While it should come as no surprise to anyone that’s been keeping tabs on Los Angeles, head coach Frank Vogel and the Lakers have parted ways. This comes after a disappointing season, in which the Lakers failed to even reach the play-in, finishing the season 33-49.
“Frank is a great coach and a good man. We will forever be grateful to him for his work in guiding us to the 2019-20 NBA championship. This is an incredibly difficult decision to make, but one we feel is necessary at this point.”Rob Pelinka
I doubt this was as difficult of a decision as Pelinka made it seem. The security of Vogel’s job has been in dispute since the beginning of the season, when it became clear the Lakers weren’t gelling as a team. Vogel is a great coach, and he is simply the scapegoat for a horribly underwhelming season. The real blame lies on LeBron James and the Lakers’ front office. Let’s take a look at why.
This whole thing went down the drain during the summer of 2021. During the bubble of 2019-20, the Lakers won the NBA Finals, defeating a Miami Heat team led by Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. However, during the 2020-21 season, the Lakers didn’t do so well. They finished as a seventh seed, defeated Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors in the play-in. However, Anthony Davis was injured during a first-round series against the Phoenix Suns. Led by Chris Paul, Devin Booker, and Deandre Ayton, the Suns would go on to defeat the Lakers in five games, advancing all the way to the NBA Finals.
From here, James panicked. Running it back would have worked completely fine for this team; the reason they didn’t do better was injuries. LeBron appeared in only 45 of 72 games in the 2020-21 season; of course the Lakers were going to underperform! Chances are if the Lakers sticked with their same team, they would have done extremely well this year. They had the stars in Davis and LeBron, as well as a cast very complementary to James, featuring Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, defensive ace Alex Caruso, and more.
The Lakers did make a smart move by creating a deal with the Kings. In this deal, Buddy Hield would have become a Laker, while Kuzma and KCP would have gone to the Kings. This would have given the Lakers more three-point shooting (which is always needed around James), and a player capable of averaging near 20 points per game.
Russell Westbrook, on the other side of the country, heard about the deal. Westbrook had just had a very successful season, becoming the NBA’s triple-double king, averaging a triple-double, and leading the Washington Wizards to the playoffs with Bradley Beal. However, it was clear his future wasn’t in Washington. Westbrook wanted to play in LA, so he immediately told Tommy Sheppard to send him to LA. Sheppard called Pelinka, and the Buddy Hield deal was quickly waved off. Soon, it was Westbrook headed to LA, in exchange for Kuzma, Caldwell-Pope, Montrezl Harrell, and a pick.
This was mistake number one for the Lakers. Pelinka likely decided to do this move within the span of 30 minutes, and in large part due to “LeGM James.” The chances that LeBron really thought through this move and how it would affect the spacing and turnovers are low, and shows that he was more concerned with building a super team than looking at what would really win basketball games. Los Angeles is a huge market, all about acquiring the biggest stars. In this case, it backfired on them horribly.
Even worse was that there were a few other stars who were thinking of coming to LA. DeMar DeRozan was one of them, as he was thinking about a homecoming. Damian Lillard was another potential rumor. Whatever the case, the Lakers blew their cap space on Westbrook, who is a great player — in the right situation.
The Lakers’ next mistake was giving up youth for veterans. This was largely summed up by the Lakers letting Caruso walk in free agency. As fun of a player as Caruso is, he was crucial to the Lakers, for both his defense and three-point shooting. During the 2020-21 season, Caruso averaged 40.1% from three, well above the league average. Most importantly, he had a defensive box plus/minus of 2.5, which was higher than that of Davis and James. In fact, Caruso had the second highest defensive box plus/minus on the entire team, second only to Marc Gasol.
The Lakers roster in 2021 was solid, with guys like Quinn Cook, Andre Drummond, Kostas Antetokounmpo, Talen Horton-Tucker, Wesley Matthews, Alfonzo McKinnie, Dennis Schroder, and the others I mentioned: Kuzma, Caldwell-Pope, and Harrell. During the offseason, all of these players were replaced with older veterans, such as Carmelo Anthony, Deandre Jordan, Kent Bazemore, Wayne Ellington and Dwight Howard. All of those players are well into their 30s. To their credit, the Lakers did try to bring in some youth, such as Kendrick Nunn and Malik Monk. They also re-signed Horton-Tucker to a three-year deal.
Ironically, there are times where it feels like the younger players are carrying Los Angeles. Monk is averaging career highs in every major statistical category, and undrafted rookie Austin Reaves has been one of the few bright spots on this roster.
It isn’t Vogel’s fault that the team has been doing so horribly; management handed him a team full of veterans who are set in their ways, don’t fit well together, are injury prone, and told him to win. It’s amazing that Vogel even coached this team to 33 wins!
The idea that James, Davis, and Westbrook would “figure out” how to play with one another isn’t completely laughable, given that they’re 11-10 when they all play. But at the very least, we know they weren’t going to be a title contender. Vogel did the best he could, and should be praised for it.
Look at this quote:
“Russ [Westbrook] never respected Frank [Vogel] from Day 1,” said one Lakers staff member with knowledge of the situation. “The moment Frank said anybody who gets the rebound can bring it up the court, which is just how the NBA is played these days, Russ was like, ‘Naw, I’m the point guard. Give the ball to me. Everybody run. Frank was like, ‘No, we have Talen [Horton-Tucker]. We have Austin [Reaves]. We have Malik. We have LeBron. We have AD. They can all bring the ball up.’ He was like, ‘Nope, I’m the point guard. Give me that s—. Everybody get out the way.’
“From that point on, in training camp, it was a wrap, ‘cause now Russ is a fish out of water. He doesn’t know what to do. That’s how that started.”
How can you expect a coach to work with that?
There have only been a few coaches in NBA history fired so soon after winning an NBA championship, such as Avery Johnson, George Karl, Byron Scott, Sam Mitchell, and Mike Brown. Dwane Casey is another example, as he was fired after winning Coach of the Year in 2018 (except in this case, it worked out, as the Raptors won a championship the next year). If I’m a team looking for a coach in the offseason, I’d make sure to offer the job to Vogel. It’s not his fault that the LA superstars ran him out, and that the front office has no backbone; he’s still an amazing coach.