It's not Frank's fault
If the Lakers go through with a coaching change they've already strongly weighed and fire Frank Vogel, it would be a clear example of a desperate NBA team executing the only shakeup it can pull off.
After Russell Westbrook's thunderous dunk over the game's most feared interior defender on Monday night, I asked the masses via Twitter whether Russ' posterization of Utah's Rudy Gobert will be recorded as the long-awaited turning point in the Los Angeles Lakers' season.
I was also kidding.
Ballislife.com @BallislifeWESTBROOK ON GOBERT 😤 https://t.co/KmLzSCzfkm
I thought it was a fairly obvious play on the tendency so many of us get sucked into any time these 22-22 Lakers do something good. My pal Harrison Faigen, editor-in-chief of the Silver Screen and Roll site and a graduate of mighty Cal State Fullerton, had his own spin on this theme when he responded to the Lakers' gritty 101-95 victory over the Jazz with some more tweeted snark:
The reality, of course, is far colder for the team that the paid prognosticators of Las Vegas told us coming into the season would be the best team in the West ... and a better bet to win it all than the reigning champions from Milwaukee.
Who would dare to believe that a solitary win over the discombobulated Jazz, who were playing on the second night of a back-to-back, dramatically affects the Lakers' outlook? All of the justified hesitancy was validated by Tuesday morning, when The Athletic's Bill Oram and Sam Amick reported that Frank Vogel had nearly been fired after the Lakers' 37-point loss at Denver on Saturday and is now "coaching for his job."
Lakers management is clearly panicky because the season is moving faster than some of its creaky players. Also on Monday night, Toronto became the league's 30th team to reach the 41-game midpoint, ushering the last of the holdouts into the regular season’s second half. As wide open as things seem on both sides of the conference divide, little daylight has shined upon Hollywood’s team, which is likewise the NBA’s oldest team.
The Lakers, with Anthony Davis and LeBron James combining to miss 29 games so far, have consistently looked like they are right where they belong in the standings in the 7th-through-10th playoff play-in mix. They will soon begin a six-game road trip after playing host to Indiana on Wednesday night with no clear picture yet for when Davis will be able to return to the lineup after a knee sprain. Westbrook's fit as a Laker alongside James and Davis has proven as ponderous as countless skeptics said it would be when Vogel's bosses — at James' and Davis' urging — scuttled a planned trade for Sacramento's Buddy Hield to acquire Westbrook instead.
In other words: Holding Vogel culpable for the fact that the Lakers have beaten just three teams with winning records since an overtime victory over Miami on Nov. 10 is outright laughable.
Yet it's also completely unsurprising given how Vogel has been treated since the Lakers hired him in May 2019.
Vogel, remember, was at best the Lakers' third choice to succeed Luke Walton after the club's failed runs at Monty Williams and Tyronn Lue. The Lakers only consented to sign Vogel to a three-year contract upon hiring him and did not tack on a one-year extension for 2022-23 until this past August ... after Vogel had coached the Lakers to a championship in the Walt Disney World Bubble in October 2020 and then the entire 2020-21 season.
The Lakers recently went 1-5 under acting coach David Fizdale while Vogel was stranded last month in the league's health and safety protocols, then won four in a row after Vogel returned to the bench. A loss at Sacramento and the Denver debacle soon followed, but recent results don't exactly support the notion making the rounds in league coaching circles that Vogel has lost all sway over a roster filled with outsize personalities.
What's really happening here is merely the latest illustration of the old sports maxim: The coach is the easiest thing to change.
That's especially true when GM Rob Pelinka’s best available trade assets to spruce up the roster before the Feb. 10 trade deadline are an up-and-down Talen Horton-Tucker, Kendrick Nunn (who has yet to play this season due to injury) and a 2027 first-round draft pick.
Vogel is by no means blameless for the Lakers' plight. His rotations and early insistence on playing DeAndre Jordan (as well as Avery Bradley) have been scrutinized all season. The Lakers didn't show much life until James began playing center regularly and was surrounded by better ballhandlers in the wake of Davis' knee injury — and Vogel probably waited too long to be as bold as he was in the fourth quarter against Utah. To spark the second-half comeback against the Jazz, Vogel kept Westbrook on the bench for a lengthy stretch and flanked James with the four youngest players he could find: Stanley Johnson, Malik Monk, Austin Reaves and Horton-Tucker.
Yet little has really shifted for the Lakers since our last opus on this team shortly before LeBron's 37th birthday last month. The roster Vogel was handed is so defensively deficient that it's a wonder it ranked 18th in defensive efficiency as of Tuesday morning after the Utah win. How realistic is it, furthermore, to expect Vogel or any coach to bench Westbrook in fourth quarters given Westbrook’s stature and after what the Lakers gave up to get him? The best thing that LeBron and Co. have going for them remains their residence in a West that hasn't looked this inviting at any point this century.
Phoenix, Golden State and surging Memphis represent the West elite as the second half begins to take shape. The Jazz are in the midst of their own crisis and have slipped from that top-three standard — they look like a team that knows a trade shakeup is coming and has been thrown off waiting for it. Dallas is playing its best ball of the season as it morphs into a defense-first team, while Denver continues to hold out hope that Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. can return from their injuries before the playoffs, but this hardly resembles the sort of West landscape we've grown accustomed to seeing since Michael Jordan's second retirement in Chicago in 1998.
As long as Davis can come back and stay back, and if James avoids further injury from here, L.A. should advance to the postseason even if it must go the play-in route for a second successive season. The Lakers would then be a team no one wants to see in the first round.
