How Frank Vogel First Learned the Secrets to Unlocking LeBron James

Jake Fischer@JakeLFischerContributor IOctober 9, 2020

Before LeBron James, left, and Lakers coach Frank Vogel, center, led the Lakers to the 2020 NBA Finals, they were regular rivals in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Before LeBron James, left, and Lakers coach Frank Vogel, center, led the Lakers to the 2020 NBA Finals, they were regular rivals in the Eastern Conference playoffs.Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

It's the evening of May 18, 2014. 

Draped in golden T-shirts, matching their Pacers' alternate uniforms for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, a raucous Indiana crowd rises to their feet inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse, unleashing primal screams of equal parts enthusiasm and vengeance. 

Miami Heat star LeBron James drags his size-15 sneakers across the sticky traction mat waiting at center court. Instead of walking on the floor, he wades over toward the Pacers bench. 

"So we meet again," he says to Indiana head coach Frank Vogel. "I knew you would be here." 

Flash forward to 2019. The Lakers are searching for a head coach to preside over LeBron and his eventual partnership with Anthony Davis, forming the league's most prominent superstar duo. It's perhaps the most visible head-coaching job in all of sports. Few sideline leaders check the requisite boxes: respected by James and skilled enough to deliver a storied franchise to a championship ASAP.

The Pacers had long since parted ways with Vogel. Two disappointing seasons in Orlando further stained his record, yet he emerged as the leading candidate to oversee James and the Lakers. 

Vogel never felt like the obvious choice. But he and James had a history. 

"Once Rob [Pelinka] and everyone upstairs decided to choose him to be our head coach, I knew we would be very prepared," James said. 

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

Those familiar with Vogel's chapter in Indiana clearly saw the logic. 

"The reason he has so much respect for Frank," asserts longtime Pacers assistant Popeye Jones, "is because of those Indiana-Miami battles."

Vogel's staff prepared a PowerPoint and preached how the Lakers would guard opponents like those Pacers teams beat up on James' Heat. Los Angeles' stifling defense now has the Lakers one win shy of capturing this atypical 2020 NBA title. 

Vogel's defensive principles are pretty straightforward. "A lot of mindset things, all great defenses are good in transition, contain early and help, not fouling, making sure we're hitting people, being physical on the glass when the shot goes up," Vogel says. 

Those early conversations gave James something just short of deja vu.  

"As far as how defensive-minded he would like for us to be," James said. "I'm guaranteeing it was the same kind of conversations he was having with those Pacers players." 

And the secrets of Vogel's Indiana dialogues would eventually boost James' offense during this Lakers title run. 

In just his second full season manning the Pacers sideline, Vogel turned Indiana into a 49-win defensive power, a bona fide contender that held a 102-101 lead over James and the reigning champions with 2.2 seconds left in Game 1 of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals. 

That's when Vogel controversially yanked Indiana's 7'2" behemoth rim protector Roy Hibbert and then watched, helplessly, as James bulldozed past Paul George for a buzzer-beating layup that ultimately swung the series for Miami. 

Indiana lost in seven games, unable to match Miami's strength at home during the deciding contest. 

That Game 1 decision spoiled Vogel's summer and would shape the Pacers' entire following campaign. 

"Frank was really beating himself [up], because everybody was really killing him about not having Roy in the game," says Jones. 

Vogel believed the Pacers could slay James' Heat. He knew they could. And this time, the head coach determined, Indiana would face Miami with home-court advantage in its favor.

Vogel fixated on molding the ultimate defense to agitate James. 

"We broke the mold a little bit. We changed a lot of our rules to fit the modern NBA," Vogel says.  

"We had to do a lot of things to be creative and try to keep our length at the basket, not allow things to invert our defense."

The most famous tactic he institutionalized was extreme verticality around the basket to save Hibbert from foul trouble while combating James' drives. "To me, it's about getting your body in front of the ball coming to the rim," Vogel says. "Charge-taking can be one effective way to affect the rim, but the whistle's gonna blow a lot."

Hibbert emerged as the superstar's kryptonite when Indiana first met Miami again, early in December 2013. With just 1:44 on the clock, James soared into Hibbert, their massive bodies slamming in midair. The play was officially recorded as a missed layup from James, not a rejection. But make no mistake: Pacers coaches credited Hibbert with that stop. 

Miami found different ways to counter Indiana's giant at the rim. 

"We spent a lot of time on how to 'dribble through,'" says former Heat assistant David Fizdale, citing a stolen page from Steve Nash's playbook. Now, it's become a common technique, where the ball-handler keeps his dribble alive under the basket and, when no shot emerges, wheels back out around the baseline to reset the attack. 

