All eyes on Frank Vogel: What will the future hold for the Lakers new head coach?

Los Angeles Lakers Head Coach Frank Vogel applauding

When the Los Angeles Lakers announced in May they are giving the top coaching job to Frank Vogel, the reactions from experts were mixed. Few people doubt his basketball credentials – after all, he compiled a 304-291 record as the head coach of Indiana and Orlando, and reached the conference finals round twice. The chatter focused mostly on his ability to handle superstar players with larger-than-life personas and to endure the bright lights of a large media market – something that wasn’t a big part of his job during his earlier stints. 

For better or for worse, Vogel is the man on the spot right now, and everyone is watching his every move. Here are some of the main concerns related to the latest head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers:

The Man: Who is Frank Vogel?

Vogel is 46 years old and has been in the league in various capacities for nearly 25 years. After an unremarkable college career as a Division III player and a stint at Kentucky as a student manager, Vogel followed his old mentor Rick Pitino, to the NBA – starting out as a video coordinator for the Boston Celtics in the mid-’90s, before being promoted to assistant coach in 2001. Vogel spent the next decade working through assistant ranks, with stops in Philadelphia, Washington, Los Angeles and finally Indiana. 

His big break came in 2011, when he was named interim head coach of the Pacers in the wake of Jim O’Brian’s firing, and he immediately led the talented but relatively starless team to the playoffs. This earned him a permanent head coaching job with the Pacers and made his name well-known to an average fan. Over the next five years, he shaped the team into a defensive machine that represented the greatest obstacle to LeBron’s Miami teams in the East. Two teams met in the playoffs repeatedly, and while the Pacers played the Heat tough, they never managed to eliminate them. His two-year stay with Orlando Magic was far less successful, as he was never able to get his new team to play as hard and as disciplined as the Pacers of old. 

The Team: What do the Lakers expect from their new coach?

This summer, the Los Angeles Lakers completely overhauled their roster around LeBron James. They traded most of their young core for Anthony Davis, and replaced Luke Walton with Frank Vogel in the coaches’ chair. Walton’s failure to return the team to the playoffs was too much for management to tolerate, even with all the injuries that plagued the team last year. To say that Vogel will be under pressure to start winning right off the bat and lead the team far in the playoffs would be a colossal understatement – there is a lot of tension surrounding the team right now, so Vogel is basically in the hot seat before his first season has even started.

It usually takes several years for a team to truly come together, as players need to learn each other’s tendencies and develop a level of comfort. Frank Vogel won’t be afforded such a luxury, as the ownership and fans are anxious to see some change after an embarrassing period for the franchise. While a vast majority of players are veterans and some played together before, there could be hiccups along the way that puts the Lakers, as well as their coach, in a precarious position. It was already announced that James will play point guard this season, which will help resolve the glut of forwards on the roster, but there are many other questions to be answered as we head towards the 2019/2020 regular season.

The Star: Can Vogel stay on the same page with LeBron James?

side profile of famous NBA basketball player LeBron James

This is probably the most important question for Frank Vogel’s future in Los Angeles. LeBron is notoriously difficult to coach and has publicly clashed with various head strategists, from Mike Brown to David Blatt. Winning his respect isn’t easy, and requires a combination of basketball knowledge and social skills that few individuals possess. Another factor complicating matters for Frank Vogel is that LeBron’s friend, former coach and presumably first preference for the vacated coaching role, Tyronn Lue, couldn’t come to contract terms with the Lakers this summer, eventually leading to the Vogel hire.

On the surface, Frank Vogel doesn’t fit the stereotype of LeBron’s favorite coach. He never played in the NBA, doesn’t hang out with celebrities and generally doesn’t have the kind of gravity that figures like Magic Johnson and Pat Riley have. However, there is a precedent for James embracing a coach who never played in the league – it happened with Eric Spoelstra in Miami, who remains the only coach to win two rings with James. If Vogel can demonstrate his basketball intelligence and put LeBron in a good position to compete for the championship, he could end up developing a strong rapport with his primary star. The fact that he was a respected adversary while both him and James were in the East is a good start, as LeBron is known to acknowledge worthy foes – he even lobbied for the Lakers to add Lance Stephenson last year – the guy from Vogel’s Pacers who was routinely tasked with guarding him.

The Strategy: Can Lakers develop an effective style under Frank Vogel?

In tactical terms, Vogel will have a lot of interesting pieces to mix and match. Both James and Davis are versatile, uber-athletic players that create mismatches all over the court, and it will be up to Vogel to draw up good offensive sets that translate those mismatches into easy points for secondary players. He might have a harder job to do on defense, as James is not the lockdown defender he once was and the rest of the roster features several players who are on the wrong side of 30. The offseason signing of defensive ace Danny Green certainly helps, while Jared Dudley and Avery Bradley are likely to provide some solid minutes defensively as well.

