LOS ANGELES >> Frank Vogel masterminded the 17th championship in the Los Angeles Lakers’ remarkable history in his first season on their bench.
Exactly 18 months after that triumph, he also became part of the Lakers’ past.
The Lakers fired Vogel today, choosing their title-winning coach to take the first fall for one of the most disappointing seasons in NBA history.
Los Angeles finished 33-49 and missed the 10-team Western Conference playoffs this season. It was a humiliating underachievement for LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and a veteran-laden supporting cast widely expected to contend for another championship.
Vogel was under contract through next season, but almost nothing has gone right over the past two seasons for the rosters assembled by general manager Rob Pelinka and coached by Vogel, who went 127-98 in his three seasons running the club.
Pelinka declined to elaborate today on why he and owner Jeanie Buss felt Vogel needed to be fired.
“Today is not going to be a day of finger-pointing and unwinding all the specific reasons,” Pelinka said. “We just felt organizationally, at the highest level, it was time for a new voice. … That’s not to say anything against the incredible accomplishments that Frank Vogel has had. He was a great coach here, and he’s going to go on to be a great coach somewhere else.”
ESPN reported Vogel’s imminent firing immediately after the Lakers finished the season by beating Denver in overtime Sunday night. During an awkward postgame news conference, Vogel admitted he had not yet been told of the club’s decision before it was leaked to ESPN.
Pelinka dismissed the public relations embarrassment of the leak for the Lakers, calling the report “speculative and unsourced.”
But it was a tacky end to a tenure that began tremendously for Vogel, the former coach at Orlando and Indiana. The Lakers claimed a title in the Florida bubble in October 2020, but haven’t won another playoff round since.
Pelinka doesn’t plan to replace Vogel immediately, and he said he hasn’t even assembled a list of potential candidates. The GM said it “would be great” to have a coach in place before the draft in June, but the Lakers’ search will be “thorough and methodical.”
Los Angeles never resembled a championship team this season despite trading for Westbrook and signing Anthony to play alongside James and Davis. The Lakers stumbled along near .500 until Jan. 7, when they entered a 10-30 nosedive exacerbated by the latest lengthy injury absence for Davis, who has missed more games than he has played in the past two seasons.
“This was a disappointing Lakers season at every level,” Pelinka said. “In the face of disappointment, our fans expect more, and that’s in every facet. It starts in the front office led by me, and our ability to construct the right roster. It starts with the coaches holding players accountable and making sure there’s on-court execution.”
Despite another impressive season from the 37-year-old James, the Lakers never jelled this season with a roster built around nine players over 30 and 11 players who weren’t with the team last season. Davis managed to play in only 40 of their 82 games, while Westbrook struggled to fit into the Lakers’ team concept during one of the worst seasons of his professional career.
After so much preseason ballyhoo around the teaming of James, Davis and Westbrook, the trio managed to play in only 21 games together — and went 11-10. The Lakers used 41 different starting lineups.
“At the end of the day, the reason why we weren’t very good together is we weren’t on the damn floor together,” said James after the Lakers finished with the worst winning percentage of his 19 NBA seasons (.402). “You never got a chance to see what the ballclub could be.”
Although Vogel remained publicly confident in his ability to fix the problems created by the injuries and two years of high-risk roster assembly, the coach never came up with any consistent solutions to Los Angeles’ woes.
But while Vogel received ample criticism for his curious decisions on player rotations and his lack of an offensive game plan, the Lakers’ single biggest problem in Vogel’s final two seasons was Davis’ inability to stay healthy.
The eight-time All-Star big man was dominant in the bubble, but Davis has played in just 76 of the Lakers’ 154 games over the past two seasons while battling several major injury problems.
James also struggled with injuries during the last two years, appearing in only 101 games. He played in just one of the Lakers’ final eight games this season because of a sprained ankle, and Los Angeles was eliminated from playoff contention during that stretch despite Davis’ return from a six-week absence for three late games.
James spoke to the media this morning before Vogel’s fate was revealed by the Lakers’ front office.
“I respect Frank as a coach, as a man,” James said. “Our partnership that we’ve had over the few years here has been nothing but candid, and great conversations. This is a guy that gives everything to the game and prepared us every single night. … I don’t know what’s going to happen with Frank being here, but I’ve got nothing but respect for him.”
Vogel was hired in May 2019 to assemble a cohesive team around James and Davis, who was officially acquired from New Orleans two months later. Vogel’s plans worked right away: His first team weathered the NBA’s coronavirus shutdown and then won a ring, with Vogel leading a deep, defensively dominant group to the title.
Pelinka has thoroughly altered that championship roster since then, and the results have been catastrophic. Less than a full calendar year after the triumph in the bubble, only James, Davis and Talen Horton-Tucker remained on the roster to start this season — along with Dwight Howard, who left the team and returned.
Los Angeles went 42-30 last season while battling major injuries to Davis and James before losing to Phoenix in the first round of the playoffs. Pelinka then disassembled the Lakers’ championship-winning supporting cast when he allowed Alex Caruso to leave for Chicago and traded Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma in a package for Westbrook.
Pelinka hoped to build a Big Three of elite talent to be supplemented by low-cost veterans, rather than homegrown or long-tenured Lakers. Instead, Pelinka’s moves forced Vogel to rebuild his defense from scratch with inferior defensive players.
The Lakers didn’t come close to matching the last two teams’ defensive success, finishing 21st in defensive rating after being a top-three team in Vogel’s first two seasons, and their offensive output couldn’t make up for it with Davis frequently unavailable.