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Who Is to Blame for Lakers' Struggles?

Frank Vogel is on the hot seat, but blaming him for L.A.'s problems is misguided.

We’re going to point the finger at Frank Vogel for the Lakers' 24th-ranked offense, their 19th-ranked defense, and their .500 record that would look a lot worse if not for one of the NBA’s softest early-season schedules. It’s easy, right? Team mired in a slump, dump the blame at the feet of the easiest guy to replace.

The vultures are circling Vogel, which, when you think about it, shouldn’t be a surprise. Vogel was hired two years ago, and then only after Tyronn Lue and Monty Williams said no. Even then, he was considered a placeholder, with Jason Kidd waiting in the wings. All Vogel did was guide Los Angeles to its second-best winning percentage in franchise history. And, oh, yeah—its 17th championship.

Blaming Vogel for the Lakers' failures is misguided, like blaming the engineer for the sinking of the Titanic or the poker player for the terrible hand. Can Vogel coach defense? L.A. was top-three in the NBA in defensive efficiency the last two seasons, first overall last year. That team had Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso and Dennis Schröder. This one has Carmelo Anthony, Russell Westbrook and Austin Reaves. LeBron James has yet to toggle over to the “play defense” button while Anthony Davis is still getting used to heavier work at center.

Blame Vogel? The Lakers have been far from an offensive juggernaut in his two seasons, but they did enough. This season Vogel has made adjustments, increasing the team's pace—L.A. is second in the league in that category, up from 16th last season—while leaning into smaller lineups. But he has had James for 11 of the Lakers' 22 games. He has had a collection of wing players split time between the rotation and the trainers table. And he has had Russell Westbrook.

Sometimes we in the media can’t see the forest through the trees. We scratch our heads at a deal, not seeing the angles a seasoned GM sees. I’m guilty of it. I predicted the Lakers could miss the playoffs in Vogel’s first season, and I’m currently trying to scrub from the internet any criticisms I leveled at Brad Stevens for trading Kemba Walker.

But the Westbrook deal felt like a mistake when the Lakers made it in the summer, and it looks like one now. Westbrook has been, well, Westbrook. He’s scoring (20.6 points per game), but doing it inefficiently (44.6% shooting, including 31.3% from three). He’s handing out assists (8.7) while committing a ghastly number of turnovers (4.7). Defensively, the Lakers are allowing 9.1 points more per 100 possessions when Westbrook is on the floor than off, per Cleaning the Glass.

Where would the Lakers be if they flipped a Kyle Kuzma–headlined package to Sacramento for Buddy Hield? Hield is shooting 37.8% from three with the Kings this season and still looks like an ideal fit to play opposite James. Where would they be if they simply ran it back? Caruso is leading the NBA in steals in Chicago. Dennis Schröder has been solid in Boston. Montrezl Harrell has regained his Sixth Man of the Year form in Washington while Kuzma and Caldwell-Pope have played well for the surprising Wizards.

That deal looks worse by the game. It’s limited what the Lakers can do on the court and given them few options off it. No one is trading for Westbrook. The Knicks aren’t that foolish (anymore), and the Rockets aren’t welcoming Westbrook back in a John Wall swap. The $90-plus million he has remaining on his contract makes him extremely difficult to move, to say the least.

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Publicly, the Lakers aren’t overreacting to the sluggish start. Davis sees Sunday’s win over the Pistons as the launching pad for a winning streak. James, after calling this season the toughest challenge of his career, said he embraces it. Westbrook, who has experienced plenty of adversity in recent years, says he isn’t overwhelmed by what’s happened in this one.

“One thing I live by is never, never panic,” Westbrook said. “Don’t panic. Stick with each other. Never spread out at times like this, regardless of what people outside of our locker room, how quickly they think we should be playing this way, that way. It’s a long year. But also … we do [have] to have a sense of urgency of taking care of home wins and winning games we’re supposed to win.”

Frank Vogel

And there’s the rub. The Lakers played a lot of games they were supposed to win early. And often they didn’t win. They lost to Minnesota, Sacramento and Portland. They lost to Oklahoma City—twice. They will play six of the next nine games on the road, with trips to Memphis, Dallas and Chicago mixed in.

“We knew the early season was going to be bumpy,” Vogel said. “This season is about peaking at the right time, [about] understanding that we’re going to use an 82-game season to learn each other and to grow each day, each game … there’s a big-picture mindset that we’re taking with this team.”

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Will Vogel get to see it through? He continues to tinker with rotations—a lineup with James at center has yielded some strong early results, and Vogel says the Lakers will continue to go with it—and Kendrick Nunn and Trevor Ariza, two players expected to be part of L.A.’s rotation, will likely come off the injured list next month. He has pushed the team to play with more of an edge (“The consistency of playing harder than our opponent isn’t there yet,” said Vogel) and says the pressure the Lakers play with isn’t weighing on them.

“For me, whatever the expectations of the group are you want to blow through those,” Vogel said, “and exceed them.”

The Lakers, though, aren’t playing like a team capable of meeting those expectations, and history suggests the coach will be the one who pays the price. Vogel was given a one-year extension last offseason, which is hardly a ringing endorsement anyway. He could lose his job, could be replaced by David Fizdale or Phil Handy or any one of the assistant coaches currently sitting next to him. He could be scapegoated for the Lakers' shortcomings. But make no mistake: None of it will be Vogel’s fault.

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