Inside Frank Vogel's Evolution into Leading LeBron James and the Lakers

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It’s late September, and Frank Vogel is standing along the baseline of a floor he never envisioned himself on in a job that would have been laughable to suggest he would have months earlier. The head coach of the Lakers—the Lakers!—is riffing with a reporter. Landing the NBA’s marquee coaching job required a series of breaks—Monty Williams rejected the Lakers' overtures, then Ty Lue before Vogel, a year removed from a disappointing two-year stint in Orlando, was tabbed—but then, so didn’t Vogel’s NBA coaching career. In 2006, Vogel was on the NBA fringes. Fired, along with the rest of Jim O’Brien’s staff, from Philadelphia a year earlier, Vogel was moonlighting as a part-time advance scout. Then, Rick Pitino called. There was an opening on his staff at Louisville—did Vogel want it?

Vogel did. Pitino had given Vogel his first coaching job, a video coordinator at Kentucky, then brought him to Boston in the same role. Kevin Willard, Pitino’s lead assistant, was headed to Delaware, and Vogel was keen to replace him. Before Vogel could accept, Delaware rescinded its offer to Willard. A year later Vogel landed a job on O’Brien’s staff in Indiana. “And I would have kept him,” says Pitino. “He’s so smart, and his work ethic is off the charts.”

On the Lakers roster, Vogel is bullish. The Pacers teams Vogel coached to back-to-back conference finals played physical. With Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee, Vogel spies an opportunity to bring that brand of bully ball to LA. “You come to play the Lakers,” says Vogel, “you are going to get hit.” Shunned by Kawhi Leonard late in free agency, L.A. had to scramble to fill out the roster. But Vogel sees high value in the Lakers' late offseason additions. In Avery Bradley, a two-way player whose stock crashed after bouncing around three teams the last two seasons; in Danny Green, a veteran sharpshooter with a pair of titles on his resume; in Howard, the well-traveled eight-time All-Star who, in L.A., is likely getting his last NBA shot. Says Vogel, “We have the pieces to compete for a championship.”

More than a month later, Vogel’s words seem prescient. L.A. has a conference-best 11-2 record. LeBron James has been otherworldly, an MVP candidate defending at a level not seen since Miami. Davis is averaging 24.5 points and making an early case for Defensive Player of the Year. Howard has been a surprising force. As a team, the Lakers have embraced Vogel’s defense-first philosophy, boasting the NBA’s No. 1 defensive rating.

As Vogel speaks, James slips out a door along the wall of the Lakers practice facility. On James, Vogel chooses his words carefully. He says James was supportive of his hiring but declines to get into any specific conversations. Before last season, Luke Walton consulted Lue and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra—the two most successful LeBron whisperers—on coaching the all-time great. Vogel did not. “I think there's a danger in letting someone else shape how you're going to approach a player,” says Vogel. “Every person has somebody who's going to say something negative about them, you know? If you pay attention to all that stuff instead of seeing it for your own eyes, you can miss out on some opportunities. And you can be led in an incorrect way. My experience has been, it's better to just see it with a fresh mind, see it with my own eyes, and take my approach to them.”

In the Lakers, Vogel’s task seems considerable. To acquire Davis, L.A. gutted its roster this summer; just five players return from last season’s disappointing 37-win team. The pace-and-space way Vogel wants to play offensively requires shooting, and on paper, the Lakers don’t appear to have a lot of it. The locker room is loaded with big ego players and unlike in Indiana—where Vogel served as an assistant for 3 1/2 seasons before being elevated midway through the 2010-11 season—Vogel doesn’t have a history with any of them. At his first meeting with Davis, Vogel asked the All-NBA forward what he knew about him. Davis responded that one of his college coaches, Kenny Payne, told him to say hi.

Any success Vogel has could be defined by his relationship with James. Vogel will be James’s eighth head coach. He thrived under Spoelstra, another ex-video coordinator who, like Vogel, grinded his way up the ranks, and Lue, an ex-player James connected with. The connection was shakier with Mike Brown, who was fired after a 61-win season, and David Blatt, who was canned months after leading the Cavaliers to the Finals.

Coaching the Lakers is a big job.

Coaching LeBron is bigger.

***

It’s mid-October, and Pitino leans forward in a cushioned chair overlooking the Lakers practice floor. The team was running through a boilerplate offensive set, but Pitino was enthralled with how James was dissecting it. Before running the play, James told each teammate exactly where the openings would be. “That blew me away a little bit, his focus on details,” says Pitino. “I’d heard that about LeBron, but I’d never seen it up close.”

James is the NBA’s most powerful player, the face of the league’s marquee franchise in the second year of a four-year, $153 million contract he signed in 2018. Lakers GM Rob Pelinka has admitted that he consulted James on roster moves this summer; player agents have grumbled that no one could get on the Lakers without James’s approval. James is an attention magnet—the worldwide reaction to James’s response to the kerfuffle between the NBA and China offering a recent example—but when it comes to coaching him, several coaches who have worked with James tell SI, the key is simple: Be as prepared as he is.

Amongst coaches, James’s professionalism stands out. He isn’t late for meetings. For buses. For flights. He studies opponents intensely. “And he knows if you are not as prepared as him,” says a former assistant coach. “He has a real bullshit meter.” With James, respect for coaches is earned. “Is he easy to coach? No,” says Richard Jefferson, a teammate of James for two seasons in Cleveland. “Was Kobe Bryant the best teammate? No. But guys like that, their job is not to be easy to coach or be the best teammate. Their job is to go out there and be competitive. A great player will challenge a coach.”

