How Frank Vogel won over the Lakers and their superstars
FRANK VOGEL WAS introduced as the Los Angeles Lakers' head coach in the midst of a profoundly bizarre week for the franchise. And it was about to get even stranger.
Last May, alongside general manager Rob Pelinka, Vogel took the podium on the team's practice court. Just hours earlier, Magic Johnson had accused Pelinka of backstabbing him during his rocky tenure as the Lakers' president, a post Johnson had relinquished the previous month during an impromptu hallway resignation. Johnson's departure was soon followed by the firing of Luke Walton and a public search for his replacement -- another chapter in a Lakers saga that had grown more theatrical with each passing month.
Pelinka hadn't appeared before the media since these events, lending what would normally be a pro forma occasion an air of suspense. So after being nobody's first choice, Vogel wasn't even the chief protagonist at his own news conference.
Vogel quickly became an onlooker as Pelinka received incoming fire about the intrigue that had consumed the franchise: How did Pelinka feel about Magic's comments? Could his diminishing reputation hurt the Lakers in free agency? How would the organization achieve unity? What specifically is the chain of command?
"We do want today to be about Coach Vogel," Pelinka pleaded, but there was no mercy.
Through it all, Vogel sat with a restful half-smile, right hand on left wrist. His eyes followed the barrage from reporter to GM. After Pelinka fended off a question about the franchise's perceived disarray, Vogel stepped in.
"Quite frankly, the perception of our organization is very far from reality," he said defiantly.
With that, the tone of the room shifted. Through an earnest but assertive appeal, Vogel had defused much of the tension. Yet the tenor of the event seemed to confirm that the Lakers were still a team captive to their self-inflicted melodrama, and Vogel was merely the newest cast member in another subplot. Here was an off-brand coach ill-fitted for the brand-obsessed Lakers, a safety school chosen after their pursuit of more desirable candidates fell short.
Vogel's most recent coaching stint consisted of two forgettable seasons and a 54-110 record with the Orlando Magic. The contract presented to him by the Lakers, at three years, was shorter and the compensation less lucrative than typically offered to most veteran coaches. The front office voiced several directives with regard to staffing his bench that would be a deal-breaker for many.
Then there was the uncertain roster. The Lakers had designs on Anthony Davis, but the acquisition wouldn't be executed for another month. And LeBron James was yet another potential complication, a superstar whose respect can be elusive for any NBA head coach, let alone one who came in through the side door.
But eight months after Vogel rose from that podium and walked into the fire, the Lakers' first-year head coach has amassed wildly positive approval ratings with all constituencies -- the Lakers' brass, the locker room and peers around the league. His performance has surpassed the worst-case scenarios and perhaps even some of the best-case ones.
How did a retread coach who never played a second of NBA basketball nor coached in an NBA Finals game walk into the league's most treacherous minefield and earn the confidence of some of the game's brightest superstars?
VOGEL BROKE INTO basketball by being a pest.
After getting nothing but "thanks for your interest" responses from the University of Kentucky staff under Rick Pitino to his multiple letters asking for a job, Vogel moved to Lexington in the fall of 1994 without an invitation. Once he arrived, he employed the following strategy: Hang around the facility, volunteer to do anything and everything, prepare relentlessly and be personable -- a proclivity that has always come naturally to him.
"I know it's about who you know," Vogel says, "and I didn't know anyone."
Eventually, Vogel wore down Pitino assistant Jim O'Brien and found himself in the video room.
"He just wanted to learn basketball," Pitino says. "He worked tirelessly but never, ever looked for any credit, never looked for any approval, never looked to move up the ladder."
There in that video room -- much like Erik Spoelstra, Mike Budenholzer, Dave Fizdale and others of his generation -- Vogel steeped himself in the granular X's & O's of the game. He followed Pitino to Boston, then eventually moved to the bench under O'Brien with the Celtics, 76ers and Pacers.
In Indiana, O'Brien had been well aware of team president Larry Bird's steadfast belief that NBA head coaches have an expiration date of three years. So when Bird met with O'Brien on a Sunday morning in January 2011 to fire him, he asked O'Brien if Vogel's loyalty might make him reluctant to accept a battlefield promotion as O'Brien's interim successor.
"I said, 'That's bulls---,'" O'Brien says. "'This is an opportunity for him. Let's get him on the phone.'"
When Vogel was on the line, O'Brien said, "Larry wants you to be the interim, and I don't have any problem with your doing it."
The next day, Vogel convened his first meeting as an NBA head coach.
"When Frank started talking, I thought right away, he's grabbed the room -- the energy, the positivity," says longtime Pacers assistant Dan Burke. "The room lifted up, and you could feel it."
With Roy Hibbert dropping back in the pick-and-roll and perimeter defenders determined to stay out of rotations at all costs, the Pacers built a league-best defense on the way to two conference finals appearances. As an offensive coach, Vogel preferred to control possessions, but Bird decided in 2015 that the Pacers needed to pick up the pace with a small-ball lineup featuring All-Star Paul George at power forward.
