventually committed to small-ball when Vogel was out sick with COVID-19, but he eventually went back to starting big at maybe the worst possible time: In the team’s last meaningful game of the year, with Dwight Howard and Avery Bradley starting alongside Russell Westbrook and the returning duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis in an abomination of a starting group, and one that only a coach who cares as little about the level of shooting necessary for success in the 2022 NBA could love.
As a result, the team lost to the Pelicans, sealing their fate. The game — featuring lethargy, lack of offensive creativity, and a fourth-quarter collapse — was basically a microcosm of the 2021-22 Lakers.
Now, maybe some of the choices Vogel got continually blasted for by his biggest critics were front office edict, but it surely didn’t have to be the reanimated remains of Jordan stumbling around out there if the desire was to go big early on, and the team didn’t have to prioritize shooting in their lineups as little as they did, as often as they did. They didn’t have to be so allergic to switching, or to funnel drivers towards rim protection that didn’t exist in small lineups. They didn’t have to play Avery Bradley this much.
This team — and, it turns out, Vogel especially — just never had enough margin for error to make up for all their compounding self-owns, errors that sapped the team’s spirit and belief in itself to the point where they basically gave up around the All-Star break, no longer committed to consistently playing hard and focused basketball for a coach they clearly regarded as little more than a substitute teacher for his eventual replacement, a replacement most of them won’t be around to see as a result of their own actions.
Now, to be as fair to Vogel as possible, injuries to the team’s wings to start training camp made it tougher for the team to fully and effectively embrace the small-ball identity they were designed for, and Rob Pelinka and Kurt Rambis constructing this team to only have Talen Horton-Tucker and 36-year-old Trevor Ariza as his wing options beyond LeBron also deserves scrutiny here.
Still, Vogel didn’t necessarily help himself get off to a good start, even if there is deeper context to why he went in the direction he did, a direction that led to him getting a metaphorical lunch at Chik-Fil-A right now .
There will be (and already have been throughout the year) cries from the national media, and maybe even some locally, that this is unfair. That Vogel got a raw deal. That he didn’t construct this team, and certainly wasn’t leading the charge to trade for Russell Westbrook. And maybe the front office giving him a roster about as ill-fitting as possible to play his chosen style set him up for failure. On a human level, it certainly wasn’t very considerate.
But, if anything, it’s easier to argue that the team should have let him go sooner. It wasn’t the star-heavy Lakers team’s job to build around their head coach. Vogel’s preferences were never going to be at the top of the totem pole. That’s just not how the NBA works. LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Rob Pelinka all wanted Westbrook and a team full of certified buckets. Fair or not, it was Vogel’s job to optimize that grouping. He didn’t, and now he’s gone.
Make no mistake: Vogel is a good coach, and his frenetic defensive style will always be something Lakers fans will have to thank for the team’s dominating run to the 2020 title. But as the team leaned more towards a small-ball, offense-focused approach to save wear and tear on their stars as they age, Vogel’s inability to schematically or rotationally figure out a way to coach the team he had instead of the team he wanted was ultimately a large part of his undoing, even if roster decisions that were out of his hands played a role in those failings.
And, at some point, it was clear the front office just wanted to do this. Better to rip the band-aid off than drag the mess out if they’ve already made their decision. Even if maybe they could have waited until Monday — or at least until after Vogel’s postgame presser — every coaching decision this regime has made, from lowballing Ty Lue, to forcing Jason Kidd onto Vogel’s staff, and even only giving Vogel a three-year deal before only begrudgingly tackling one year onto it, showed how fungible they feel coaching is. So even if Vogel wasn’t the only problem, firing him and getting a new voice in is clearly the next step as the team tries to move on from a year everyone is going to want to forget.
With Vogel gone, it’s unknown exactly where the team will go from here, and who will take the job, but Quin Snyder, Doc Rivers and other familiar faces are expected to be candidates. And as the hours, days and weeks tick by, more will surely come out about the reasoning for this decision, but this always felt inevitable that Vogel would be scapegoated if this season didn’t work. Front offices, no matter how flawed, don’t fire or reassign themselves. All that remains to be seen is if this coaching change can actually fix anything, or if much of the same institutional rot that led to this always-awkward season will doom the Lakers’ next coach, too.
This developing story will update with more information.
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