Lakers' 'Shadow President' Hires Third-Choice Coach, Controversial Assistant

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterMay 12, 2019

Orlando Magic head coach Frank Vogel directs his players during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Washington Wizards, Wednesday, April 11, 2018, in Orlando, Fla. Vogel was brought to Orlando two years ago with hopes he could get the Magic back to the playoffs, and stop the spinning of the revolving door to their coaches' office. Neither of those things happened. Vogel was fired by the Magic on Thursday about 10 hours after the team wrapped up a 25-57 season, its sixth consecutive losing year. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)
John Raoux/Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — Frank Vogel likely wasn't the Lakers' top choice for head coach, or even their second choice.

Per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski, Los Angeles gave Vogel a three-year deal to replace Luke Walton, who was hired by the Sacramento Kings after he mutually parted ways with the Lakers. L.A. had previously pursued Monty Williams, who chose to join the Phoenix Suns, and Tyronn Lue, who walked away from what he reportedly perceived to be a lowball offer.

The key takeaway isn't necessarily which coach the team chose to hire; it's who specifically led the search and made the final recommendation that owner Jeanie Buss approved. After all, there had been a power vacuum that formed after president of basketball operations Earvin "Magic" Johnson stepped down on the final day of the season.

According to a person familiar with the negotiations, it wasn't general manager Rob Pelinka but senior basketball adviser Kurt Rambis who orchestrated the Vogel hiring. He also made the move for Jason Kidd, who will serve on the bench as an assistant coach.

Multiple executives, when polled, suggested the Lakers should make sure they have their front-office hierarchy established before hiring a coach, and it appears they have, with Rambis stepping into that role.

One executive even called him the Lakers' "shadow president."

The team hired Rambis in September to work under Johnson and support both basketball operations and the team's coaching staff. His wife, Linda Rambis, is Buss' closest adviser as the Lakers' executive director of special projects.

Seth Wenig/Associated Press

If anything, call it the "triangle of trust" of Buss, Rambis and Rambis. It doesn't appear the team is likely to otherwise replace Johnson, as the organization hasn't held a press conference to explain its structure or future plans since his departure.

It's also unclear how LeBron James feels about the hire, especially after the team's scuttled negotiations with his former Cleveland Cavaliers coach. Outside of Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat, only Lue has coached James to an NBA championship. The Lakers obviously need their star player to buy into Vogel's system, so that's something to monitor over the coming year.

In Kidd, the team adds an obvious mentor for Lonzo Ball.

Kidd was one of the best point guards of his era, who, like Ball, also preferred to notch an assist over a score. Kidd is also a former teammate of James, albeit with Team USA. On a side note, potential free agent and possible Lakers target Kyrie Irving grew up in New Jersey, where Kidd was an All-Star point guard with the Nets.

Kidd is a controversial hire. In 2014, he broke one of the standard protocols in coaching, lobbying for another guy's job while he was still employed, eventually replacing Larry Drew as head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks.

At the time, Bleacher Report's Howard Beck wrote, "Kidd just trampled every notion of professional decency with his brazen power play in Brooklyn and his clumsy escape to Milwaukee."

But Vogel is the head coach, so Kidd's history shouldn't be as significant a factor, right?

It could be a "disaster," the executive said. "Kidd as an assistant is what I am most concerned about," essentially suggesting Vogel needs to watch his back.

Aaron Gash/Associated Press

Already so much drama, but what of Vogel as a coach?

After six mostly successful seasons with the Indiana Pacers, he didn't have much success with the Orlando Magic. The team won just 54 games over a two-year span, though the roster wasn't very good. That said, his replacement, Steve Clifford, led the Magic to 42 wins and a playoff berth this past year.

"Frank wasn't a terrible coach [with the Magic]," Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders, who covered Vogel firsthand in Orlando, told Bleacher Report. "Given the situation he inherited with [former coach] Scott Skiles abruptly leaving and having to pick up the pieces under a front office that was in desperation mode, he handled things really well."

One year into Vogel's tenure, the Magic let go of general manager Rob Hennigan, hiring John Hammond in his place.

"Vogel was sort of doomed in the management change in Orlando," Kyler continued. "As much as he was liked by senior leadership, he was a holdover from a previous regime that really wanted their own guy. There was never any negativity from the player side on Vogel. In fact, most of the veteran players liked him and his calm demeanor."

As far as his actual coaching style, Kyler said: "While his team was solid defensively, he was not overly creative or inventive offensively. Late in games, things would devolve in isolation plays from the perimeter, and certain players would surface as favorites, sometimes despite their production."

The Lakers have one of the best individual scorers in the game in James. Now they have a coach. What they need next is stability.

The franchise still projects to have the salary-cap space to sign one max free agent, be it someone like Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler or Irving. The New Orleans Pelicans still need to decide the fate of All-Star Anthony Davis, who demanded a trade earlier in the year.

The present may have fans reeling, but one "yes" from a top free agent, and the Lakers may finally return to the playoffs after a six-season absence.

            

Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter, @EricPincus.

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