Los Angeles Lakers head coach Frank Vogel's seat is hotter than ever.
The Athletic's Bill Oram and Sam Amick reported Vogel is being “evaluated on a game-to-game basis and remains at risk of being fired soon if the progress doesn’t continue, sources said. It’s unclear how much Monday’s win relieved the pressure that surrounds him.”
Kyle Goon of the Orange County Register reported on “inflamed tension” between the coach and management, dating back to the Lakers' decision in August to offer Vogel a measly one-year extension. Dan Woike of The Los Angeles Times reported there are “no current plans” to replace Vogel, which is specifically phrased by his source to mean nothing.
Kurt Rambis, now the 3rd most powerful person in the Lakers organization, specifically requesting Frank Vogel play DeAndre Jordan more is beyond parody — almost the last thing Lakers fans want to learn.https://t.co/m88BTwiBvu pic.twitter.com/z7jUIjIz6k
— Michael Corvo (@michaelcorvoNBA) January 19, 2022
Vogel may have been axed had the Lakers lost to the Utah Jazz on Monday at home. The Lakers were coming off an uninspired 37-point defeat to the Denver Nuggets amid an abysmal three-game losing streak, resulting in a chorus of internal and external criticism regarding the team's consistently underwhelming effort.
Before the Utah game, Vogel vigorously defended his coaching staff.
“We put in the work every day. The coaching staff works tirelessly, OK, both in analyzing our postgame, meeting with our players individually, to show them ways that they have to be better, reinforce ways they were great. They (the coaching staff) work tirelessly in putting together game plans. … We know how to build an elite defense. It hasn’t taken form quite yet with this group, but the work is still being put in, and when you work at something you’re going to improve.”
Los Angeles hung tough against Utah pulled out a much-needed 105-100 win. It was the Lakers' sixth victory against a team currently above .500, and it's first against a top-tier contender — unless you count early-season triumphs over the Memphis Grizzlies (who they've since lost to three times) and the Miami Heat in overtime (without Jimmy Butler for the second half).
The Lakers will host the plummeting Indiana Pacers on Wednesday before embarking on a six-game East Coast swing that could see the return of Anthony Davis and features a slew of matchups with playoff-caliber teams. How the Lakers hold up could determine if Vogel returns West with a job.
Here are the cases for and against firing Vogel.
Let's focus on the present. According to Marc Stein, there is a “notion making the rounds in league coaching circles that Vogel has lost all sway” over the Lakers star-laded roster. Regardless of who's at fault or how things progressed to this point, if Vogel has lost the locker room, it may be time to cut ties.
Furthermore, while Vogel can't be blamed for the Lakers' flawed roster, he isn't blameless in their struggles. He's made plenty of rotation miscues — including in the third quarter of Monday's win — and took too long to settle on a rotation and a style. The Lakers should have gone smaller earlier, but Vogel — historically a deployer of two-big lineups — stuck with DeAndre Jordan in the starting lineup for 15 games too many (his reliance on Avery Bradley feels a tad retrograde, too).
It's taken too long to adjust his schemes to the revamped roster. The lack of consistent “care factor”, as he would say, is partially on him, as is the Lakers' inability to build off of encouraging outings.
Vogel has been one of the premier coaches in the NBA for years. He's been set up to fail by the front office and bad luck. But this season hasn't been his best work by any means. He may not be the right fit for this particular group, especially if his voice is now ringing hollow behind closed doors.
Vogel steered the Lakers to a title in his first campaign (he was their third choice, if you recall). The 2019-20 squad was full of above-average, improving, and under-contract complementary pieces who developed enviable chemistry in the bubble. Here's what the Lakers' front office — with steady input from LeBron, AD, and Rich Paul — have done since:
- Re-tooled the roster in 2020 free agency, which took place just weeks before the season. L.A. traded Danny Green and a first-round pick for Dennis Schroder, let Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee go, and brought in Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell. Whiffs.
- Despite a season of debilitating injuries, fatigue, and virus issues, the Lakers signed Andre Drummond and promised him the starting center spot, which irked Gasol and Harrell. Tensions simmered. The Lakers still finished No. 1 in the NBA in defensive rating.
- Following a disappointing first-round loss to an eventual Finals team — in which Drummond was a DNP in Game 6, Davis was injured with the Lakers up 2-1, and LeBron was hampered by a sprained ankle — the Lakers fired their training staff, among other behind-the-scenes changes. (Pelinka praised Vogel at exit interviews.)
- The organization had a falling out with key assistant Lionel Hollins, on top of Jason Kidd's departure.
- The Lakers completely overhauled their roster and cashed in their two-way glue guys (Kyle Kuzma, Alex Caruso, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope) for Russell Westbrook — a declining 33-year old, obvious awkward fit, and one of the toughest players to integrate — while hamstringing their financial and trade flexibility. They filled out their roster with one-way, minimum guys (some of whom were non-rotation players on bad teams in 2020-21). Trevor Ariza was never going to be the answer.
- Ownership handed Vogel a one-year extension — an empty gesture that strategically offered Vogel no leverage nor job security.
- Before training camp, Rob Pelinka called Vogel a defensive guru. Ostensibly, this was a compliment. In reality, he was placing outsized pressure on the coach to work wonders with the defensively-challenged roster the front office assembled. Before AD's MCL sprain, the Lakers had the ninth-ranked defense.
Predictably, this has led to where the Lakers are now — at .500, bereft of cohesion or direction, and with uncertainty swirling.
Vogel has been a rare constant since the title — nearly everything else has changed. The Westbrook Experiment has been a debacle that everybody saw coming. (In fact, as The Ringer's Ryan Russillo pointed out, a perfect encapsulation of Vogel's lack of culpability relative to the front office came in the fourth quarter of the Jazz win. The Lakers made a thrilling run with LeBron and four youngsters — Talen Horton-Tucker, Stanley Johnson, Austin Reaves, and Malik Monk. Instead of closing with that unit, Vogel was obligated to put the nine-time All-Star earning $44 million back in the game with under four minutes to play.
And obviously when you get a fake one year extension the team isn’t super into you. But last night is a great example. They came back without Russ. Vogel brought him in as late as possible. The right move is to keep him on the bench, but you can’t…
— Russillo (@ryenarussillo) January 18, 2022
Injuries to Davis (16 games missed) and LeBron (12 games missed) have further complicated matters, along with a brutal COVID-19 outbreak in December. Vogel contracted the virus, missed five games, and spent the holidays isolating in a hotel away from his family. The Lakers went 1-4 with David Fizdale in charge.
Then again, when you voluntarily overhaul your roster and tear down any infrastructure you had in place, you leave little margin for error when things get shaky.
Frank Vogel is not the source of the Los Angeles Lakers' problems. Firing him midseason would be counterproductive, especially with Davis — who has played 15 games alongside LeBron and Russ — close to returning. For all their issues, the Lakers are three games out of the No. 5 seed. Who's going to turn this whole thing around over the next two months? Does Fizdale — or an outside voice — give this team a better chance of winning the 2021-22 NBA championship?
The Lakers are a desperate organization looking for a quick fix. In sports, teams in that position usually scapegoat the head coach first. It wouldn't be smart — nor surprising.