"I was caught in between Larry forcing him to play 4, and me having a mindset of, 'Let's try it. I think there's value in it,'" Vogel says. "But Paul was resistant, like 100% resistant. I'm mediating, but Paul just didn't like it. I remember Larry was in the papers saying, 'They don't make the decisions around here. I do.'"
Following the season, in which the Pacers bowed out in the first round, Vogel was dismissed. And unlike O'Brien, Vogel was not so sanguine regarding his sudden demise.
"When Larry called to fire me," Vogel says, "I told him that he's making a mistake."
FROM THE OUTSIDE, Vogel looked like a coach set up for failure.
The Lakers had first pursued Monty Williams and Tyronn Lue, but both backed out. They then turned to Vogel, a candidate they figured likely wouldn't object to their terms.
After Vogel's Orlando exit in 2018, there was no certainty he would ever get another chance to lead an NBA team, and a LeBron-led squad is a plum position, irrespective of the franchise's recent self-inflicted wounds. Yet Vogel was well-respected for his preparation skills, regarded as inordinately affable and -- possibly most important -- a pliable listener who would collaborate with all the Lakers' stakeholders on decisions big and small.
That collaboration included Vogel's coaching staff. Publicly, the Lakers reject the notion that they had any specific problem with Walton's group. Yet sources say the front office was allergic to the idea of their next coach populating the bench with "his guys." The Lakers felt strongly that the staff should be a collection of former head coaches whose experience could earn instant credibility with a veteran roster.
One of those primary assistants would be Hall of Fame point guard Jason Kidd, whom two sources have independently said James regards as the only person alive who sees the game of basketball with his level of clarity. Kidd was also known to be looking for his next opportunity as a head coach and had interviewed for the Lakers' vacancy. The instant the Vogel-Kidd pairing was announced, the schadenfreude brigade began chattering about Vogel's life expectancy with the Lakers, with Kidd waiting in the wings.
"There's always going to be chatter -- it's the Lakers," Kidd says. "Sometimes people act like I never played a game and I've never been a teammate. I was a good teammate then, and I'm a good teammate now."
When Vogel first met with Kidd after accepting the Lakers' offer, he wanted to hear about Kidd's machinations as the head coach of the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks in great detail. Vogel treated the meeting as an interview of sorts.
Theoretically, Vogel could have suggested a veto if he'd felt uneasy. But he had experience with respected former NBA players with aspirations to be a head coach, including Brian Shaw and Nate McMillan. Kidd was forthcoming about his previous stops, and Vogel was sufficiently reassured.
"I can't have four video guys on my staff," Vogel says. "The right complement for me has always been a respected former player who has coaching experience. But you can't have the mindset that you're going to look over your shoulder -- you need firepower on staff."
Whatever potential stress that may have been introduced by the Lakers' team of rivals structure, Vogel had apparently defused it early. But establishing calm on and off the court where chaos had reigned would be a more difficult task.
IN THE EVOLUTION of any NBA coach who wins over his team, there are moments early in his term that build credibility. Such a moment for Vogel occurred in his fifth regular-season game with the Lakers. During a tight road matchup against the Dallas Mavericks, the Lakers trailed by three with 6.4 seconds remaining.
"It calls for a left-handed drive and LeBron is a natural left-handed driver," Vogel says.
The Lakers executed the possession to perfection.
Dwight Howard laid out Seth Curry, Danny Green's defender, with a sturdy down screen, as Green sprinted to the right corner. Simultaneously, James drove hard into the gut of the lane, then fired a pinpoint pass to Green, who drained the shot at the buzzer. The Lakers prevailed in overtime, stretching their record to 4-1.
"That was a big moment for both sides," Kidd says. "Players learn they can trust the coach, and the coach learns he can trusts his players."
Poll any NBA roster -- particularly a veteran one -- for the most important attribute for a head coach, and accountability will likely rank second to trust. Players want to know that the staff will set standards for performance and will enforce those standards with consistency, from superstar to the end of the bench.
After a lackluster defensive performance earlier this month against the New Orleans Pelicans in which the Lakers allowed 68 points in the paint on 67% shooting, Vogel unleashed his fury in an exhaustive film session featuring a sequence of defensive snafus.
"He got on all of us -- me, LeBron, everyone. A lot of coaches don't get on their superstars, but he does," Davis says. "What's impressed me the most is that even when we win, he holds us accountable. When a team sees a coach getting on LeBron or me, the other guys respect him more and know they'll be held accountable too."
In their next game, the Lakers set a franchise record with 20 blocks in a win over the Detroit Pistons.
Vogel has a goofball quality with an encyclopedic knowledge of broad comedy, and he occasionally lightens those tough film sessions with odd "Saturday Night Live" clips. Recognizing that the roster includes a number of wine enthusiasts, Vogel spliced in an old "SNL" sketch that takes place in a wine cellar that had the room in stitches. A film session in Miami, a city notorious for nightlife, included a comedy bit about the laws of male attraction.
Vogel has also earned praise for some more nuanced gestures. Headed into the season, he had several decisions to make with regard to the starting lineup, all concerning veteran players.