The real question is how much is Frank Vogel willing and able to change his style to accommodate his star-studded roster and the changing nature of the game. Modern NBA is all about pace and space, and having one of the most ingenious distributors in history at the commands only provides additional reasons to build a strategy around 3-point shooting and smart cutting. However, Lakers can’t simply rely on James to create something out of nothing possession after possession – they need a system they can fall back on when James is on the bench or is forced by the defense to relinquish control. Designing an effective drive-and-kick offense with a lot of motion is probably a better solution for this roster than an isolation-heavy approach, but it’s impossible to tell exactly what Vogel will do before the preseason, when we might first see some of his sets in action.

The Bench: Will high-profile assistant coaches bring stability or intrigue?

In an effort to surround Frank Vogel with strong voices, the Lakers added a couple of former head coaches to their bench. Jason Kidd is certainly the most prominent of the group, and after head coaching jobs in Brooklyn and Milwaukee, he enjoys a solid reputation in the NBA circles. Former Memphis head coach Lionel Hollins has also signed on as an assistant, bringing even more experience and basketball acumen to the group. Perhaps just as importantly, both Hollins and Kidd were once successful players and All-Stars in the league, so their voices could have a decisive impact on opinionated players like James, Rajon Rondo or DeMarcus Cousins.

It remains a mystery as to how Frank Vogel will manage his assistants and how much freedom they will have to impact the game plan. He never appeared to be very authoritarian in the past, but then again he never had to share the bench with high-profile coaches who might one day replace him. This is a dynamic worth following early in the season, especially if the Lakers stumble out of the gate like so many teams constructed from scratch in the summer. Vogel is a smart individual and is certainly aware of this factor, so he will probably pay special attention to developing a strong working relationship with his entire coaching staff.

The Media: How are bright lights of Hollywood going to affect Vogel?

Cities where Frank Vogel previously held head coaching jobs were far smaller than Los Angeles, which also happens to be the media capital of the world. While media interviews and constant speculations are nothing new to an experienced NBA pro like Vogel, the sheer volume of interest for a James-led team might be overwhelming for anyone. In Indiana and Orlando he built a reputation as an even-keeled guy who prefers to talk basketball and doesn’t offer too many incendiary quotes, so he might just be able to ignore the media circus and keep his mind on improving the defensive schemes.

The Los Angeles Lakers need to help their coach stay the course on this issue. In the recent past, there were too many leaks and accusations coming from insiders, leaving a stain on the once-proud brand. Frank Vogel was hired as a part of an overall effort to revamp the culture, and GM Rob Pelinka and majority owner Jennie Buss will expect him to play his part, even when questions from journalists get unpleasant. The media might start second-guessing Vogel’s rotations, minute distribution for stars, shot selection of role players or any other strategic element – it simply comes with the job of coaching a star-studded team in Los Angeles, and Vogel will have to embrace it.

The Season: What will Vogel do if things don’t go according to plan?

If the Lakers start stringing victories in October and November, Frank Vogel’s life will be very easy, but in the opposite scenario he will be expected to turn the team’s fortunes around with pure coaching skills. Los Angeles traded almost everything it had to get Anthony Davis, and chances for a significant in-season addition are almost down to zero. Vogel will have to work with this roster for at least the first year, and any issues that arise will have to be solved quickly and permanently. Developing a clear identity in the first month of the season is essential, and Vogel needs to get the players to buy into his plan early, the way Mike Budenholzer did in Milwaukee a year ago.

One important area to monitor is how much Vogel will demand from his stars during the regular season. There is a trend towards giving the top players some nights off and managing their minutes very cautiously to minimize the risk of serious injury and improve their chances of being in peak form when the playoffs start. However, Vogel might need his best players to pull their weight early on in order to set the team on the right track and squash any doubts regarding the basketball fit and internal chemistry of this edition of the LA Lakers. Those conflicting goals create a potentially tricky dynamic that the coaching staff will have to keep in balance, responding to short-term challenges with full awareness of the ultimate goal.

The Ring: Will anything short of a championship be enough?

the Staples Center home of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team

One thing is clear – after finishing last season at 37-45 and missing the playoffs for the sixth straight year, the Los Angeles Lakers are tired of losing. LeBron’s contract is already in its second year, and wasting another season of his prime on anything less than a deep playoff drive would be seen by both fans and the ownership as a massive disappointment. For some people, nothing short of NBA Championship would suffice to justify all the summer moves.

Frank Vogel finds himself in the eye of this storm, and perhaps also on the crossroads of his own coaching career. If he could make all the pieces come together and win big with the Lakers, he could secure his job for years to come and cement his reputation as an elite NBA mastermind. However, a failure could mark the end of his tenure as a head coach and deny him a future opportunity. So much is hanging in the balance, which is why all eyes will be firmly on Frank Vogel as the season draws closer.