NBA coaching hires typically fit into two categories of power profile: strong or weak.
There are also generally two kinds of general managers working in the league: those who make decisions aimed at keeping their jobs, and those who are determined to do things their way, even if it comes with the risk of failure.
Los Angeles Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka made it clear which type of executive he wants to be in hiring head coach Frank Vogel, who made it clear where he currently falls on the coaching power spectrum.
According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Pelinka got Vogel to take only a three-year deal, and Vogel agreed to take on Jason Kidd as lead assistant coach. In the wake of Magic Johnson’s exit from the team, this move establishes Pelinka as a powerful voice in the Lakers organization. How long he’ll keep that spot will perhaps be shaped by this choice. Vogel wanted the Lakers job more than he wanted the power. Ty Lue, who rejected Pelinka’s terms earlier this week, valued control more than he wanted this gig.
This very well could be a “Sliding Doors” type of moment. We have big names, a big job and a legacy franchise involved here. This result could go any direction. It could be the basis of a turnaround. It could be a disaster. Lue passing could end up being prudent. Lue passing could end up being a mistake.
Let’s get four things out of the way here:
- Anyone who erroneously believed LeBron James was influencing the coach hire can drop that notion.
- Pelinka’s process has put Vogel in a challenging position.
- Vogel has excelled from a challenging position before.
- Until we see how the lottery and NBA draft play out — and then see what the Lakers do with their $35 million in salary cap space — it’s hard to really know how strongly the Lakers will enter next season.
The coaching hire was a huge step for Pelinka — no matter how it may be spun, Vogel was at least the third choice. But retrofitting the roster around James is far and away Pelinka’s bigger job this offseason. James can work with various coaches. What he really wants is to have a winning team constructed.
This wasn’t the cleanest process and it didn’t exactly inspire confidence. Vogel has allies in the league but he is not a classic free agent draw. For Pelinka to give Vogel any chance, he’s going to need major lottery luck or a much more executable free agent plan than he had for the coaching hire.
The history of coaches with powerful assistants succeeding is spotty. For example, this is similar to the position the Cleveland Cavaliers put David Blatt in back in 2014.
The Cavs made Blatt, a coach with success on his resume but limited power because he didn’t have NBA experience, take Lue to be his lead assistant. Lue had interviewed for the Cavs job, the team liked him and wanted to pair the two together. There also were some other dynamics at play, including ownership and the front office disagreeing on the hire.
Blatt didn’t walk in with James’ respect. James felt more of a connection to the former player who sat next to Blatt. Within weeks it was clear James preferred to deal with Lue over Blatt and it set the stage for Lue to eventually replace him.
Vogel has a real track record as a head coach in the NBA, especially his five seasons as head coach of the Indiana Pacers. Nonetheless, James and his Miami Heat team repeatedly beat Indiana in the playoffs. Though Vogel and the Pacers played James and the Heat tough, Miami never really feared them. Then in Orlando, Vogel had a disappointing and forgettable two years and was fired.
He will come into the season with Kidd, one of the runners-up for the job, on his hip. James has long respected Kidd and they won a gold medal together at the 2008 Olympics. Kidd was a veteran presence on the “Redeem Team” that year and that experience largely shaped James as he was learning to be a leader. He won his first Most Valuable Player Award the next season.
Regardless of how James feels about Vogel, there is no way the respect level will match Kidd’s. At least not right away. How could it? James will naturally be connected to Kidd because of their relationship and his tremendous success in the league playing both against and with James. But Vogel has been here before. He was in as weak of a position as any coach when he was named a midseason interim in Indiana in 2011. Few believed Vogel was more than a substitute teacher put in place just to finish out that season.
But he took over for Jim O’Brien and stunned the league with his confidence level and leadership skills. His ability to corral and inspire a headstrong group of players that included David West, Paul George, Roy Hibbert and George Hill among others was commendable. When the Pacers let him go, he was hired by the Magic within days.
There is no question that Vogel can impress in an interview. He’s one of the refugees of the video room, where great coaches such as Erik Spoelstra and Mike Budenholzer started their careers, and that has earned him the reputation of being a good tactician.
But being a success in this job would probably be the greatest accomplishment of his career.
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