The Los Angeles Lakers head coach, Frank Vogel, seemed to have run his course in the NBA, right up until he worked the historic franchise back into champions.
If there is one thing we all know about sports, it’s the wealth of cliches and coach-speak used to describe them. From lunch pails to hard hats; blood, sweat and tears to unwavering belief in work, work and more work; everyone has heard the same lines up and down the sports spectrum, inducing groans, or worse, every time they are uttered. The insufferable part about cliches is that they are in fact, generally true, even if we don’t necessarily like it.
The cliche in the LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers story was that of the coach, but not in a good way. It more had to do with the concessionary nature of Frank Vogel’s hire in many people’s eyes. This all coincided with the ugly exit of club legend, Magic Johnson, levying accusations of deceit against Rob Pelinka, the personal attache of more recent club legend, Kobe Bryant and Vogel’s direct boss and employer, after Ty Lue, LBJ’s former title-winning coach, and others turned the job down because of the Los Angeles Lakers brass wanting constraints upon their possible tenures. Writing the sentence was just as dizzying as reading it, with DRAMA dripping from every word, like blood into shark-infested waters.
Oh yeah, Jason Kidd as an assistant coach was one of those constraints and he just happens to be one of the only people LBJ feels is on a bilateral basketball brilliance with himself; a revered former-champion point-guard, the preferred type of coach for LeBron and probably most his Los Angeles Lakers teammates. AWKWARD and not the situation many would want to step into; but Frank, sorry, but even his name is a little cliche for the situation, waded into a feeding-frenzy of media questioning the disfunction of his new Los Angeles Lakers franchise with, “Quite frankly, the perception of our organization is very far from reality.”
Wait. What did he say? This was the brand new hire at his introductory press conference after being the third choice, and probably lower, coming off a two-year stint with Orlando that saw him win just 54 games while being far from the bright lights of the conference finals he basked in with the Indiana Pacers. He even took a year off from the league afterward. The fact that he used his name as a pun, whether intentional or not, makes me respect him even more. Clearly, he doesn’t care what we think about cliches or the Los Angeles Lakers organization because he knew and believed something others did not. He even told us about it in his post-game press conference after winning the title.
Vogel took the job because of LeBron and more importantly, he believed LeBron and the work and preparation he knew he would put in to make them a contender. Jared Dudley, a 13-year vet said he has never seen a coach with less of ego or more prepared in game planning for opponents than Frank Vogel. LeBron himself is said to have given scouting reports standing ovations, to have bought in early to the defensive vision and would be seen diving on the floor for loose balls in practice. Along with taking criticism in extensive film sessions, these actions set the tone for everyone to buy into Vogel’s preferred, defense-first, retro-NBA version of the Lakers with two stars and a commitment to sacrifice for the good of the team. He even referenced everyone buying into their roles for the greater good multiple times during post-game comments.
When you are wowing a veteran team with your attention to detail; made up of many strong-willed, Hall of Fame and, in some cases, questionable player motivations, you can afford to be confident enough to make statements like that or tell Larry Bird that he was making a mistake while being fired as Pacers’ head coach, having delivered two conference finals appearances and going to the playoffs five out of six seasons.
For a guy that most would say looks like a mailroom supervisor or insurance salesman, he was surprisingly loose, confident and committed to his own vision of what the Los Angeles Lakers franchise would look like. He wanted a defensive monster, a bully, a team that would rebound, limit possessions and not take plays off, no matter what was happening on the offensive end. He said he wanted everyone to see the value of suffocating an opponent. In today’s offense-happy NBA with nutmegs and shimmy-shakes, Frank was preaching strangulation and at least believed in one old adage: defense wins championships.
While most would feel the pressure of the Los Angeles Lakers, the pressure of LeBron, of Magic, of playoff and title droughts, of not being the most wanted, of failing, of looking over your shoulder; Frank Vogel maybe felt freed by the lowered expectations. Not lower in the level of success that the Los Angeles Lakers forecast for themselves, but lower in that he could have taken a lot of outs. There were a lot of ways to play it safe, a lot of ways to be a backstory, to be a side note, to be a cliche.
But not Frank Vogel. He signed on before the Anthony Davis and in-season trades that greatly shaped the roster. He treated players with respect and encouragement but held them accountable as he demonstrated his accountability to them by listening, by deferring, by being so prepared and willing to do the film and scouting work that give those teams competing for titles every advantage they possibly can. It shows the players the coach wants it as much as they do and will put them in the best position to win it as well.
Frank Vogel may have outcoached Erik Spoelstra in the NBA Finals
And when it mattered most, Frank Vogel showed why he had such great belief and bravado in himself and the Lakers. In Games 1 and 2, against Miami’s trademark 2-3, he had the Los Angeles Lakers prepared to eviscerate the zone in every possible way. While they shot the 3-ball well, the Lakers were clinical in the dissection of the zone because he unleashed the Los Angeles Lakers’ strengths that could break it by exploiting the actual weak spots, not just the concessions.
They crashed the boards for 25 offensive rebounds leading to over 40 second-chance points. They attacked the middle quickly before it had a chance to even set up. The Lakers would then kick out quickly from that position or move to the basket on the defense’s first reaction. They were attacking it with passes, but also quick penetrations that forced the wings to collapse and the big in the middle to step up. Rondo was particularly adept at this with a quick cut from AD or LeBron along the baseline for an easy finish, another weak spot in the defense.
Also to the Los Angeles Lakers credit, they have two primary playmakers and ball-handlers with a couple of the smartest basketball minds in NBA history. AD was a post nightmare and Vogel used all three at his disposal to force the Heat out of their zone and adjust back to man for a Game 3 win accompanied by a Jimmy Butler game for the ages. Butler forced switches onto smaller opponents and buried them in the paint.
In Game 4, Anthony Davis was switched onto Butler and went under screens, forcing length onto him and daring him to shoot. It worked. When many predicted a Heat win, bolstered by Bam Adebayo’s Finals return, the Los Angeles Lakers won and put the stranglehold on the series that Vogel had been advocating for. After a Game 5 letdown, Vogel shocked many seasoned NBA observers with a starting line-up change by inserting the quicker Alex Caruso to be able to handle switches on defense better. It worked perfectly and Vogel noted they had finally become the monster he had envisioned for them all along.
The change should not come as a surprise though as Vogel inserted Howard into the starting line-up of Game 3 against the Denver Nuggets in the Lakers conference finals match-up due to his work against Nikola Jokic. This was after not playing at all against the Houston Rockets. Other moves like James switching onto a hot Jamal Murray during the end of games, playing some situational zone during the playoffs, utilizing Rajon Rondo coming back from injury to further his playoff legend, switching match-ups and line-ups and adapting to opponents playing styles while dominating them to lose only five total games on their march to the title showed he wasn’t some patsy, or puppet, riding LeBron’s coattails to a title.
Frank Vogel was making it happen and giving his players every reason to buy in because they could see he was too. They could see he wanted to be held accountable. They knew and took the confidence he had in himself, his preparation and his vision for them as a team and rode it another banner for a historic franchise who was a little down on it’s luck. And with that, Frank Vogel busted the cliches and became an NBA champion in a spectacular manner under unprecedented circumstances. But after answering all the questions without even so much as a satisfied smile, Frank Vogel looked around the room, asked, “Good?” and was off to better things: a kiss from his wife, a hug from his kids, and somewhere, deep back there in the “F” your cliches recesses of his mind, was in all likelihood already preparing for a repeat next year because he has every reason to believe he can, even if you don’t.