Every situation is different. Every season is different. Every roster is different.
James Jones and the Phoenix Suns hired Frank Vogel this past offseason and tasked him with a difficult assignment: to add a defensive element to an offensively top-heavy roster that has 13 new players. Say that five times fast.
Given Vogel’s history — during his 10 full seasons coaching in the NBA, his teams have finished in the top 10 defensively seven times — it appeared to be an ideal fit for what the Suns were seeking. He has been through rebuilds before.
“Frank Vogel was the guy,” Mat Ishbia stated following his hiring, “and I knew it from the minute he walked out of the room after doing the two to three-hour interview we spent time with that he was the guy. The type of person he is, first: a leader, a culture guy, a communicator, a championship pedigree. He’s won and he’s also won with two superstars in LeBron James and Anthony Davis, and he’s also won very recently.”
The Suns have sputtered out of the gate, going 6-6 to start the 2023-24 campaign. Every situation, season, and roster is different and Vogel has had to navigate the variables that this year’s Suns have been battling. Superstar injuries are atop that list, lack of continuity on offense and defense close behind.
Bradley Beal has played in 3 games and is currently out for the foreseeable future with a strain in his lower back. Devin Booker has missed 8 games to begin the season. The team has 13 new players rostered. That is plenty to deal with at the start of a highly anticipated season.
The task that lies before Vogel is how to build that chemistry while surviving primary player dings, bruises, strains, and missed games. James Jones built the engine with name-brand parts, but ultimately it is Frank Vogel’s job to pop the clutch and drive the car.
With the 6-6 start, it got me a-thinkin’: How has Frank Vogel’s first 12 games faired throughout his coaching career?
Frank Vogel thru his 12 games w/ a new team:— John Voita (@DarthVoita) November 18, 2023
OPP PPG: 88.9 - 3rd
D RTG: 96.0- 4th
OPP PPG: 100.9 - 10th
D RTG: 108.0 - 22nd
OPP PPG: 100.6 - 3rd
D RTG: 100.0 - 1st
OPP PPG: Game: 113.7 - 17th
D RTG: 1115.5 - 20th pic.twitter.com/UTEQjCE4gV
Behind every statistic is a story. Let’s explore those stories.
Vogel began coaching as an assistant with the Boston Celtics under Jim O’Brien in 2001-02. He spent three seasons in Bean Town. He followed O’Brien to the Philadelphia 76ers in 2004-05 and followed him to the Indiana Pacers in 2007-08.
Vogel’s first full season with the Indiana Pacers came in 2011-12. He had taken the reigns the previous season as, after 44 games and with a 17-27 record, Pacers’ executive Larry Bird parted ways with Vogel’s mentor. Vogel went 20-18 the remainder of the season, but I’m not counting that run. That was O’Brien’s team.
In his first 12 games of the 2011-12 season, here is how Vogel’s team ranked:
- Record: 9-3
- Opposing Points Per Game: 88.9 (3rd)
- Defensive Rating: 96.0 (4th)
Whew, look at those numbers! It was a different NBA back then, wasn’t it?
The roster didn’t change much year-over-year. Danny Granger was still the primary offensive player and Roy Hibbert was anchoring the defensive interior for Vogel. The team didn’t experience much turmoil and Frank was able to fortify methodologies that he had begun instilling when he arrived in Indiana as an assistant two seasons prior.
The team would go on to post the 9th best defensive rating in the league before losing to LeBron, D-Wade, and Chris Bosh in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
The Magic was a much different situation for Frank. He left his incubator and headed down to Florida in hopes that he could change the course of a team that finished with the 11th-best record in the Eastern Conference the year prior.
The 2016-17 Magic had plenty of roster turnover; the team overhauled their roster and focused their efforts on centering everything around second-year forward Aaron Gordon and fourth-year guard Evan Fournier. When you look at who was on this team, it’s a who’s who of former Suns: Terrence Ross, Bismack Biyombo, and Elfrid Payton.
Through 12 games?
- Record: 5-7
- Opposing Points Per Game: 100.9 (10th)
- Defensive Rating: 108.0 (22nd)
Similar to the 2023-24 Suns, this team had 13 new players. Only Evan Fournier, Aaron Gordon, Mario Hezonjoa, Elfrid Payton, Nikola Vucevic, and C.J. Watson remained from the 2015-16 Magic. Frank had his center in Vucevic, but it would be an uphill battle due to the talent around him.
What Vogel didn’t have to navigate early in the season was the injury bug, especially to his star players.
The Magic would finish 29-53, however, with the 22nd defensive rating in the league. They won five more games than the Phoenix Suns that season and would draft Jonathan Issac with the 7th overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft.
Vogel only lasted one more season in Orlando.
Los Angeles Lakers
After taking a season off in 2018-19, Vogel was hired by the Lakers after they couldn’t land Monty Williams. The organization had gone all-in over the summer, trading half of the franchise for Anthony Davis. Gone were Isaac Bonga, Jemerrio Jones, Moritz Wagner, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart, De’Andre Hunter, and Brandon Ingram.
In was Davis.
The Lakers, who added names like Alex Caruso, Rajon Rondo, Avery Bradley, Jared Dudley, Troy Daniels, Danny Green, DeMarcus Cousins, JaVale McGee, Quinn Cook, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, started hot. Their first 12?
- Record: 10-2
- Opposing Points Per Game: 100.6 (3rd)
- Defensive Rating: 100.0 (1st)
Vogel had shown in Orlando that it was a struggle out of the gate with a team that had so much turnover but put stars like LeBron James and Anthony Davis on your team, and that narrative can charge real quick.
The Lakers would finish the season with the 3rd best defensively rated team in the league, and win the NBA Championship in the Orlando Bubble.
So here we are. It’s a situation that Vogel has faced twice before: taking rosters that have been gutted, rebuilding them, and hoping to instill his defensive processes. It is clear why he was brought in to do the job. From The Athletic’s Doug Haller when Vogel was hired: “What stood out most to the GM: Vogel’s experience. Vogel had coached young teams, older teams, championship-level teams, rebuilding teams and injured teams. “
Through 12 games, the Suns are .500.
- Record: 6-6
- Opposing Points Per Game: 113.7 (17th)
- Defensive Rating: 115.5 (20th)
Vogel is working with a variable with this team that is something he hasn’t had in previous iterations: health. Time will ultimately reveal how this story will end.
Again, every situation is different. Looking at the numbers is one thing, understanding the “what” and the “why” is another. Phoenix is 15% of the way through the season; we have 85% more to go. The Suns might not have performed to the expectations, but the expectations have changed due to the variables.
Will Vogel be able to deploy his defensive schemes? History has told us that where you are after 12 games mirrors where you finish. We’ll just have to wait and see.