LAS VEGAS — There’s a story Frank Vogel likes to tell. It was 2006, and Vogel was a year removed from being let go as part of Jim O’Brien’s staff in Philadelphia. He spent most of the ’05-’06 NBA season as a regional scout, bouncing around arenas in the Northeast, filing reports to the Lakers and Wizards.
He was a college video coordinator turned pro one, an NBA coach with two teams and four years on his resume.
Then, Rick Pitino called.
He had an opening on his staff, at Louisville.
Was Vogel interested?
“Rick had his lead assistant, Kevin Willard, take a job with the University of Delaware,” Vogel recalled to Sports Illustrated. “They offered him the job. Rick called me and wanted me to come and replace him—and I was set to do so. And I guess Delaware rescinded their offer once it was brought to the board of trustees and basically pulled out. And Kevin went back to Louisville. I did not go to Louisville.”
A year later, O’Brien landed the top job at Indiana.
Some three and a half years later, Vogel was the head coach, transforming the Pacers from a scuffling outsider to a playoff team, molding a young, talented roster into a hardened, two-time conference finalist. He spent two years in Orlando before landing in Los Angeles, taking on the NBA’s most high-profile position.
The lesson: In sports, timing can be everything.
This will be a fascinating season in Los Angeles. The Lakers have LeBron James, still one of the NBA’s most dominant players but not quite the most dominant player anymore. They have Anthony Davis, an All-NBA weapon who could be the NBA’s most dominant player. They have a collection of largely castoffs around them, a group frantically assembled in the second week of free agency, when Kawhi Leonard decided he preferred another locker room in the Staples Center.
And they have Vogel, the team’s third choice to run the show, who will have to monitor James’s minutes, develop chemistry with a new roster, all while having his job security questioned, weekly.
Sounds fun, right?
“The Lakers have always been on the forefront and anywhere LeBron has been, has been on the forefront,” Vogel said. “The best experience I've had is being in the conference finals against LeBron because that's exactly what it was like then. Every word I said then was blasted all over the world, all over Twitter and SportsCenter.
“That's going to be the case here with the Lakers. It's not something that I've not been a part of, but it's just part of this job. You know, I understand it. I don't think there's anything negative about it. I love that our team's going to be talked about and I love that we're going to be one of the favorites in the league this year after having coached a number of little engine that coulds’, you know? It's teams that were all the overachieving type. So I like being viewed as one of the favorites.”
Vogel admits: He didn’t know what was next after he was let go in Orlando. His two-year stint with the Magic was a failure. He won 29 games in his first season. His boss, Rob Hennigan, was fired. The Magic were decimated by injuries in his second season, and his new boss, Jeff Weltman, had eyes on hiring his own man.
Vogel was out. And he didn’t know what would come next.
“I wasn't coming off the type of success I had in Indiana,” Vogel said. “So I did feel around the league that the interest wasn't quite as strong … I don't know if I would say there's any doubting of myself, but it does take its toll on you. We are human at the end of the day and when you're not having success as a coach you like to feel like you could take any group and make them play hard, play together, share the basketball, work on a defensive end and win. You know what I mean? But the chips don't always align that way, you're not always going to have success.
“But some of the best coaches in the world have had situations where the stars didn't align and things didn't come together, and you just have to keep that in perspective and draw a lot of confidence that your experiences and your successes can help you with your next opportunity. And that's what I feel about this situation with the Lakers. I feel that each opportunity has been a learning experience for me and will help me grow and be a better coach here in L.A.”
Vogel would love to tell you how the Lakers are going to play. He’s just not there yet. It was early July when we spoke, on a pair of sofas in his suite in an upscale Vegas hotel. Just days earlier, Vogel had just three players he was sure would be on the roster.
You want style of play? Sure. Specifics? Give him a few more weeks on that.
“The style of play is an important piece of this,” Vogel said. “I actually did not disagree with a lot of the things that Luke Walton did stylistically in terms of playing with pace, really attacking the basket and being the one of the leading free throws shooting teams. And they worked hard on the defensive end. But to me it was about putting LeBron James in positions to try to play with space the way Giannis Antetokounmpo did with Brook Lopez being added as a three-point shooter, with what Kawhi Leonard was able to have in Toronto with Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka at the center position.”
Vogel needs James to buy in, something James hasn’t always done. James didn’t want anything to do with Mike Brown at the end of his first stint in Cleveland, wanted Erik Spoelstra gone after a few months in Miami and didn’t see eye-to-eye with David Blatt, who was eventually canned midway through his second season with the Cavs.
Vogel won’t reveal much about his private conversations with James. He will say he believes he has James’s support.
“I did feel support right from the start from LeBron,” Vogel said. “He's always shown me a great deal of respect dating back to our battles when I was in Indiana and competing with the Heat in the conference finals, and coaching him in the All-Star Game. He's always shown me a great deal of respect, so I felt like there would be a lot of support, and there was immediately and that's continued on through up to this point. Hopefully we can work together to build something special.”
Will Vogel get the same support from his coaching staff? It’s no secret the Lakers were determined to shoehorn Jason Kidd onto the Lakers bench, first with Ty Lue, who rejected L.A.’s offer, and then with Vogel. Kidd wants to be a head coach again, and should the Lakers stumble the drumbeats for Kidd to replace Vogel will get louder by the loss.
“I've gotten really comfortable with Jason,” Vogel said. “What I would say is every assistant coach in the NBA wants to be head coach. Jason's no different in that regard. It was brought to my attention that they had an interest in bringing him on as an assistant … we had a great talk and a great interview and he's in a terrific place. The thing about Jason that kept me to have an open mind immediately is that the lead assistant role on my staff, I've always tried to fill with a former player, a former respected player that has coaching experience dating back to Brian Shaw first, initially, and then onto Nate McMillan, and then Corliss Williamson on my coaching staff in Orlando.
“Those guys to me have always been the right complement to me, someone who has a strong background in terms of preparation and doing the video work and whatnot, but hadn't played in the NBA. So I felt like those types of guys are perfect complements to me, and Jason may be the best of the bunch. A Hall of Fame player, really just a fierce, fierce competitor, someone that can really bring teeth to my message with our team, and so I saw a great potential in Jason puts potentially being on my staff. And when I interviewed him and we had a great talk, it became very clear that we are aligned in what we could accomplish as a tandem.”
Make no mistake: Vogel understands the microscope he will be under. He knows coaching James will have its challenges, that he will have to make a strong connection with Davis, that any success the Lakers have will be measured against the success of the team they share a building with. He’s not oblivious to the public beating the Lakers front office has taken in the last few months, but believes he begins the season with the full throated support of everyone in it.
“I really do,” Vogel said. "I've established a great relationship so far with Rob Pelinka, Kurt Rambis, Jeanie Buss, the entire front office. I think we've really hit the ground running. Obviously this is a performance industry that we're in, especially in terms of coaching, but I feel like they've settled on the right guy. I feel like they're happy with their choice for coach and the relationship in terms of us being aligned and working together to build this team up to this point, it couldn't be stronger. I anticipate that that will be the case going into the season.”