On Tuesday at noon, the Phoenix Suns will introduce Frank Vogel, who is signing a $31 million contract to be the head coach of the team for the next five years. The Suns have invited the media to Footprint Center to hear James Jones make the introductions and take media questions for the first time since the Suns season ended and former head coach Monty Williams was fired almost four weeks ago.
Vogel has been an NBA head coach for 11 seasons now, including six with the Indiana Pacers, two with Orlando and three with the Los Angeles Lakers. He won a championship with the Lakers and made the Conference Finals twice with the Pacers. He will reportedly be flanked on the bench this season by top assistant Kevin Young and former NBA head coach David Fizdale, who both agreed to huge contracts.
I had a chance to ask longtime Lakers blogger Harrison Faigen of SilverScreenandRoll.com about his impressions of Vogel from 2019-2022. Vogel led the Lakers to the championship in his first season with the team, then twisted in the wind as the championship core suffered injuries the next year and then broke apart the championship supporting cast in the failed trade for Russell Westbrook a year later.
Here’s Harrison’s thoughts.
Dave: Did he get a raw deal in LA, or was it time for him to go? And why?
Harrison: I think both of these things are true, honestly. By the end of Vogel’s final season in Los Angeles, it was pretty clear that there was no scenario where he would be brought back, and if not for the timing of his midseason COVID diagnosis showing the front office that they didn’t necessarily have better options on the bench to lead the team the rest of the way, he probably would have been fire at midseason.
I won’t bore you by going too far down the rabbit hole on the cavalcade of dysfunction that was the 2021-22 Lakers, but by the end of the season, Vogel had made enough self-inflicted mistakes to make a bad roster that did not fit his preferred style of play even worse that he had probably earned a dismissal (who knew Carmelo Anthony as a small-ball center playing drop coverage was a bad idea?!).
But him not being blameless noted, he also got a crap deal, in some ways quite literally. The team gave him a token one-year extension that they announced in a Friday news dump before the season, showing just enough commitment to him after a championship just one season prior that no one could claim he was a lame duck, even though the fact that he was never better than the Lakers’ fourth choice, at best — remember, they interviewed your old friend Monty Williams first, as well as Juwan Howard and almost hired Ty Lue, interviewing Vogel as a possible Lue lead assistant originally — was always made obvious by the team’s actions. Add in that the Lakers systematically tore down the defensive roster Vogel won a title with over two offseasons, with the second bringing in a player in Russell Westbrook who didn’t respect Vogel from the jump and couldn’t defend a lick, and it’s hard to argue he was set up for success.
Do I remember right that he didn’t pick his assistants, that the Lakers did it for him? Seems to be happening again in Phoenix, with Kevin Young
You remember correctly. The Lakers had a bad experience with Luke Walton having that level of freedom, and overcorrected by insisting on stocking Vogel’s bench for him. Vogel is really collaborative and easygoing by nature, and so this worked, as the team took advantage of all that collective brainpower in year one, but he did not have full autonomy on his staff. That said, given Young’s offensive reputation — the side of ball Vogel is weakest at — and the two may be a fairly natural fit.
Is he a people manager, or more of a scheme and team manager?
Definitely the latter. Vogel is easy to get along with and collaborative, but Jason Kidd and Phil Handy were more in charge of holding the star’s accountable during his time in Los Angeles, at least outside of the film room. If provided with traditional centers who can actually play and at least one perimeter defender or two, Vogel will come up with the best possible defensive schemes to paper over weaknesses and accent strengths, while also doing a great job of pulling the right adjustment levers from game-to-game and series-to-series in the postseason. If his time with the Suns is like his time with the Lakers, however, don’t expect him to spam the team’s best lineups all the time during the regular season. He’ll use those 82 games to keep everyone on the team feeling like they’re a part of things and like they were given a legit chance to contribute, and then go opponent specific in terms of matchups more in the playoffs. Usually he will force a team to beat you before making a change to what his team does best, but if they do, he has typically made a smart adjustment.
How long did LeBron and AD listen to him? Did their attention fade out over the years?
I honestly think Davis was a Vogel guy until the end. They were kindred spirits defensively and viewed the game really similarly, with both preferring to have as much size on the floor as possible and do everything possible to take away the rim defensively. As for LeBron, I think he respected Vogel’s defensive IQ and film room adjustments during their first playoff run together, but like he has a tendency to do, I do think he tired of the same voice after a while, especially after it became clear that Vogel wasn’t going to be able to make his chosen move for Westbrook work.
How did he get along with the next tier of players below AD and LeBron? Who were his biggest allies?
I think like any coach who was there for as much roster turnover as Vogel oversaw in Los Angeles — by his third and final year, LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Talen Horton-Tucker were the only players he’d coached the whole way through — the answer to this question varied. Also like most coaches, the answer to that was mostly dependent on the team’s success. Pretty much everyone swore by him when the team was good, and Vogel excels at letting players know when they’ll be in and out of the rotation and why. No one is ever going to be blindsided by a benching. When the Lakers were bad in Vogel’s final year, there was some grousing of course because all vets think they can contribute more, but for the most part I don’t think the entire team ever tuned him out or anything like that. As for role player allies, I’d say Alex Caruso, Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley were probably the biggest Vogel fans during his time with the team, but as mentioned above, Davis was also a Vogel disciple. I actually wouldn’t be surprised to see Bradley at least get a camp opportunity from the Suns, and if not for the presence of Chris Paul, I’d actually be wondering if Rondo would get a shot on Vogel’s staff.
What’s Vogel’s biggest strength as a coach?
Definitely defensive buy-in and adjustments. If given a roster with at least a few capable defensive options — especially playable big men — he’s going to squeeze the absolute most juice possible out of them on that end. His adjustments after opponents put their own strategies on tape against him are also typically strong.
What’s his biggest weakness?
Probably the offensive side of the ball. With Booker and Durant, this will likely not be a problem, as Vogel’s attack can skew ISO or two-man game heavy, and those are two of the best options for such attacks in the league. Aside from that, I would say that he is generally not the most flexible in terms of how he wants to play. He wants to play big, he wants to use verticality at the rim. If your roster has the decaying remains of 2022 Dwight Howard and near-40-year-olds LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony as the main small-ball options at that position while Anthony Davis is hurt, it’s going to look terrible. If he has a few decent bigs, though, things will be fine to great on that end depending on the rest of the lineup.
What grade should Suns fans give the hire?
I think a solid B. Vogel is an expert at navigating drama, and he will have no issues with an owner that, shall we say, seems to want to be involved, and will be super collaborative with both the front office and his star players. He’s not a totalitarian, and all of them will feel agency in the decisions being made, as will his coaching staff. For a team that seems to need a vibes boost, injecting a bit of trademark Vogel positivity will be helpful.
What else should we know?
If Deandre Ayton is still around next season — you’d know better than me how likely that is — I would expect Vogel to be able to get the most out of him and keep him engaged. He is pretty much the prototype of five Vogel will like when he’s locked in defensively, and if Vogel was running plays for JaVale McGee to keep him engaged, you can guess he will for Ayton as well. It may cost the Suns in moments here and there in the regular season, but if results in buy-in to what the team will need from him in the playoffs, it’s a worthy trade-off. Be ready for the team to try and throw him a lob to open every game, a Vogel staple.
Also, fans will likely (mostly) love him. He never throws players under the bus, crediting them when things go well and blaming himself when things go wrong. He’s a positive presence who the media will enjoy dealing with, and should be a stabilizing force for this team after a year of turbulence.