At center, he opted for JaVale McGee over Dwight Howard due to McGee's superior preseason. He deliberated over whether Avery Bradley or Rajon Rondo should start at guard. Vogel recognized that Rondo was the purer orchestrator but that Bradley might have more success defending opposing 1s. He ultimately chose Bradley, with Rondo commandeering the second unit. The starters with Bradley have posted a net rating of 13.7, while Rondo's second units with Kyle Kuzma, Howard, James and a platoon of 2s have a gaudy mark of 23.1.
An NBA head coach can be a whiteboard Jedi in a huddle, but the vast majority of his job will be performed outside of the arena -- and that's especially true if his team features LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
COACHING A TEAM with marquee talent is fraught with hazards. You must speak truths, but too much truth can wear down players. You must come to the facility prepared, but vets don't need a heavy playbook. And collaboration with superstars is vital, yet deference can be problematic. It's a delicate dance.
When asked their impressions of how Vogel is managing that in Los Angeles, multiple people in the organization praised him for striking the perfect balance.
"Frank is a motivator and true leader, and he's consistent -- emotionally and with his message," says Lakers guard Avery Bradley. "That's important because when you're around a lot of alpha males every single day, you need a lot of consistency. It builds respect."
With the Lakers on a three-game skid heading into a marquee Christmas Day showdown against the Clippers, the team faced a decision about how to manage two upcoming days off.
Did the Lakers want to practice on the 23rd, the day after a bad loss to the Denver Nuggets? Did they want to rest and come into the facility on the 24th? How strenuous should the work be? What about family time on Christmas Eve? Would the players prefer a walk-through on Christmas Day?
Vogel is well within his rights to make that call unilaterally -- and some NBA coaches might balk at handing over that decision, even to superstars. Vogel, though, consulted with both James and Davis. And he makes no bones about it.
"This is how I ask the question," Vogel says. "'Hey, I'm trying to solidify what this should look like. This is your guys' team. This is what I think puts us in the best position to win, but how do you feel about it? Because it's Christmas and I'm flexible.'"
James and Davis decided that the team should do film and light work on the 23rd, then come in at the unusually early hour of 8 a.m. on Christmas Eve. This arrangement would leave players with a good 24 hours to spend time with family and friends.
"His communication skills have been on point when it comes to the top two players," says veteran forward Jared Dudley. "He knows the temperature of the team, knows when [James and Davis] need time off, when to rely on them, when to get on them in a film session. Everything he's doing says 'veteran coach.'"
And when Kentavious Caldwell-Pope struggled with his shot early in the season, Vogel doubled down on his shooting guard, increasing his minutes. Through encouraging texts, conversations after practice and passing remarks, Vogel pledged his faith. Teammates also rallied behind Caldwell-Pope. After a strong game in a win over the Sacramento Kings on Nov. 15, Dwight Howard posted a note of encouragement on Instagram, a post liked by both James and Davis.
"To know through my struggles 'My coach still believes in me' does a lot for your mindset," Caldwell-Pope says. "Now I'm not thinking about that. I can go get my work in and start producing."
In his past 30 games, Caldwell-Pope has shot 46.6% from beyond the arc -- seventh best in the NBA among shooters with greater than three attempts per game.
"My belief started in how hard [Caldwell-Pope] plays," Vogel says. "When you compete that hard and you're contributing to winning, whether you're making shots or not, you've earned that belief."
TODAY, NEITHER VOGEL nor the players nor Pelinka is eager to take a victory lap for an auspicious first chapter. Everything looks rosy when you're 33-8 at the halfway point, but the NBA is unforgiving when momentum shifts. The vagaries of the season -- a single injury, a little static in the media, a crisis of faith -- can derail a team's fortunes in an instant.
Yet for a franchise that had spent the past several years engrossed in a grotesque reality show, Vogel's arrival in Los Angeles has coincided with a newfound peace. The atmosphere around the team is one of veteran professionalism. Roles are defined and fulfilled. In a league where flip-switching has become the norm during the regular season, the Lakers seem committed to their workaday tasks and have the record to prove it.
Or, perhaps, there's something else at play. Coaching is still an unquantifiable skill. NBA franchises, even the most deliberate and strategic in their thinking, make these hires on feel.
And in Frank Vogel, an organization that has been preoccupied with recapturing the aura of past glory made a counterintuitive, decidedly unsplashy hire. Vogel doesn't have any royal Lakers bloodlines or brand-name appeal. Nothing about his persona screams Los Angeles Lakers -- and yet it's working. The Lakers are closer than they've been in a decade to restoring their claim as the NBA's iconic franchise, and, for now, they're doing it without a hint of drama.
"Frank comes in every day, win or lose, with the same attitude. Never too high and never too low," Davis says. "I love his coaching, I love his coaching style -- and I love him as a coach."
For Vogel, his current gig seems eons removed from his frustrating stint presiding over a young, mismatched, injury-riddled roster in Orlando, particularly his final season as a lame-duck coach under new management.
Asked how he would've reacted if someone told him during his latter days in Orlando that in less than two years he'd be coaching LeBron James and Anthony Davis for the Lakers, Vogel responded with giddy disbelief -- as if the scenario were hypothetical.
"I would've asked to be fired."