Frank Vogel was hired by the Los Angeles Lakers back in May of 2019, despite rumors that he hadn’t even been one of the top candidates to land the role. He quickly silenced any doubters, leading the Lakers to their first NBA championship since the 2009-10 season. With that elusive ring, he was rewarded with an extension, though surprisingly the front office only tacked on one additional year to his deal.
That may not have been such a bad idea for the Lakers, however, as the team has struggled in 2021-22, barely clinging onto a spot in the play-in tournament. LA is in ninth in the West, just half a game ahead of the Pelicans, and 1.5 games above the San Antonio Spurs. With nine games left on the slate for the Lakers, there is a multitude of issues surrounding the team, despite the abundance of talent on the roster. Vogel has an enormous challenge heading to the play-in tournament when everything is back to square one, and reaching the playoffs may just be his last chance at saving his job.
With that in mind, here’s what needs to happen for Vogel to stay in his role as head coach of the Lakers.
Utilize Russell Westbrook effectively
Undoubtedly the most scrutinized NBA player this season, Russell Westbrook has heavily underperformed both offensively and defensively. The adjustment period for Westbrook to play alongside one of the best ever in LeBron James along with the bright lights of L.A. has been one of the toughest junctures of his professional career. Things have picked up a bit of late, however, as Westbrook is enjoying a solid run of games, looking more like his former self than Los Angeles’ public enemy No. 1.
Lakers fans are surely hopeful these are signs of better things to come, but it could easily be an outlier as well. Even if Vogel may not be the primary reason for his uprising, it would bode well for his job security if Westbrook is able to rediscover his past form and becomes a key cog in a playoff run. Vogel may have finally found the recipe to put Westbrook in the best position to win as his numbers have been spectacular, despite the losses. If Russ is finding his footing, there’s reason for optimism for Vogel and the Lakers.
Motivating veterans like Melo, Dwight to produce in the playoffs & play-in
Two future Hall of Famers who are in the twilight of their NBA careers could still play prominent roles for a Lakers squad that is still grasping onto championship aspirations. Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony have both produced excellent numbers in spurts this season, though the consistency hasn’t been there. Getting the best out of Melo and Howard during the final stretch of the season will be crucial towards the Lakers getting the best possible seeding. The Lakers don’t need huge numbers from them, but if Vogel can motivate Howard to be a beast on the boards, and if Melo is able to knock down his open looks, they may just have a shot at a playoff run.
A throwback performance of Howard and Anthony along with the expected numbers from James, Westbrook, and Anthony Davis could be enough to propel the Lakers to the next round of the postseason, though they’ll have to showcase some level of chemistry they’ve yet to display this season. The Lakers will have a difficult first-round matchup regardless of what seed they land in, but if these guys can all play at their top levels, there’s enough talent in LA to stage an upset.
Getting back to a top-tier defensive squad
With Dennis Schroder running the point last season, the Lakers were one of the better defensive teams in the league. That has changed dramatically since they brought in Westbrook, as his defensive production is simply far below standard. It’s not just Westbrook that’s plummeting the Lakers’ defensive rating, but if the team doesn’t figure out how to limit opponents’ open looks, their struggles will continue.
Poor defensive is very out of character for a Vogel-led unit, considering he built his excellent reputation by hammering home defense. For the Lakers to maximize their immense talent, defense must become the focal point of the team. We know LeBron James is going to score in bunches, but what does that matter if the other team is putting up 120 points per night? There have been several eighth or seventh seeds who have advanced far in the playoffs, but for the Lakers to have a plausible chance this year, they must go back in putting defense as the utmost priority. Vogel needs to get 100% out of his players on every single possession. If the Lakers want to make some noise in the playoffs, it will start with making key improvements on the defensive side of the ball.