When it comes to major American sports franchises, the Lakers always bring a little extra drama. But the past 18 months in L.A. have set a high bar for intrigue and spectacle, even by the Lakers’ standards. The controversy surrounding the team’s attempts to trade for Anthony Davis this winter was followed by front-office infighting and the abrupt resignation of Magic Johnson, followed two days later by the departure of coach Luke Walton.
The Lakers did finally trade for Davis in July but missed out on signing Kawhi Leonard in free agency.
Into this breach stepped a new head coach, Frank Vogel, a mild-mannered and hard-working Xs-and-Os guy whose previous jobs were far removed from the limelight. Vogel landed in L.A. with a 595-304 coaching record and five trips to the postseason in eight years, but with little experience handling a personality like that of James or a stage like Los Angeles.
Now, after a singularly unique coaching journey, Vogel and his Lakers are ready to be NBA champions. Throughout it all, Vogel has been an understated and underrecognized factor.
To highlight how easily Vogel was overshadowed, most of his introductory press conference in May dealt with the accusations made by Johnson that current Lakers GM Rob Pelinka had been “backstabbing” him throughout their tenure together.
Vogel was out of his element. “It’s a little different,” Vogel said at his press conference. “Definitely different than I expected and different than I’ve ever been a part of. But I understand the line of questioning, in light of the events of this morning, so you just roll with the punches.”
But this will be Vogel’s new reality as he heads into this Lakers job. Here’s what you need to know about Frank Vogel:
1. Vogel’s Time With the Lakers Had Him Surrounded by Questions Before He Coached a Game
It’s not an easy thing to come into L.A. and take the reins of the Lakers, one of the most high-profile jobs in all of sports. But Vogel made his start under a cloud, for a few reasons.
First, some within the organization felt that former coach Luke Walton should have been given another shot with the team, because no coach could have performed well under the circumstances that the 2019-20 season presented, with the injury to LeBron James and the drama that came with the failed attempt to trade for Anthony Davis.
Second, remember, Vogel was not the franchise’s first choice. Or the second. The Lakers were pursuing former Pelicans coach Monty Williams in late April, but the Suns lured Williams to Phoenix, a decision that left the Lakers, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, “surprised.”
The team pivoted to Tyronn Lue, LeBron James’ former Cavs coach, but according to the Los Angeles Times, the Lakers would not grant Lue a deal longer than three years. Talks broke down from there. That left the Lakers scrambling for another option, and Vogel was given the job less than a week later.
Third, Vogel had little say in the assembly of a coaching staff and the Lakers finally hired assistant coach Jason Kidd, who also interviewed for the Lakers job. Kidd has had two head-coaching jobs and earned the scorn of his fellow coaches in 2014 when he undermined Larry Drew to become head coach of the Bucks, a situation that “blindsided” Drew.
The Lakers also hired former coach Lionel Hollins and have two other assistants, Mike Penberthy and Miles Simon, who have never been on a staff with Vogel. Quinton Crawford is the only Lakers assistant coach Vogel has worked with before.
2. The Lakers Are Vogel’s Third Head-Coaching Gig in the NBA
Vogel was a well-respected assistant coach back in 2011 when the Pacers fired Jim O’Brien, who had been one of Vogel’s mentors. O’Brien had Vogel on his staff in Boston during his tenure with the Celtics (2001-04), then brought him to Philadelphia (2004-05) and on to Indiana in 2007.
After a promising start to the 2010-11 season, O’Brien’s team lost seven of eight games in January and team president Larry Bird made the change to Vogel, who was encouraged by O’Brien to take the job.
Immediately, Vogel scrapped O’Brien’s open, scattered offense, which was among the league leaders in 3-point attempts (22.8 per game), in favor of a more traditional offense that took only 17.1 3s per game. He strove to play what he called, “smashmouth,” basketball, and began giving regular minutes to second-year forward Tyler Hansbrough, who had been a bench fixture under O’Brien. The Pacers had been 17-27 under O’Brien but were 20-18 under Vogel and earned a postseason spot.
