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The Lakers May Have Stumbled into the Right Head Coach

You won’t win any press conferences by hiring Frank Vogel, but after a disastrous hiring process, the Lakers’ third choice may be the best coach for the job.

Frank Vogel Getty Images

Do you remember Paul the Octopus? If not, let me explain: This octopus was rewarded with a first name because he could correctly pick the winner of World Cup matches by slapping one of his tentacles on a team’s flag. By the time he passed away (RIP, my guy), Paul the Octopus correctly predicted 12 of 14 matches, which is probably the equivalent of Joe Dimaggio’s 56-game hit streak for prognostic octopuses.

The Los Angeles Lakers, to my knowledge, do not employ an octopus, but that did not stop them from going full Paul with their coaching search. Their multiple-appendage organism led by Jeanie Buss, Rob Pelinka, a couple of Rambises, and probably a few others let the ink spill everywhere and then aimlessly floated in the general direction of a coach until they landed on one. Welcome to L.A., Frank Vogel!

Of course, a flawed process doesn’t always guarantee a bad result. The Lakers know this well: Despite half a decade in the lottery and repeated failures in managing trade assets and developing young talent, LeBron James still signed on last summer. Unearned as it may be, getting a head coach of Vogel’s caliber, despite initially tabbing him as a Tyronn Lue assistant, is yet another win. Vogel’s defensive resume stands out above the other retreads reported to be in the mix—Lue, J.B. Bickerstaff, Jason Kidd—and his strengths as a coach and a personality align well with what the Lakers need to pull out of this nosedive.

The best thing Vogel brings to the table is that his players buy in, and they stay bought in. Only two coaches have led their teams to five straight top-10 finishes in defensive efficiency over the last decade: Gregg Popovich with the Spurs, and Vogel with the Pacers.

Vogel’s teams are consistently tough to play against, even if they have their warts. LeBron knows. In 2013, the Pacers pushed LeBron’s Miami Heat to the brink in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. That series gave birth to about a million memes, but also to the term “verticality” and drop pick-and-roll coverage being the preferable way to leverage a rim-protecting big man. Vogel’s defenses were a driving force in changing how offenses played.

Coaches don’t tend to get the validation required for real job security without winning a ring, and after five and a half seasons, the Pacers eventually moved in a different direction. They immediately dropped 12 spots in defensive efficiency once Vogel left. Giving one of the greatest teams ever assembled a run for their money and posting back-to-back seasons with the top defense is no small feat, one that should probably outweigh any hand wringing over a modest 304-291 record as a head coach. The Pacers weren’t loaded with free agent talent or hyper-efficient offensive players under Vogel—you try spacing the floor with Lance Stephenson, David West and Roy Hibbert—but they had an identity. The Lakers, even with James at the helm, were unremarkable across the board.

Perhaps the biggest mistake Vogel made was not waiting after being let go by the Pacers. Vogel jumped straight to Orlando for the 2016-17 season, when their master plan was to acquire two centers (Serge Ibaka and Bismack Biyombo) to their already jam-packed frontcourt. Vogel understood at the time of his hire that the NBA was changing and he’d have to adapt. He held true to the time-honored new coach tradition of saying his team would play fast, as the Magic finished in the top-10 in percentage of fast-break points in both of his two seasons there. Orlando was still predictably bad anyway, as there’s really only so much you can do when you’re drawing up your best stuff for Jonathon Simmons instead of Paul George. You could tell the losing started to wear Vogel down, as he went through a very Obama-in-office aging process. In his last season in Orlando, Vogel had to start 16 different players, and four of those players were out of the league altogether by this season.

Vogel shouldn’t get a free pass for what happened in Orlando. There are legitimate concerns with whether or not he can build a modern offense that is less predicated on sets with multiple screens away from the ball and more focused on creating and maintaining spacing. With Kidd shoehorned in as his top assistant—the Littlefinger to Vogel’s Ned Stark, let’s say—it’s far from a sure thing that Vogel’s staff properly leverages LeBron’s passing ability. If you subscribe to the idea that spacing is offense and offense is spacing—which certainly seems true in Milwaukee in the wake of Kidd’s departure—Vogel is going to need some real shooters in order to make some of his five-out sets shine, especially as LeBron’s patience for anyone else’s ideas seem to grow shorter by the day.

Ultimately, LeBron’s buy-in matters more than anything else. He spent most of last season disinterested in playing defense when things appeared to be going south, and even someone as good as Vogel is defensively can’t account for regularly playing four-on-five. Vogel can toe the line of being demanding and easy to play for, but even a somewhat consistent rotation would be a massive upgrade over what Luke Walton did last season. There are a lot of areas where Vogel provides an immediate upgrade, but this job is chock-full of potential pitfalls: An inept front office that lacks structure after Magic Johnson dipped to become NBA Twitter’s Perd Hapley again, a complete lack of dependable grown-ups on the roster, the need to appease the highest of the high-maintenance superstars, and the possibility that you might have only been Linda Rambis’s third choice.

The hiring process was disastrous, but after striking out with Lue and Monty Williams, the Lakers lucked into a good coach when they landed on Vogel. Maybe the third time’s the charm for them both.