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Fire Vogel? What the LA Lakers Really Need Is Close to Impossible

Eric Pincus@@EricPincusLA Lakers Lead WriterJanuary 19, 2022

Los Angeles Lakers head coach Frank Vogel gestures during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz in Los Angeles, Monday, Jan. 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

The Los Angeles Lakers may be considering a coaching change. Or not depending upon whom you believe. But is that really the team's most pressing issue, or just the one that seems easiest to address?

Head coach Frank Vogel's job security shouldn't be a surprise. B/R has said multiple times already that Vogel could become a scapegoat if the Lakers struggled. On Tuesday, Bill Oram and Sam Amick of The Athletic reported that Vogel's job may be "in serious jeopardy."

You can make the case either way. Regardless, the writing was on the wall when the franchise gave Vogel a one-year extension through the 2022-23 season despite the title in 2020. A longer-term deal would typically follow that level of success if the team were truly committed.

But dismissing Vogel in good faith assumes the Lakers have a healthy, viable roster that any replacement-level coach could lead to success. Is that the case here?

As one NBA source said, if Vogel isn't to blame, "it's a lot harder to fire the players." So who is at fault?

Ownership. The front office. LeBron James. And virtually everyone else, Vogel included.

But the past is the past. Here's another saying: When you're in a hole, stop digging.

The heart of the matter is that L.A.'s season may not be salvageable given the roster and meager trade market options.

Would a coaching change help the Lakers improve enough to compete with teams like the Golden State Warriors, Phoenix Suns, Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets?

That's quite the leap.

              

Initial Reaction

It wasn't necessary to ask around the league for takes on Vogel's potential firing. Multiple NBA sources reached out to B/R, asking why the Lakers would fire Vogel.

"I do not understand how this is Vogel's fault," one former Western Conference executive said. "It's garbage. They're probably a high lottery team without him."

An Eastern Conference executive added, "That's not going to solve anything."

Stan Van Gundy @realStanVG

@SIChrisMannix This is just ridiculous. He won a championship less than 2 years ago. The Lakers have had injuries and a roster that, to be kind, has some flaws. Firing Frank would just be an attempt to scapegoat Frank for the mistakes others have made.

The primary questions from rivals center around the decision to trade away the team's depth for Russell Westbrook. Finding anyone outside of the L.A. front office who liked that decision at the time was difficult.

Most competing executives just didn't get what the Lakers were hoping to accomplish, citing the $91.3 million Westbrook is owed through next season (assuming he opts in at $47.1 million), the loss of depth from the trade, the No. 22 draft pick given up (the Indiana Pacers selected Isaiah Jackson) and the choice not to pay Alex Caruso enough to stay.

The lack of depth has hurt the Lakers' ability to weather several injuries and games lost to the health and safety protocols. Anthony Davis and Kendrick Nunn are still out with knee injuries. Both LeBron James and Talen Horton-Tucker missed time early.

Vogel, who has the reputation as one of the top defensive coaches in the league, didn't put together the roster. He's not widely considered a ground-breaking offensive mind, but the team won the title playing stellar defense with a mediocre offense.

Through 44 games, the Lakers have the 24th-best offensive rating at 108.3 points per 100 possessions. The defensive rating (109.8) is higher at 18th, but that's a far cry from owning the top defensive rating just last season. With the resulting net rating of -1.5 (23rd overall), it's a wonder the team is still at .500.

                          

The Case Against Vogel

Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

To be clear, Vogel hasn't adapted well to the new roster. He stuck with the traditional size of DeAndre Jordan for too long before discovering how effective the Lakers could be by going small, especially with James at center.

Defensively, Vogel adhered to more of a traditional drop coverage instead of more aggressive switching attacks. Offensively, he has struggled to find a way to enable non-shooters like Horton-Tucker and Westbrook. The team's execution (on both ends) has been sloppy and inconsistent.

"That a 10-day guy [Stanley Johnson] and an undrafted rookie [Austin Reaves] are the reason [the Lakers] are winning at all is an indictment," a Western Conference executive said. "The Lakers don't need more Stanley or Austin. The rest of the roster needs to play as hard as Stanley and Austin."

How much of that is specifically Vogel's fault is subjective. Is he the problem? Probably not.

Is he the solution? Maybe not. The Lakers may need a more imaginative offensive coach to get the most out of this roster.

               

Blame the Front Office?

If the Westbrook move were fundamentally flawed, who is to blame?

Rob Pelinka is the team's vice president of basketball operations and general manager. The decision ultimately falls on his resume.

But sources also say that James was a significant proponent for getting Westbrook. Does he bear any responsibility if he and his agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports, applied significant pressure on the team to get it done?

He should.

Pelinka works the phones with teams and agents. He reports to the team's top-level decision-makers, led by governor Jeanie Buss and executives Linda Rambis, Kurt Rambis and Tim Harris. Pelinka presents the menu of choices, but like most of his contemporaries, he's beholden to the owner's whim.

So where does that leave us in the blame game? Everyone.

Fans might point the finger at Vogel for sticking with Jordan as a starter for too long, but why has Kurt Rambis "advocated for the Lakers to use more traditional strategies," as the Los Angeles Times' Dan Woike and Broderick Turner reported?

Westbrook's arrival could still prove to be the right call once the Lakers are healthy. That doesn't seem likely, but NBA championships aren't won in January. Could a coaching change help unlock the team's potential?

If so, assistant David Fizdale might be the call to finish the year as the interim head coach. Or the Lakers could quickly hire an available offensive-minded head coach (Mike D'Antoni, anyone?), but any real candidate would expect a multiyear commitment.

Poaching another team's assistant head coach could cost the Lakers draft compensation and may be challenging to orchestrate midseason.

And if the team's roster isn't competitive enough for any coach, the opportunity to coach a losing Lakers squad may not be ideal for top candidates.

                    

Other Moves?

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

If the answer for Pelinka is "do something" because doing nothing isn't acceptable, then he may have no other choice than to fire Vogel.

The team could try to trade Westbrook, but sources say the market is nonexistent. If he were in the final year of his deal, the Lakers might have a shot. But at this point, no other team wants to commit to paying Westbrook $47 million next season.

The Lakers have explored several trades ahead of the February 10 trade deadline. Sources indicate they have looked at players like Ben Simmons, Jerami Grant, Myles Turner and Harrison Barnes, among others.

Los Angeles doesn't have notable bait, primarily Horton-Tucker (who hasn't had a great season), Reaves (a piece the Lakers would rather keep), the contract of Kendrick Nunn (who hasn't played this season because of a knee injury), a 2027 or a 2028 first-round pick, a few second-rounders and a few minimum contracts like those of Kent Bazemore, Wayne Ellington, Howard and Jordan.

Malik Monk has also stood out, but the Lakers may have to use their taxpayer mid-level exception to re-sign him this offseason. But there's no obvious advantage for a team to trade for Monk. He might help a squad through the rest of the season and the playoffs, but any trade partner would similarly need to use a larger exception (or cap room) to retain him.

Instead of their top targets, the Lakers may be looking at a more tepid return like Eric Gordon of the Houston Rockets or Terrence Ross of the Orlando Magic.

"Do either of those players move the need for the Lakers? I don't think so," the Eastern Conference executive said. "I wouldn't trade THT for either."

If the Lakers can't fix the problem this season, then trading away some or all of their modest assets will only exacerbate the problem long term. The answer may be smaller moves that could enable the team to do better in the 2022-23 campaign.

With that in mind, the Lakers may pull back from any serious trade pursuits and hope for a friendly buyout market.

                    

Advanced stats according to NBA Stats and current through Jan. 18.

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

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