Vogel spent six years with the Pacers, building a roster that could play his defensive-minded brand of basketball. He oversaw Indiana’s transition from hobbled star Danny Granger to elite forward Paul George, whom the team drafted in 2010.
The Pacers failed to make many offensive strides, though, and Vogel was let go by the Pacers in 2016, in part because, Bird said, “I want us to score more points.” Vogel got the coaching job for the Magic later that spring. He mostly struggled with poor roster construction in Orlando, going 54-110 in two years before the team’s new front office fired him.
3. Vogel Cost His Pacers a Chance to Beat LeBron James in 2013
Vogel’s Pacers were a factor in the Eastern Conference starting in 2012, though they were a longshot all the way. When they faced LeBron James and the Heat in the conference semifinals that year, they were 8-to-1 to win the conference while Miami was 1-to-5. Still, the Pacers rattled the Heat by gaining a 2-1 series lead before Miami finally won three straight to end the hope of an upset.
The following year, Vogel’s Pacers had their best chance to beat Miami, taking the Heat to a Game 7 in the conference finals, putting Indiana just 48 minutes from the Finals. But it was a play at the end of Game 1 that quashed the Pacers’ hopes, when LeBron James made a driving layup with 2.2 seconds remaining and Indiana ahead by 1 point.
James scored a basket that gave the Heat the win in that one, but Vogel took heavy criticism for sitting big man Roy Hibbert during the final play, giving James an easier path to the rim.
Hibbert was not happy about the benching, but Vogel pointed out that his team did not execute properly on James, and Paul George said he deserved blame on the play. But not having Hibbert on the floor as a final line of rim protection remained a decision that Vogel had to defend. “If a coaching move doesn’t work out,” he said, “you’re going to get second-guessed. I’ve got thick skin.”
The teams met again in 2014, when the Pacers won 56 games and were the top seed in the conference. But Indiana had suffered a late-season swoon, and Hibbert commented that the problem was, “some selfish dudes in here.” The Pacers survived the first two rounds of the playoffs but could not keep up with the Heat, who returned to the Finals for the fourth straight year with a six-game series win.
4. Vogel Transferred From Div. III to Kentucky to Help Rick Pitino
Vogel was a point guard for Juniata in Huntingdon, Pa., when he got the notion that he might like to be a basketball coach for the rest of his life. Rather than play out his career in Division III, Vogel persistently wrote letters to Kentucky coach Rick Pitino, volunteering his services as a walk-on or a student manager to get the chance to learn at Pitino’s elbow. “I wanted more,” Vogel told the Indy Star.
When Pitino did not respond, Vogel packed up and found Pitino in New York, pleading with him personally. Eventually, Vogel showed up in Lexington and pestered his way into a job in the equipment room. Within a year, Vogel had shown enough aptitude and work ethic to land a spot as a student manager, where he became a favorite of O’Brien, helping O’Brien learn the tricks of video technology.
“I became one with that machine,” Vogel told the Star. “It was my meal ticket.”
He was right about that. In 1997, when Pitino left Kentucky to take over the Celtics in the NBA, O’Brien was his top assistant. They took another staff member, too—Vogel, who would get his NBA start as the video coordinator in Boston. O’Brien and Vogel would grow so close that O’Brien would later joke to NBA.com, “I remember feeling like I was married to him since I’d be in his room at 6 a.m. every game day.”
5. Vogel and His Mother Survived a Devastating House Fire When He Was Growing up in Wildwood Crest, N.J.
Vogel was 17 when he was awoken on December night by the smell of smoke and the sound of glass shattering. After opening his bedroom door and finding himself engulfed by smoke, he managed to yell to his mother, who told him she was at her window. Vogel made it back to his own window and both made their escape from the house.
Years later, his mother, Fran, would remember to reporter Josh Robbins, “It’s a miracle that we’re alive.” Their house at 8705 Bayview Avenue was destroyed, though, and the Vogels lost everything. But, Vogel later recalled, the fire brought together neighbors and friends from all over southern New Jersey. Their generosity helped the family recover.
“You see the good side of people and humanity,” Vogel told the Orlando Sentinel.