On the perimeter, Vogel's defense hinged on the emergence of Paul George. The burgeoning All-Star blanketed James wherever he lingered, hoping to prevent the MVP from even catching the ball in the half court. So Erik Spoelstra's Heat staff crafted different ways for James to become involved in their offense. 

"We would have him setting pick-and-rolls or slipping out of pick-and-rolls and popping to space where we could get him the ball with Paul George's body off of him," Fizdale says. "So he can get a downhill run at Hibbert and get some lift."

Vogel kept fine-tuning the Pacers' response to LeBron's counters that winter, stealing minutes during routine practices to prepare for another, eventual postseason clash with Miami. "All during the year, we worked on it," says Jones. "Because Frank knew we were going to need it." 

Vogel didn't want to switch any of James' pick-and-roll action. The Pacers' smaller defenders, like George Hill and C.J. Watson, couldn't survive being stranded on an island with The King. 

Instead, Vogel instructed George on "drop coverage," a technique more commonly utilized for lumbering big men like Hibbert, who retreat a few steps from the action, rather than competing through the screen. That way, George could prevent James from rolling hard to the hoop. 

When the rivals returned to the Eastern Conference championship that May 2014, when James found Vogel ahead of that opening tip, Indiana's head coach matched his sentiment.

I knew you would be here. 

The Pacers made James uncomfortable. Out of timeouts, or at the end of quarters, they'd send double-teams at James, especially in the low post. "Frank had that feel," Jones says. 

Despite clinching the No. 1 seed, the Pacers didn't benefit from home-court advantage. Indiana claimed Game 1, in which James was a minus-13 with four turnovers. Only Miami then rallied for three straight—James poured in 32 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in Game 4—and sealed everything in Game 6. 

Heat personnel suggest there's no coincidence Miami won two titles during years in which they vanquished Indiana. 

"Those wars really prepared us for the Finals, to Frank and his staff's credit," Fizdale says. "They really pushed us to be a better team, and they pushed us to be better coaches."

Vogel awards his veterans agency and influence. As the Pacers struggled to combat Miami's small-ball units, where Chris Bosh and Shane Battier tormented Hibbert and David West on the three-point line, Vogel called on West during a film session, seeking the bruising forward's willingness to switch his defensive assignment from Battier. 

The big man suggested he could better survive without guarding high-screen action. Instead, he wanted to hawk Ray Allen, usually stationed in the corner. West could utilize his length to prevent the legendary three-point shooter from getting off clean looks. 

"The thing about Frank," Jones explains, "people say LeBron's difficult or whatever to coach, Frank lets his players put ownership in matchups. If you say you got him, you take him." 

Six years later, ahead of Tuesday's pivotal Game 4 in the NBA Finals as Lakers held a 2-1 series lead, Vogel mulled a similar adjustment during film sessions. 

Jimmy Butler had torched the Lakers in Game 3 by hunting switches in pick-and-rolls, dancing past bigger, slower defenders or bullying smaller ones.

With 48 minutes separating Los Angeles from a commanding advantage, Vogel deployed Anthony Davis and his interminable limbs to guard Jimmy Butler. Davis, similar to West before him, reportedly sought the Butler assignment as well. 

As Davis manned Butler, Vogel's defense countered high-screens "2-under," where Davis would go under both the Heat screener and his showing Lakers teammate to relocate Butler and seal off the paint. 

Vogel gambled that Butler, who is practically allergic to shooting three-pointers off the dribble, wouldn't launch those open triples, even as Davis allowed him enough room to social distance and then some. 

Butler scored just 22 points on 8-of-17 shooting after he poured in 40 two nights earlier. Miami's offense stalled. 

Outsiders once mocked the notion that James could serve as Los Angeles' point guard this season. But after the Lakers moved Lonzo Ball in the deal to acquire Davis, Vogel assessed the pieces at his disposal, and James appeared his obvious best choice for lead ball-handling duties. 

After a half-decade of scheming to defeat him, Vogel has now flipped his intimate knowledge to unleash James as an ultimate playmaker with the Lakers. Regardless of those Pacers' tricky tactics, James' vision always served as his trump card.  

"It really fits his skillet of being one of the best passers of all time," Vogel says. 

In these playoffs, James has controlled crunch-time traffic for Los Angeles with aplomb. 

James led the NBA with 10.2 assists per game this year. In Game 4, he found Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for three in the corner with 2:58 to play and then assisted on his layup with 2:02 remaining, when the game grinded to a halt and Miami couldn't buy a bucket.

James' unrivaled poise has the Lakers on the doorstep of another championship. He's a floor general whose only precedent is perhaps fellow Lakers legend Magic Johnson. 

"To me, LeBron's played that position his whole life," Vogel says. 

He would know.