The Los Angeles Lakers are just two victories away from claiming their 17th NBA championship, which would tie them with the Boston Celtics for the most in NBA history. And if they do win that 17th title, which would be the franchise’s first championship in a decade, the team and its fans owe a big “thank you” to a man that tried to keep the Lakers from winning titles throughout the 1980s, none other than Celtics legend Larry Bird.
Allow us to explain.
Larry Bird played in three NBA Finals against the LA Lakers and coached against them once
The rivalry between the LA Lakers and Boston Celtics has long been one of the best rivalries in sports. The two teams have met in the NBA Finals a record 12 times, including three times in the 1980s as part of the long-running personal rivalry between Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.
Bird first matched up against the Lakers in the NBA Finals following the 1983-1984 season, which happens to be the same season he won the first of three consecutive NBA MVP trophies. He also won NBA Finals MVP that year, averaging 27.4 points, 14 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 2.1 steals, and 1.1 blocks as Boston beat LA in seven games to claim the franchise’s 15th NBA championship.
The Lakers won the rematch the following year and the rubber match between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in 1987. Bird also matched up against the Lakers in the 2000 NBA Finals in his final season as head coach of the Indiana Pacers with Kobe, Shaq, and company emerging victorious in six games.
Larry Bird chose not to renew Frank Vogel’s contract as head coach of the Indiana Pacers in 2016
In 2003, Larry Bird was hired as the president of basketball operations for the Indiana Pacers, a job he held for 14 years, minus the one-year sabbatical he took in 2012-2013 to address medical issues.
In January 2011, Frank Vogel, then an assistant with the Pacers, was named interim head coach when Bird fired Jim O’Brien. After leading the team to the postseason for the first time since 2006, Frank Vogel was given the permanent job by Larry Bird following the season and went on to become one of the most successful head coaches in Pacers history.
In five and a half seasons with the Pacers, Frank Vogel amassed 250 regular-season wins, the second-most in franchise history and the most in the NBA (the majority of Bobby Leonard’s 529 wins came in the ABA), and an additional 59 victories in the postseason. He led Indiana to the postseason five out of six years but that apparently wasn’t good enough for Larry Bird.
Following the 2015-2016 season, Bird announced that Frank Vogel would not return as the Pacers’ head coach the following year, citing a need for offensive improvement as Vogel has long been a defensive-minded coach.
Little did Larry Bird know that he’d started a chain of events that would eventually help the LA Lakers to a championship.
Frank Vogel has the LA Lakers on the verge of winning the franchise’s 17th NBA championship
After essentially being fired by Larry Bird, Frank Vogel accepted the head coaching position with the Orlando Magic ahead of the 2016-2017 season. He inherited a very young and inexperienced team and also had to deal with a GM change after his first year when Rob Hennigan, the man that hired him, was replaced by John Hammond, who fired him after the 2017-2018 season. After a season away from the NBA, Frank Vogel was hired as the head coach of the LA Lakers in May 2019, replacing Luke Walton.
On a team that has players such as LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the head coach often isn’t going to get much credit for winning games or leading that team to a championship. But Frank Vogel certainly deserves a ton of credit for having this Lakers team two wins away from a title, credit that LeBron James is more than willing to give his head coach (h/t New York Post).
“Going against Frank’s teams in Indiana, when we had our battles and I was in Miami, you understood how well those teams were coached. It starts with the head coach, and the players are an extension. So I had that memory, battling those Indiana teams. For me, I’ve always been a coachable player throughout my whole life. I’ve played for multiple coaches, and I’ve always been a coachable player. Most importantly, he’s the head coach. The head coach should have the respect from all his players.”LeBron James on Frank Vogel
And Vogel has had that respect from every player on the Lakers’ roster all season long. He’s also turned the Lakers into a defensive powerhouse. In 2018-2019 under Luke Walton, LA had the 20th-ranked defense in the NBA. In 2019-2020, they were ranked third during the regular season and have been the best defensive team in the postseason. Frank Vogel himself never wants any credit but, as previously mentioned, he certainly deserves a ton of it as the Lakers inch closer to their first title in a decade.
So imagine if Larry Bird had to decided to renew the contract of Frank Vogel in 2016. He would never have taken the job with the Magic, which also means he doesn’t get fired by the Magic, meaning that when the Lakers decided to replace Luke Walton, Vogel might not have been available. Sure, another coach might have been able to lead the Lakers to a title but maybe not. It takes a special kind of coach to lead superstars and Frank Vogel is that kind of coach.
While it might sound a little crazy, Lakers fans owe Larry Bird a big “thank you” for setting off that chain of events that landed Frank Vogel in Hollywood.
All stats courtesy of Basketball Reference