Frank Vogel is reportedly on thin ice in LA (where ice would be unstable, with all that sunshine). After last summer’s extreme makeover brought Russell Westbrook and a raft of ring-chasing veterans on minimum contracts, the Los Angeles Lakers are underachieving. LeBron James missed significant time with an abdominal injury. Anthony Davis is still out with a sprained knee.
The Lakers are 23–23, seventh in the Western Conference. Westbrook — never a great shooter at his best — is at the point with his jumper that catching backboard feels like a moral victory.
If Vogel walks the plank for the failure of the Lakers to play like a functioning NBA team, it won’t be because it’s his fault. As the cliché goes, it’s easier to fire one coach than a roster full of players. But here are at least three reasons why the latest LA disaster flick isn’t on Vogel.
1. Frank Vogel didn’t construct the Lakers’ flawed roster
As Hall of Fame NFL coach Bill Parcells once said, “If they want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries.”
Frank Vogel didn’t get invited to Trader Joe’s with a shopping list. Instead, general manager Rob Pelinka (reportedly at the insistence of James and Davis) gave him an aging Westbrook. To get the 2016–17 NBA MVP, the Lakers surrendered valuable role players Kyle Kuzma, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Montrezl Harrell.
Kuzma is a young player with some offensive punch. Caldwell-Pope was the team’s best perimeter defender, and Harrell excels off the bench. In their place, Vogel got Westbrook, 33, and not realizing his athleticism isn’t enough to carry the load for his poor shooting and defensive techniques. He also got 37-year-old Carmelo Anthony and many other members of the NBA AARP society.
LA lacks defensive flexibility. Because 75 percent of the salary cap holds the max contracts of James, Davis, and Westbrook, Pelinka has few tradeable contracts with which to work. It’s the worst of both worlds.
Fans scream about Vogel’s rotations, about his reputation as a defensive-minded coach, and his game plans in general. But if the dinner tastes terrible, remember that he didn’t select the ingredients.
2. The fragility of Davis isn’t Vogel’s fault
When Pelinka mortgaged the Lakers’ future to acquire Davis from the New Orleans Pelicans in 2019, the immediate payoff was an NBA championship.
But in the two seasons since hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy, LA has a first-round loss via the play-in tournament and is on course for another play-in berth in 2022.
While Davis is a superstar, he’s an oft-injured one. The 2012 No. 1 overall pick missed half of last season. In the playoffs, he then sat out a game in their loss to the Phoenix Suns. He last played Dec. 17, with the game in Orlando on Jan. 21 marking his 16th straight absence.
The Lakers are 7–9 in that span. And even when Davis was healthy, his defensive work was good, not great. Still, he was enough to cover up many of the flaws on that end of the court for LA. Those flaws are in the spotlight without him.
Since Davis’ injury, the Lakers are 27th in the NBA, allowing 116.2 points per 100 possessions. Only noted defensive jugger-nots Portland, Atlanta, and Houston are worse in that span.
3. Frank Vogel has an old team playing like a bunch of old guys
Last summer, Frank Vogel turned some heads when he boasted the Lakers would play dynamic, fast-breaking basketball.
With the oldest average age in the NBA at 31.0, the Lakers aren’t so much whiz kids as wheeze kids. Kirk Goldsberry of ESPN reported some staggering, but not unexpected, stats about the Lakers in half-court sets.
LA’s average speed of 3.78 mph in its half-court offense is the slowest in the NBA. The Lakers lead the NBA, walking 74.2% of the time they have the ball in the half-court. And their 15.2 miles traveled per game in set offenses is, you guessed it, the lowest total in the league.
True to his word, the Lakers have been dynamic on the break. They’re fourth in the Association, averaging 15.0 fast-break points per game. They’re also susceptible to breakouts, though, ranking 26th in the league while surrendering 13.9 points a game in transition.
Part of the reason for that is sloppiness with the basketball. LA gives up 16.8 points a night off turnovers, 23rd in the league. Westbrook bore responsibility for a big chunk of that, averaging 4.8 giveaways a night in his first 38 games.
Over his last seven games, the veteran coughed up the ball just seven times. But the careful Westbrook can’t shoot a lick. In the same span, he’s hit 30.2% on 15.1 shots per game and is 6-of-19 (31.6%) from deep. A 4-for-6 showing in the Jan. 19 loss at home to the Pacers buoys the latter figure.
Frank Vogel is teetering toward taking the fall for the Lakers. It’s not fair, but that’s life as an NBA coach.