So much more was expected from this group, but that's the forecasters’ fault, not Vogel's. Change is certainly coming, as one league source insists, because “the Lakers are not a stay-the-course kind of team” when things are going bad. I just can’t see a decision from team owner Jeanie Buss, Pelinka and top advisers Kurt and Linda Rambis to oust Vogel, or any sort of forthcoming trade, raising the Lakers’ ceiling significantly.
Which is the same answer I’m sure most of you had when asked about the big-picture impact of Westbrook’s impressive scaling and dismantling of The Stifle Tower.
The Stein Line is a reader-supported newsletter, with both free and paid subscriptions available, and those who opt for the paid edition are taking an active role in the reporting by providing vital assistance to bolster my independent coverage of the league. Feel free to forward this post to family and friends interested in the NBA and please consider becoming a paid subscriber to have full access to all of my posts.
As a reminder: Tuesday editions, on this and every Newsletter Tuesday, go out free to anyone who signs up, just as my Tuesday pieces did in their New York Times incarnation.
Hopefully you will view the story I passed along in Friday's This Week In Basketball column about Craig Randall II of the Long Island Nets as no less of a fairy tale after this update, but I did botch a key detail in recounting Randall's rise from Long Island's local tryout camp to Player of the Week honors in the NBA G League.
Randall, who played collegiately at the University of Tennessee-Martin, did indeed make Long Island's roster after paying $200 for a spot in the team's tryouts. The part I bungled: Those tryouts were in October and Randall has been with the G League Nets all season. I mistakenly described the audition as a recent event after Long Island was foiled in its attempts to sign several replacement players who tested positive for COVID-19.
None of that should diminish what Randall achieved after the G League returned from a two-week hiatus on Jan. 5. His 84 points in Long Island's first two games after play resumed made him the first-known G Leaguer to go from a local tryout to Player of the Week status since Josh Gray with the now-defunct Northern Arizona Suns. Gray played his way into a roster spot with the Suns’ then-affiliate during the 2016-17 season and earned POTW honors one season later.
Perhaps I should leave this invite here every Tuesday.
Consider this section our virtual suggestion box to discuss content ideas … NBA and otherwise.
What would you like to read more of in 2022? Or less of? What do you really think of my (largely pretend) idea to launch a complementary coffee Substack? Or a Substack about BlackBerrys?
I've got a lot of things planned already in terms of stories I hope to tackle in coming months, but I would love to hear your ideas either in the comments below or via firstname.lastname@example.org.
There are a league-record-tying 14 Black coaches in the NBA this season: J.B. Bickerstaff (Cleveland), Chauncey Billups (Portland), Dwane Casey (Detroit), Alvin Gentry (Sacramento), Willie Green (New Orleans), Jason Kidd (Dallas), Tyronn Lue (LA Clippers), Nate McMillan (Atlanta), Jamahl Mosley (Orlando), Doc Rivers (Philadelphia), Stephen Silas (Houston), Ime Udoka (Boston), Wes Unseld Jr. (Washington) and Monty Williams (Phoenix). The number rises to 16 coaches of color — an NBA first with more minority coaches than not in 2021-22 — when including Charlotte’s James Borrego (Mexican-American) and Miami’s Erik Spoelstra (Filipino-American).
Andre Iguodala spent 761 days out of the Warriors' organization after Golden State traded him to Memphis in July 2019, followed by the trade that sent Iguodala from the Grizzlies to Miami in February 2020. But because of his knee and Achilles injuries, Klay Thompson didn't play a single game in that time, meaning Thompson hasn't appeared in a game without Iguodala as a teammate since his second NBA season in 2012-13.
The Knicks' recent trade with Atlanta to acquire Cam Reddish sent Kevin Knox II to the Hawks and extended a dubious New York streak: No eligible player drafted by the Knicks has earned a multi-year contract from them after a rookie contract since Charlie Ward in 1994. RJ Barrett is poised to end that drought in the forthcoming offseason, but Knox joins a long list of top Knicks picks who either failed to live up to billing or were dealt rather than re-signed. This partial list of Knox's predecessors includes Mitchell Robinson (2018), Frank Ntilikina (2017), Damyean Dotson (2017), Kristaps Porzingis (2015), Tim Hardaway Jr. (2013), Iman Shumpert (2011), Landry Fields (2010), Jordan Hill (2009), Danilo Gallinari (2008), Wilson Chandler (2007), Renaldo Balkman (2006), Mardy Collins (2006), Channing Frye (2005), David Lee (2005), Trevor Ariza (2004), Mike Sweetney (2003), John Wallace (1996), Walter McCarty (1996) and Monty Williams (1994).
(Editor’s note: Lee signed a one-year, $7 million deal for 2009-10 after his rookie pact ended and earned an Eastern Conference All-Star spot before he was signed-and-traded to Golden State entering the 2010-11 season.)
Portland's Damian Lillard is out for at least six weeks after undergoing abdominal surgery to interrupt a season in which he is averaging just 24.0 points per game (his lowest figure since 2014-15) and registering career-low shooting percentages from the field (40.2%) and 3-point range (32.4%). The Blazers are naturally hoping that Lillard's struggles this season, after a similarly rough stint with USA Basketball at the Tokyo Olympics, were the byproduct of playing hurt.
In 92 of a possible 102 regular-season games since the Nets acquired James Harden in January 2021 to team up with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, at least one of the three stars has been out of uniform. The Nets are 8-2 in the 10 regular-season games the trio has played together ... and 5-1 in the playoffs if you include the 43 seconds that Harden lasted in Game 1 of Brooklyn's second-round series against Milwaukee last season after a 4-1 dismissal of Boston in Round 1.
A hint of consolation for the Nets as they face at least a month (and likely longer) without Durant: Harden and Irving, when playing together without KD, are 16-4 dating to last season, including wins in 15 of the last 17 such games. The Nets play 10 of their next 13 games on the road, meaning Irving should be available to play them.