Frank Vogel wasn’t Lakers executives’ first choice for the coaching job during the turbulent spring of 2019. Tyronn Lue was the frontrunner to succeed Luke Walton, but Lue rejected a three-year offer to coach a team that was coming off a non-playoff finish and was thrust into turmoil when Magic Johnson unexpectedly resigned as president of basketball operations.
Vogel, who earned respect for his smart defensive strategy while coaching Indiana but stumbled with mediocre Orlando teams, might not have been the Lakers’ second choice. Monty Williams, then an assistant in Philadelphia, was prominent in the mix of candidates, but Williams took a five-year offer from Phoenix while the Lakers sorted through their options. Jason Kidd and Juwan Howard also were interviewed by members of the Lakers’ restructured front office before Vogel was given a three-year deal.
Although Vogel wasn’t the Lakers’ first or second choice, he proved to be the right choice, bringing smarts, stability and a defense-first mantra his team embraced while earning the No. 1 seed in the West during the pandemic-shortened regular season and winning three straight playoff series in five games to reach the NBA Finals against Miami or Boston.
He’s not a commanding speaker — he’s more a dad-jokes kind of guy. His quip that he had made sure players adjusted to the altitude of playing in Denver before taking to the court as the "visitors" in Game 3 of the West finals almost went unnoticed because it was so rare. And on Saturday, while Lakers players celebrated closing out the Nuggets with a 117-107 victory, he wore an NBA Finals cap jammed on his head, a commemorative T-shirt thrown over his jacket and the look of a man who would rather have been watching film in some dim, quiet backroom at AdventHealth Arena at that moment.
“He’s just kind of a nerd for the game of basketball,” reserve guard Alex Caruso said, a compliment Vogel surely would have appreciated.
Vogel didn’t come to the Lakers with a big name or gaudy resume. But he had big ideas, and he was smart enough to enlist LeBron James and Anthony Davis as his confidants. He filtered his plans through them, knowing that if they bought in, everyone else would follow. He allowed them to modify elements of his plans but not to stray from the essential principle that defense would be the foundation of their success. It has been.
“He shoots it straight to us,” Davis said during a postgame video conference. “You know, he wants to win. We want to win. He comes to me and 'Bron with a lot of questions and ideas ... and we give him our opinion on certain things, but we trust him. He comes in and puts the game plan together. He spends hours and hours of watching film and breaking down games and breaking schemes down to try to figure out what's the best solution for us, what's the best recipe for us to be successful, and he puts the right players on the floor at the right time.
“He trusts us. If someone has it going and he wants to sub a guy in, if a guy tells him, ‘Let that unit roll’ or ‘Let that guy keep rolling,’ he trusts us. And that’s a big thing for a coach to trust your players, and at the same time we have to trust him.”
James echoed Davis’ praise. “He's been great. He's been unbelievable,” James said. “I mean, we've faced, it's been a crazy obstacle course for our franchise this whole year. I'm not going to sit here and give all the details, but you guys, everyone can go back and just see from the start of the season all the way up until now what we've gone through as a team.
“He's been able to manage it the whole time. Bringing in guys, losing guys. He's just always been the anchor, and our coaching staff has been right behind him. I can't say anything more than that. Just happy to be on the floor to kind of be his coach on the floor and just command to my teammates the same message that he's given to me and be an extension of his mind. It's been great.”
Vogel has had to adjust to temperaments and turnovers, to guard Avery Bradley’s decision to opt out of joining the team in the NBA’s Florida bubble, and to JaVale McGee’s struggles against Denver center Nikola Jokic. He moved Dwight Howard into McGee’s spot and Howard excelled, but Vogel had to soothe Howard’s sometimes overheated emotions. “I’m just trying to play my part,” Vogel said in downplaying his first career trip to the Finals. “Give our guys a plan, make sure that everybody is playing together.
“This run is about LeBron James and Anthony Davis and all the guys that bought into starring in their roles, and about the Lakers family, who is used to being in this position and used to being in the Finals, used to winning championships. It’s been a long time for them and it’s been a difficult number of years out of the playoffs. So it’s really just all about them.”
Coaching superstars involves more than making sure their names are circled on the active sheet. The Lakers lost their regular-season opener — a game that feels like a million years ago — but won 17 of their first 19 and 24 of their first 27 and never looked back. Since then, his challenges have extended beyond the usual injuries and hurt feelings. The deaths of Kobe Bryant, daughter Gianna and seven other passengers in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26 were an unimaginable tragedy, a loss players still carry with them.
“He’s done a great job considering how tough it is, man,” guard Danny Green said. “Night in and night out, he has the hardest job in this organization because there are so many guys that can play, so many guys that are good, he has to figure out where to play them, how to play them, how to get them in rhythm. Coach has done an unbelievable job of figuring out how to coach the game, attack the game, mix up the roster…. He has a lot on his plate, but he’s figured it out, and he’s given us a chance every night to be special.”
Vogel does it the hard way. “If there’s one thing you can hang your hat on that Frank is going to do is he’s going to prepare," Caruso said. "He’s going to watch more film than everybody, he’s going to do more scouting, that’s just kind of who he is.”
Lucky for the Lakers they made the right choice in hiring Vogel, even if he wasn't their first choice.
Elliott reported from Los Angeles.