Frank Vogel accepted a three-year contract to coach the Lakers — a shorter than normal deal that Tyronn Lue would not accept (along with other demands that drove Lue down the Staples Center hall) — which would have made this a lame-duck season for him. Instead, the Lakers gave him a one-year contract extension, which again is shorter than the norm and raised eyebrows around the league.
The Lakers are off to an underwhelming 10-11 start, and a source told NBC Sports this week it wasn’t just frustrated Lakers’ fans calling for Vogel’s head, storm clouds were gathering and his job was legitimately in danger. On Friday, Marc Stein wrote this in his Substack Newsletter (to which you should subscribe):
There is also rising buzz in coaching circles about the pressure mounting on Frank Vogel given the Lakers’ worrisome 10-10 start … given L.A.’s lack of flexibility to make roster changes.
Vogel won a championship with the Lakers in the bubble two seasons ago, but the second part of Stein’s note — that the Lakers roster essentially is what it is, no major changes are coming — plays the big role here.
Last summer, GM Rob Pelinka completed a shift of the Lakers from a defense-first roster to one with more offensive-focused players. Gone are plus defenders Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso and Danny Green. They were replaced by Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony, who are minus defenders at this point in their careers. Dwight Howard and Avery Bradley are back on the roster, but they are not high-level defenders anymore, and Malik Monk is prone to defensive mistakes. Trevor Ariza and Kendrick Nunn will come back from injuries at one point, but neither of them are plus defenders (Ariza was, and he’s still solid, but at age 36 is not quite the same guy). The Lakers have one elite, versatile defender in Davis and a guy who can play at that level for stretches in LeBron, but after them this is a poor defensive roster.
Here's the most alarming part about the Lakers' 10-11 start: they've had the softest schedule defensively and yet they rank 20th on that end of the floor. After tomorrow, they'll have played HOU 2x, OKC 2x and DET 2x. Only team in NBA who will have played the worst 3 offenses 2x.
— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) November 27, 2021
The argument for moving on from Vogel goes like this: Vogel is a defensive coach ill-fitted to this offensive roster; the Lakers need to bring in someone who can maximize scoring and that end of the floor.
The flaw with that argument is it only makes the Lakers marginally better at best — teams with poor defenses do things like lose triple-overtime games to the Kings. If you’re in a shootout every night, you win some and you lose some. Add to that LeBron has missed half the Laker games, which has cost the team games. Finally, mid-season coaching changes rarely lead to long-term improvement (they don’t fix the underlying issues).
“I felt like I played a horrible game individually, and I hold myself to a higher standard than that,” LeBron said, taking some of the blame for the loss to Sacramento. “I’ve got to do better for this team, especially when we’re going through what we’re going through on the floor.”
The Lakers are not making major roster moves. LeBron and Davis are off-limits, and the Lakers would get pennies on the dollar back if they could even find a trade for Westbrook. The only player with a decent-sized contract the Lakers can trade and bring back value is Talen Horton-Tucker ($9.5 million), but he’s providing young legs and energy the team needs. There’s a lot of players on veteran minimums, but they aren’t really moveable for better players. The Lakers can look to the buyout market in later February, where they will compete with Brooklyn and maybe Golden State, but we’re still talking about players other teams let go.
“You know, 10-11, I mean, we could go on a 10-game winning streak, 12-game winning streak, now the narrative is different,” Davis said after Friday’s loss. “You know, 10-game winning streak, we’re 20-11. We’ll shut everybody up, but it’s on us. We’re going to have to do it. It’s not going to be easy.”
This Lakers roster is what it is, the question becomes can another coach get that much more out of it than Vogel?
Because if someone has to be the fall guy for this start, well, GMs don’t blame themselves.