In spite of widespread skepticism, Frank Vogel has smoothly guided the Los Angeles Lakers through his first regular season as coach.
Frank Vogel never had a honeymoon. Most coaches, upon being hired, are greeted with a sort of hopeful enthusiasm. Fans are fans for a reason, and have a well-documented tendency to hope for the best. Instead, Vogel was hired under a cloud of controversy after the exhaustively documented breakdown in talks between the Lakers and erstwhile LeBron James coach, Tyronn Lue.
Many in the media and online dismissed Vogel as a third choice coach and placeholder for assistants Jason Kidd and Lionel Hollins. It was widely assumed that he would be the fall guy, should the team run into any real trouble.
In spite of the noise, the team rallied around Vogel from the first. LeBron James – the most important voice in the locker room – already respected Vogel from his days in Miami. When he played in consecutive Eastern Conference Finals series’ against the Vogel-coached Indiana Pacers. The rest of the locker room got the message.
Vogel’s open, direct, and collaborative style has proven successful while managing a team with two experienced superstars and a staff with two former head coaches. Who are also former star players. He has navigated potentially difficult dynamics by sustaining team success. He has been even and measured in his public comments, always realistic but never too high or too low.
Offensively, his sets have gotten some criticism for not being particularly imaginative. His reputation coming into this season was predominantly as a defensive coach, and no one currently on the coaching staff fits the “offensive coordinator” role. Especially in the way that Tex Winter did for another defensive-minded Laker head coach, Phil Jackson.
During the season, he took significant heat for under-utilizing the LeBron James/Anthony Davis screen-and-roll in favor of post-ups or isolation plays. In part, that was a reaction to the way the Lakers have been defended this season. When Davis is being guarded by a position 4 player or the opposing team plays a smaller 5, teams are switching the screen-and-roll. That leads naturally to mismatches and isolation play.
In the playoffs, when teams are heavily scouted and offensive sets are known to all. Offensive play in recent years has frequently degenerated into the cat-and-mouse game of manipulating switches to create advantageous match-ups. Purposefully creating perimeter isolation or post up situations for James and Davis throughout the season is, in all probability, designed to get the team accustomed to the style of offense they are likely to be playing in the post-season.
Defensively, Vogel has been superb. The Lakers are third in the NBA in defensive rating (up from 13th last year), and the team-wide buy-in has been noticeable. The late-season addition of a strong, versatile defender in Markieff Morris only stands to improve an already stingy Laker defense.
Overall, Vogel has built an impressive case for himself in the Coach of the Year balloting. He has stiff competition in Toronto’s Nick Nurse, who has kept the Raptors in the top tier in the East in spite of losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green from last year’s championship squad. Mike Budenholzer of the Bucks would be a top contender, but he was last year’s victor and the voters dislike consecutive wins – only once has any coach won back-to-back CotY awards.
Other coaches from teams who are not top-tier, such as Indiana’s Nate McMillan and Memphis’ Taylor Jenkins, have made waves by maximizing limited rosters. But are disadvantaged by the fact that both Vogel and Nurse are coaching contending teams.
Whether he ultimately receives the award or not, Frank Vogel has been a reasonable, steady hand for a team that needed a down-to-earth coach who could nonetheless earn the respect of the star-studded team and coaching staff. The real test of his ability will come in the playoffs. But thus far he has provided everything that Laker fans could have wanted from him.
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