Frank Vogel earned a reputation as a defensive-minded head coach. In five full seasons with the Indiana Pacers, his teams never finished worse than 10th in the NBA in defensive efficiency. His first two teams with the Los Angeles Lakers finished third and first. That’s not to say Vogel’s record is perfect. His two seasons with the Orlando Magic finished with the 24th- and 20th-ranked defensive clubs. Still, his body of work indicates more success than failure with stopping opponents.
This season’s Lakers do not lead the league in defensive efficiency. They’re not in the top 10. Heck, they’re not in the top half. Now 10–11 at the season’s quarter-pole, LA is 18th in the league, allowing a hefty 108.8 points per 100 possessions. But ESPN analyst Kendrick Perkins doesn’t think the blame should fall on Vogel.
There is considerable buzz about the temperature of Frank Vogel’s seat
Since the Sacramento Kings fired coach Luke Walton on Nov. 21, the speculation around Frank Vogel’s job security with the Lakers has intensified. Marc Stein reported on Substack that Vogel’s status had been a hot topic in coaching circles around the league.
LA looks nothing like the championship unit of 2019–20, nor do the Lakers resemble last season’s top-ranked defensive club.
That could have something to do with the fact that outside of LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Talen Horton-Tucker, no one currently wearing the Lakers’ purple-and-gold was on the roster last season. It didn’t help that combo forward Trevor Ariza hasn’t played after surgery on his right ankle during the preseason.
On the other hand, on a star-studded roster including four members of the NBA 75th-anniversary team, Ariza shouldn’t be the make-or-break player in your defensive scheme.
LA couldn’t put away the lowly Kings on Nov. 26 at Staples Center. They squandered a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter before Sacramento forced overtime. Then the Lakers gagged up a seven-point edge in a little more than two minutes in the first overtime. It took a James’ basket to get LA to the third OT, where the Kings ran away with the win.
Sacramento has a top-10 offense, but it also owns a bottom-five defense. Good teams don’t surrender double-digit leads late to the Kings. So are the Lakers a good team?
Perkins defends Frank Vogel for the Lakers’ faulty defense
The speculation about Frank Vogel’s job status with the Lakers amused Perkins. Instead, the former NBA champion went to Twitter to point at the average age of the roster when looking to assign blame for the mess:
“People blaming Vogel for the lack of defensive effort is funny to me! You have a VETERAN ball club that are having multiple breakdowns on the defensive end and offensively can’t get into sets to run some good offense. Can’t BLAME the coach for that. That’s on your VETS! Period.”Kendrick Perkins on the Lakers
Nine Lakers are in their 10th season or later. James and offseason addition Carmelo Anthony, whose bench scoring has been tremendous, are in their 19th season.
Few of the defensive indicators look good for LA. The Lakers are next-to-last in the NBA in opponent’s free-throw rate and 25th in opponent’s offensive rebounding percentage. They are in the top 10 in opponent’s turnover rate. That’s about the end of the highlights there.
If the defense wins championships, the Lakers could be in some trouble
James is a six-time All-Defensive selection. But the last time he made the cut, he was a member of the Miami Heat in 2013–14. That’s more than 21,000 combined regular-season and playoff minutes ago.
Meanwhile, Davis has a reputation as a lockdown defender. But among players who have faced at least 100 shots in the restricted area, 210 players have held opponents to a lower percentage than the 66.0% Davis is surrendering.
Overall, opponents are shooting 62.0% in the restricted area against the Lakers, 19th in the NBA. It’s also telling that only three teams surrender more wide-open shots overall (closest defender six feet or more away) than LA’s 22.9 per game. That’s a recipe to give up a lot of easy points.
Even at that, the Lakers have had some good luck. Of the 18.8 wide-open 3-point shots LA allows, opponents have made only 38.5%, which ranks in the middle of the NBA. Memphis ranks last at 41.6%; Milwaukee is the most fortunate, with only 30.3% of wide-open 3s going down against them.
There are mitigating factors. James has been in and out of the lineup with injuries, and there’s little continuity on the roster. That can affect the speed and confidence with which defenders make decisions. Hesitation on defense usually leads to surrendering good opportunities. But the Lakers have also shown a tendency to play up or down to competition.
Still, it’s not fair to put it all on the players. Yes, they must execute the schemes. But it’s up to Frank Vogel to put his defenders in positions from which they can succeed. In the never-ending game of adjustments at the defensive end, the Lakers are coming up short time and again.