Frank Vogel, the most improbable Lakers champion

Frank Vogel
Graphic Image by Dillon Hiser/Lakers Outsiders

On April 12, 2018, Frank Vogel was dismissed as head coach of the Orlando Magic. It was immediately after the Magic had finished a 25-57 2017-18 campaign, bringing Vogel’s total record to 54-110 in two seasons with the organization. That sort of feels like a really long time ago (given everything that has happened in the world since then), but to put it in perspective, LeBron James signed a 4-year, $153 million deal with the Los Angeles Lakers only 111 days after Vogel’s firing. Fast forward two years and three months to today, and Frank Vogel has joined only Bill Sharman, Pat Riley, and Phil Jackson as head coaches to win a championship with the Los Angeles Lakers. Not a bad turnaround of a career if you ask me.

In the span of two years, Frank Vogel went from a franchise lacking superstar power throughout the 2000s due to being dead center in the Midwest to a team that has spent the better part of that same time period being a miserable basketball team. So how in the hell did Frank Vogel go from being let go by the Indiana Pacers and Orlando Magic to being hired by Jeanie Buss, Rob Pelinka, and the Lakers?

For one, Vogel didn’t necessarily inherit the greatest of situations as new head coach of the 2016-17 Orlando Magic. Only a month after his hiring they acquired Serge Ibaka from the Oklahoma City Thunder. It was a liked deal by many for Orlando, although the trade ended up as a much better deal for the Thunder in the short and long run. That was due to Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova, and the rights to Domantas Sabonis being the pieces that the Magic decided to trade. They also joined in with the Lakers as teams to give out terrible 2016 contracts (*cough cough* Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng *cough cough*), giving a four-year, $72 million deal to Bismack Biyombo. Who knows how much say Vogel had in the matter, but the deals resulted in a wonky starting lineup with three bigs in Ibaka, Biyombo, and Nicola Vucevic. The team structure especially didn’t make sense in the current age of championship teams built on large three-and-D wings such as the Golden State Warriors.

Excuses aside, Frank Vogel came into L.A. a different coach than he previously was with the Magic or the Pacers. Kyle Goon of the OC Register profiled Vogel almost exactly a year ago ahead of the Lakers’ season opener, detailing how Vogel had taken a year off of coaching to learn and to adapt. He went to sit in on staff meetings all over the country, from the University of Texas campus to pay a visit to Shaka Smart, all the way to visiting Brad Stevens and the Celtics, a team he had just been competing against not more than a year before. Vogel said this about trying to learn more from watching these meetings and practices happen.

“To be able to step away and be a part of these other camps for a few days each time, you get to see a completely different way of doing things,” he said.

 

“Whether it’s drill work, how staff meetings are run, or how the practices are run, how much delegation is going on, the terminology of defensive systems, and your offensive rules for running the break. There’s really an endless list of things you observe when you’re seeing another person’s program that you will never see if you don’t get that opportunity.”

Goon also detailed how Vogel learned that he had to make the Lakers environment a little more fun and loose than his previous stints in Orlando and Indiana. He learned this while watching Brad Stevens break out a game of dodgeball periodically for the Celtics to keep things lively. This obviously impacted these Lakers who had probably the best team chemistry all season, seen every night with their fake football drills during shootaround with LeBron James under center as quarterback. University of Kentucky head coach Frank Calipari spoke glowingly about Vogel’s tendency to go against what’s normal, comparing him to legendary coaches Larry Brown and Jay Wright.

“There’s that one thing about following the herd, then there’s the guy who’s not afraid to step out and try different things,” Calipari said. “This stuff is hard, what we do. For a guy to step out and try something new and not gonna go down an easy path, those are the guys who really do special things.”

Shaka Smart had been impressed with Vogel’s defenses before Vogel even reached out to him to come visit at Texas. His defenses in Indiana were always some of the best in the NBA, but Vogel had never had possession of a defensive juggernaut such as Anthony Davis before (short of possibly peak Roy Hibbert). Calipari (Davis’ college coach) liked what he heard from Vogel about how he was going to use Davis within the offense, but what really took the Lakers to another level was how Vogel implemented Davis on the defensive end. This season was the first of Davis’ career in which he finished as runner-up in Defensive Player of the Year voting, an award many felt he should have won as the motor of the third-best defense in the league.

It’s not surprising to see Frank Vogel start from nothing and end extremely successful — it’s exactly how he started his career. When Vogel was 21-years-old, he was known to the office of Rick Pitino at Kentucky as a nuisance who wouldn’t stop sending in letters about how he could help Pitino by getting a job on his staff. The letters probably never even made their way to Pitino, as his office sent back declines often. They finally delivered the final blow with a polite (although probably insincere) “If you’re ever in Lexington (Kentucky), stop by and say hello.” Frank Vogel, persistent and determined as all hell, took that to heart by continuously showing up in the parking lot outside of where Kentucky practiced to beg Pitino for a job. Vogel finally got his foot in the door and was able to learn from his idol. Vogel said the following, reported by Brett Dawson of The Athletic in May 2020.

“The thing I don’t really mention with him is, he’s the one that inspired me to even do this,” Vogel said. “Let alone everything I learned once I decided to.”

The rest of Vogel’s story is now etched in history, as he has done something that his idol Pitino could never do in six combined seasons as an NBA head coach — win an NBA Finals.

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