In any Lakers season as full of frustrations, setbacks, and mediocrity as this one has been so far, the fanbase will have opinions about who is to blame. Strong ones. Maybe it isn’t surprising that the two most prominent targets of criticism this season – Frank Vogel and Russell Westbrook – have been the two people about whom the loudest questions were being asked before the season began.
But as the season creeps to the halfway point and the team’s record continues to stagnate, the volume of that criticism is certain to increase. It is a fact about talented teams that expect to contend for championships that their star players are considered less expendable than their coaches. Coaches do not have to be traded and their salaries do not have to be matched. The overwhelming likelihood is that, if a major change is going to come this season, it will be the replacement of Frank Vogel.
The calls for Vogel’s metaphorical head have grown to a point that they require some counterbalancing. The Lakers have been a deeply frustrating team to watch and have undeniably underperformed expectations to this point. Yet, there are good reasons for the team to be patient and stay the course with Vogel… at least until the end of this season.
Arguing that it would be best for the Lakers to retain Vogel is not to say that he has been blameless for the team’s underperformance this season. Certain tendencies of his that fans and media have criticized since his arrival in Los Angeles (and before) have contributed to the problem.
Vogel has been slow to adjust his rotations, especially during the regular season. DeAndre Jordan was a regular feature of the rotation for weeks after it had become clear, both on the court and in the data, that he was a serious liability. Until recently Malik Monk struggled to get heavy minutes throughout the season, in spite of the immediate offensive boosts he frequently provided. Those adjustments have been made at a snail’s pace, even when the team was much closer to full strength than it is at present.
Additionally, his offenses during the early portion of each season with the Lakers have been tedious. They have been heavy on post-ups, light on off-ball movement, and frustratingly easy for opponents to game-plan against. It doesn’t seem to be much of a reach to suggest that such stagnant earlytactics have contributed to the sub-par effort often given by the teams.
Other criticisms of Vogel have been voiced, but these are by far the largest and loudest. There can be no questioning their validity. What they do not amount to is a case for removing Vogel based on his previous record in Los Angeles. His deficiencies when compared to an ideal NBA coach are clear. Yet that coach, whomever they may be, is not available to replace Vogel should he be fired.
Fans complained throughout the 2020 season that Dwight Howard’s minutes were inconsistent when he was clearly more effective than JaVale McGee. Yet the playoffs came, Vogel adjusted promptly based on what the opponent was presenting him, and the Lakers waltzed to their 18th NBA title. Last year, during a playoff series derailed by injuries, Vogel again adjusted smartly against a Phoenix team that ended their season two wins away from a Finals trophy.
What replacement that is available has Frank Vogel’s record of utilizing star players in playoff settings? Beyond his performance with the Lakers, in the last decade he coached the Indiana Pacers as they provided the only serious resistance to the LeBron James-led Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference. Give Frank Vogel the needed skill sets on the court and he will deliver an elite playoff defense, with room for star talents to take over the offense. Relatively few NBA coaches have that to offer.
None of this is to claim that Vogel is necessarily a top-tier NBA coach. That depends on the criteria used to draw such a line. What Frank Vogel provides is not genius or inspiration, but steadiness. In games that truly matter and he has his full complement of players to use, he rarely makes mistakes. With a roster that has as much talent as the Lakers’, avoiding errors is one of the most impactful and least appreciated capacities a coach can have.
To part with that quality in good conscience, the Lakers would need to have a plausible alternative that provides something of roughly equivalent value for this roster. The list of available individuals that meet that standard, if it is not blank, is short.
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