The Los Angeles Lakers notched a big win last night, taking down the Utah Jazz at Crypto.com Arena, 101-95. It ended the Lakers' three-game losing streak and it came against a top-four team in the conference. You'd think the news today would be rife with renewed confidence in the LeBron James-Russell Westbrook pairing and the team's ability to get it done late against a good team.
You would think wrong! The news of the morning after the win concerns Frank Vogel's job security. The Athletic reports Vogel was nearly fired after the Lakers' 37-point loss to the Denver Nuggets on Saturday and could have been canned if they didn't pull last night's game out against Utah. He is now being evaluated on a game-to-game basis:
By the time the Lakers and Jazz tipped off on Monday night, sources said, Vogel was coaching for his job after he narrowly avoided being fired in the wake of the 37-point loss in Denver 48 hours earlier. Had a scene like that repeated itself against the Jazz, many believed it would have been Vogel’s last game.
Vogel, who coached the Lakers to a championship in 2020 and whose contract runs through the 2022-23 campaign, is being evaluated on a game-to-game basis and remains at risk of being fired soon if the progress doesn’t continue, sources said. It’s unclear how much Monday’s win relieved the pressure that surrounds him.
Deciding whether or not to fire Vogel on a game-to-game basis in January means things are going great, thanks for asking. But if the Lakers do actually fire Vogel, it would be a very transparent attempt to use him as a scapegoat.
Vogel is not a renowned coaching mind but he knows how to cobble together a good defense, as evidenced by the Lakers' championship run just over one year ago. The Lakers have a terrible defense so far this year. But that is not the product of Vogel's ineptitude. It would be strange if he suddenly forgot how to coach up a defense after years of earning his keep doing just that. It is the result of a variety of factors outside of his control, but can mostly be chalked up to the roster he was given by Rob Pelinka.
The issues with this Lakers team have been well-documented by this site and many others. Pelinka cobbled together a cast of old All-Stars, banking on experience and skill rather than fit to make things work. That has worked at times offensively, but it was always going to be hard for the Lakers to be an elite defensive team after they traded away their two best three-and-D players (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma) and let their best on-ball defender (Alex Caruso) walk. Russell Westbrook is many things but an elite defender he has not, nor has he ever been. The same goes for other offseason acquisitions like Carmelo Anthony or Malik Monk. Los Angeles was banking entirely on LeBron to be their wing stopper and Anthony Davis to be a Defensive Player of the Year force to clean up the many mistakes on the perimeter.
That hasn't happened. Not because Vogel's scheme sucks, but because availability has been a huge problem. LeBron missed a chunk of games in the opening stretch of the season due to injury. AD hasn't played since December 19 and his return is not on the immediate horizon. Pelinka's backup plan in the very likely scenario that Davis went down for any period of time was DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard. Jordan is nailed to the bench and Howard can barely stay on the floor without fouling at this stage in his career. Vogel has resorted to starting 37-year-old LeBron at center-- which has worked pretty well!
Making matters more difficult is the COVID problems that the Lakers have dealt with. Every other team has dealt with it, too, obviously, but this roster in particular was going to be more susceptible to a significant downturn in play if there was no continuity. Knowing exactly where everyone was and reacting accordingly was the only way a defense featuring three brand-new starters was going to survive in the early going. Everybody isn't on the same page in January because everybody has missed chunks of games. It's Vogel's responsibility to get them on track, but there is only so much he can do. Firing him because he failed to do the impossible is a facade, a very clear message that Vogel is just getting fired because somebody needs to, and it won't be Pelinka.
The Lakers are 22-22. That's not where this team wanted to be. They are in win-now mode as long as LeBron is suiting up. But the only number that matters is 1-5. That's the Lakers' record when Vogel missed six games in health and safety protocols himself. When Vogel is there, things aren't going great. But they were disastrous when he wasn't there. Since his return, the team has won five of their last eight. Some of the losses have been very bad, like the 37-pointer to Denver and a nine-point loss to the flailing Kings. Yet we've already seen the alternative, and it's worse.
Vogel was given a terrible hand by his bosses and will now bear the weight of the consequences. That's part of the deal when you're an NBA head coach. It does not make the organization immune to criticism. And there should be a lot of it if they go ahead and fire Vogel halfway through the season.