Whatever happens, says Pitino, Vogel won’t be outworked. Vogel was a pre-med student and a steady-handed point guard for Division III Juniata College when the coaching bug bit him. Pitino recalls getting letters from Vogel, pleading for a chance to be part of the Kentucky program. Pitino told the New Jersey-bred Vogel that he would be better off looking for jobs in that area. Vogel told Pitino he wanted to work for him. In 1995, Pitino made Vogel a video assistant. An unpaid video assistant. Kentucky supplied Vogel with a room and covered his meal card. He lived in the video room, breaking only to rifle down chicken sandwiches at KFC and Long John Silver’s. “Frank was very similar to Billy Donovan and Jeff Van Gundy in terms of his work ethic, his desire, his selfless,” says Pitino. “All those guys have one common denominator: They were so selfless in their regard to the program. It was always, what can I do to make the program better? There was never anything about getting credit in any way.”

Pelinka gets the star-coach dynamic. A player agent before joining the Lakers front office last summer, Pelinka’s client list included Kobe Bryant and James Harden. “The most important thing with the superstars of the game is to have a partnership approach,” says Pelinka. “It's not a top-down relationship. It is a partnership and a collaboration, and I think that was one of the things that I felt like Frank would be really good at.”

The Lakers were basketball’s Hindenburg last season. A bad year on the floor was complicated by Magic Johnson abruptly quitting as team president last April before lobbing grenades into the L.A. front office—and at Pelinka, specifically—from an ESPN desk days later. During the interview process with Vogel, Pelinka drilled down on how Vogel would react to a rough patch. He asked Vogel to recount times in Indiana and Orlando when he came into conflict with a player, and to lay out how he resolved it. Did he involve his staff? How open was he to discussing play calls and his coaching philosophy with players? “I wanted to get a sense of his conflict-resolution,” says Pelinka. “I think listening is an undervalued leadership trait for this day and age of media, where everyone's trying to get their point of view across. I think sometimes it's important to listen, and I felt like when we were interviewing him, he was a good listener. He would think and then he'd respond. I thought that was a quality that jumped out.”

Pelinka’s role in Vogel’s success can’t be understated. In Miami, Spoelstra survived a rocky start—who doesn’t remember BumpGate?—in part because Heat owner Micky Arison and team president Pat Riley were unwavering in their support. Pelinka’s phone buzzed all summer from the three-person text chain with James and Davis. Roster moves were a regular topic—but what if it shifts to coaching? James enjoys a close relationship with Jason Kidd, a former teammate with USA Basketball who was shoehorned onto Vogel’s staff. Kidd wants to be a head coach again—what happens if James lobbies for that to happen in Los Angeles?

“I think we're always open to listening to the player's voice,” says Pelinka. “But I do think as a principal with the Lakers, we do want the GM and the front office to be building rosters, and the coaches to doing the strategy. And I think it's important to empower people to do their job in their lane and not to be meddlesome. So we definitely stay away from that.”

Vogel, Pelinka says, has the full support of everyone in the organization. With Johnson gone, Pelinka is in charge of basketball operations, though the Lakers remain a stew of decision-makers. Kurt Rambis, a former Laker, has a voice, as does his wife, Linda, a longtime consigliere of owner Jeanie Buss. All opinions inside the front office matter, says Pelinka. Outside? Not so much. “I think the only thing that really matters for us here is what goes on in the walls of this building,” says Pelinka. “What people write or what people say on the outside, I definitely respect people's views, but we don't really take that into account in how we make decisions here.”

***

Jared Dudley knew the narrative. LeBron didn’t come to LA to win championships. He came to LA to build his brand. Dudley, who signed a one-year deal with the Lakers this summer, even wondered how much of it was true. At a midsummer workout, Dudley got his answer. “I hear the stuff people say,” says Dudley. “But let me tell you, this guy was locked in.” A former teammate of Steve Nash, John Wall and Chris Paul, Dudley understands the importance of the coach-star relationship. “Anyone that tells you it isn’t is lying to you,” says Dudley. “There has to be a certain respect level. The question is, when you lose, people think there's friction. So, the better start we get off to, the less we have to deal with that.”

James receded into the background during last spring’s coaching search. “LeBron had no interest in doing the front office's job when it comes to coaching,” says Pelinka. But at 34, James may need coaching more than ever. James remains a stat-stuffing, offensive alpha. But he missed 17 games last season with a groin injury—the most significant of his career. Vogel will have to manage James’s minutes while force-feeding chemistry with Davis, whose free agency next summer adds another layer of intrigue.

James calls Vogel “a great coach,” but defers when asked what he needs from him. “I don’t think it’s personal,” says James. “It’s not ever personal. We all want a coach that holds us accountable and puts us in a position to win. It’s not what LeBron wants in a coach—it’s never just about me. It’s about the whole team and how we can all be as great as we can be.”

And how good is that? Oddsmakers have the Lakers among the favorites to hold the Larry O’Brien trophy at the end of the season. The fast start reinforces it. But the Lakers have more room for variance than any team in the league. James stays healthy, clicks with Davis, Kyle Kuzma emerges as a legitimate third option and L.A. is a contender. If James declines further and the shooting doesn’t hold up, the Lakers could be one-and-done in the playoffs.

Vogel knows the challenge. And he understands the scrutiny. In Indiana and Orlando, he existed in relative anonymity. “Except in the conference finals,” says Vogel, laughing. “Every word I said then was blasted everywhere. It will be like that every day here.” His interactions with James will be put under a microscope. After observing James and Vogel work, Pitino sees the beginning of a strong partnership. Any ego issues are balanced by the fact that Vogel doesn’t have one. “He's perfect for LeBron because it'll never be about Frank,” says Pitino. “It will always be about the Lakers and LeBron. Frank will give LeBron all the space he needs to be a leader of the team. If they win the championship this year it will be the Lakers and LeBron. It will never be about Frank.”