In June 2021, the Lakers conducted their exit interviews. These interviews concluded a season that fell extremely short of their championship aspirations as the team had just been eliminated in the first round by the Phoenix Suns. The elimination wasn’t necessarily surprising at the moment given the fact that Anthony Davis wasn’t healthy and that the team never really had an opportunity to get organized before the playoffs due to Davis and LeBron James missing two to three months of games at the same exact time. Despite the two players missing a considerable amount of time, Frank Vogel was able to create the number one ranked defense in the NBA in terms of Defensive Rating. Rob Pelinka stated in his exit interview that he thought Vogel “did everything he could” for the team in the 2020-21 season, also saying the following (per Harrison Faigen and Silver Screen & Roll):
“Frank’s a guy that Kurt (Rambis) and I and the front office really enjoys working with, that does a great job with our players. We see him as a strong part of our future for sure.”
However, that was then and this is now.
A lot has changed since then. Alex Caruso, Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and others are out. Russell Westbrook and a who’s who of veteran-minimum free agents are in. Frank Vogel’s contract has also changed, as he was given an extension prior to what would have been the last year of his original deal. This was great news as it kept Vogel’s job security from hanging over his head all season. But then the terms of the deal were reported as only a one-year extension. You can read all of my thoughts on that move here, but needless to say, this is definitely not normal procedure for a head coach’s extension, let alone an extension for a coach that won the franchise a championship in his first season.
Injuries have already plagued this season’s team, a team that was already having to deal with the unfamiliarity with each other as this roster was brand-spankin’ new. They’re now 6-5, a record that is definitely disappointing so far even with expectations of early-season troubles baked in. Given the fact that the Lakers would only have to pay Vogel an additional year’s worth of salary on top of the rest of this season if they were to fire him, is the door now open for Jeanie Buss and Rob Pelinka to throw Vogel under the buss (ha!) as the scapegoat for the early season troubles? The answer is “yes” and Lakers fans should be very nervous about that happening.
It’s standard procedure in the NBA (and with LeBron teams but more on that later) to fire the head coach in the middle of the season if the record is looking like a far departure from what the expectations were. This happens a lot even when the head coach really isn’t the main reason for the team’s troubles. The Lakers are currently without four rotation players — including their best player — in LeBron James, Talen Horton-Tucker, Trevor Ariza, and Kendrick Nunn. As opposed to a player like Rajon Rondo — who Vogel said would serve in the Jared Dudley role with little playing time before the season started — the latter three of those four were nearly guaranteed to be high-minute contributors to the Lakers. That has caused Frank Vogel to use lineups that we may not even remember once April comes around, even causing undrafted rookie Austin Reaves to become a mainstay in the rotation.
Let’s forget about the injuries for a second. Vogel’s job was made harder this season when compared to the past two seasons before these ailments even started piling up. This is due to Pelinka and the front office (which basically includes LeBron and Davis at this point) shipping out key contributors from the past two seasons for the allure of a third star in Russell Westbrook. The team had always seemed to want a third star and/or playmaker next to LeBron and AD, with Westbrook’s inclusion serving the same type of idea they had with Dennis Schröder — but on steroids.
As the pessimists of the Lakers’ title chances would tell you, it was always going to be difficult to integrate a high-usage point guard with terrible shooting and volatile decision-making into a team that already has LeBron and AD. That’s already evidenced itself in some really rough Russ games. But in addition to that, the team shipped out three of its better defenders in Caruso, KCP, and Kuzma for a litter of vet-minimum guys who have been playing below-average defense in their careers for a while now (Carmelo Anthony, DeAndre Jordan, and Rajon Rondo come to mind). Some still had slim hopes of Vogel being able to put together a serviceable defense with Anthony Davis in the middle, one of those people being Pelinka. The defense hasn’t lived up to the standards of last year, even with a very soft opening schedule, and the team is currently ranked 15th in the league in DRTG.
The sacrifices made by the front office on the defensive end were apparent to fans, but they might have already become apparent to the head coach (h/t Harrison Faigen again).
“We’re struggling to contain quick, deep-shooting guards with this year’s personnel and the way we like to bring double teams,” Frank Vogel discussed following their loss against the Trail Blazers on Saturday. “So we pulled back on it some and those guys took advantage of it.”
“This year’s personnel.”
That’s about as close to criticism of the front office as you’re going to get from Vogel. He’s not referencing the Lakers organization when he says “the way we like to bring double teams.” He’s just referencing himself and his staff that basically ran the same defense in his first two seasons.
Even with all of these valid excuses I’ve laid out above that seem to point the finger more towards Pelinka than at Vogel, that doesn’t mean the head coach doesn’t deserve some criticisms for the season thus far. Even with the injuries accounted for, he’s played some head-scratching lineups, most notably ones that include a backcourt of Westbrook and Rajon Rondo. Common sense would tell you that this backcourt would not work even if they were alongside one of the two superstars on the team, something evidenced in the Westbrook/Rondo pairing having a -32 plus/minus in 29 minutes played together this season. The two are both terrible pull-up shooters with defensive instincts that are nearly just as terrible, a combination of deficiencies that cannot happen in a backcourt in today’s NBA.
He’s also made some late-game lineup decisions that have arguably cost the Lakers games. The recent loss against the Thunder is an example of this as he pulled both Davis and Westbrook off the court with 8:28 left in the fourth quarter. Obviously without LeBron, the five players out there were doomed to fail; the Thunder went on a 5-0 run in less than two minutes before Vogel put Davis and then Westbrook back out there. It’s necessary to give those two stars rest at some point in the fourth quarter, but the decision to sit them both at the same time is questionable, at best. However, even with the validity of the criticisms, Vogel is never going to be able to put out perfect lineups throughout the entire 48 minutes with so many key contributors injured.
So if the Lakers do fire Vogel in the middle of the season, where do they go from there? The newly hired assistant David Fizdale — a former head coach and a former assistant coach on LeBron’s Miami Heat teams — would most likely serve as the interim head coach for the rest of the season. This would seemingly be an admission by the franchise that things didn’t go the way they planned this season. However, it should be noted that the last time a coach was replaced midseason on a LeBron James-led team (Tyronn Lue replacing David Blatt in the middle of the 2015-16 season), the team went on to win a championship.
It could work out for Fizdale and the Lakers, even if the reason for it all working out can be attributed to the team just getting healthy. Either way, it would conclude a downright disrespectful treatment of a head coach that almost certainly wouldn’t deserve the public blame for what has gone wrong with the team so far.
So will the team end up firing Frank Vogel? The team got back on track with a win last night but the question will continue to be in our minds moving forward as the franchise seemingly positioned itself for this option in the offseason.