None of this is Frank Vogel’s fault.
Let’s start there.
The Los Angeles Lakers are in a bad way, a mediocre squad hemorrhaging hope courtesy of a constellation of difficult realities: They are old, they are banged up, they are poorly constructed, and they are — as with all LeBron James‘ teams that flinch in the face of the inevitable expectations — veering toward dysfunction as the blame game becomes the organization’s most-successful move.
But none of this is Vogel’s fault.
That hasn’t stopped the leak machine that always surrounds LeBron James’ teams from churning out a slew of stories pointing squarely at Vogel — despite others who share much more culpability, a list we’ll get to soon. It’s the head coach who’s been waking up at the center of the storm of reporting about his status: That he’s under evaluation. That he could be gone if things don’t turn around. That he’s getting fired. That he’s not getting fired, yet, but maybe later. Or not at all. For now. Or maybe he is, after all.
On and on it goes, and come what may it is all designed with a clear purpose: for there to be enough noise that, punished or not, the head coach is to blame.
Only he’s not. Not really. Head coaches under LeBron rarely are to blame for the rosters LeBron wants, demands and is given. This isn’t new. Early into the 2010-11 NBA season, during LeBron’s first year in Miami, Erik Spoelstra was similarly under fire as reports tried to paint the Heat head coach as the culprit for Miami’s poor start and worthy of, like today, a quick-firing. Only Spoelstra had Pat Riley, who had his back, and the swell of pressure abated.
Vogel is unlikely to be so lucky, now or down the line, when it comes to stalwart defenders who don’t flinch within his organization. The Lakers’ culture ain’t the Heat’s. And it strains credulity to believe Vogel jumped for joy when Russell Westbrook was added to this mix. Or when Carmelo Anthony came on board. Or when Alex Caruso headed to Chicago because the Bulls‘ front office had a better understanding than the Lakers of his real value. And so on.
Vogel is an excellent head coach. He was when he was in Indianapolis when he helped steer that team to two consecutive Eastern Conference finals appearances. As one NBA coach told me back then, “The guy’s the real deal — he came up in the video department, so he knows his s—. Don’t doubt him.”
For Vogel, there’s no shortage of irony here. His career could be largely defined by two rules of, let’s call them, the physics of the NBA when LeBron James is involved: That the path past the King on the way to the Finals can be insurmountable. And that coaching him if you don’t make the Finals can be fatal.
Vogel is the guy who coached the Lakers to a championship 15 months ago. And now, burdened with a bad team, a too-common Anthony Davis injury, and the realpolitik of a LeBron team — and that of a Lakers organization mired in brutal dysfunction a short time ago — he’s been set up to fail.
It surely is not Vogel’s fault that only three continuous players remain from that 2020 title run, the one that happened 15 months ago. Or that much of the Lakers squad could front an AARP commercial. Or that Westbrook’s obvious and inevitable inability to fit in on the floor has, in fact, arrived.
So here are the true culprits, a sort of Lakers Blame Power Rankings, for why this team is a mess.
A countdown of the top five, starting with …
No. 5: Russell Westbrook
Yes, he’s been a disaster as a Laker. No, it will not work. And yes, his mere presence — the money his salary takes up in the Lakers’ cap situation, his need for the ball, the fact his game no longer works in today’s NBA and the fact he’s the exact person you’d bring into L.A. if you wanted to disrupt what the Lakers do — is a net negative for his team.
But — big but here — Westbrook isn’t to blame for the fact the Lakers brought him to L.A. He is what he is. A dogged competitor, a proud player, a former MVP and a faded great who does not work in this NBA, and certainly not on this team.
But many players would like to be a Laker. That’s why there are front offices to make sure only the right ones get to actually don that purple and gold.
No. 4: Anthony Davis
It’s astounding how little criticism A.D. gets for not being healthy. Sure, there’s a host of ways to defend the oft-injured player — it’s not his fault, it’s bad luck, he’s not always hurt, blah blah blah.
But we’ve got another irony-alert: LeBron James, more than any other NBA player, inspires the truism that the best ability is availability.
That’s not an ability A.D. has. Not often enough.
Davis has hit the 70-games-played mark in the regular season in just two of his nine seasons. He was injured during last year’s playoffs. And he returns to face the Brooklyn Nets, sources tell CBS Sports, with many players and others within the Lakers organization beginning to doubt his toughness and overall commitment to the cause.
Fair? Maybe not. But when you’re hurt — and, in this case, resistant to playing center when asked — things can turn fast.
Plus, Davis being out is always going to equal a much less-effective team, especially if you want to avoid piling minutes up on LeBron before the playoffs roll around. If you’re looking for blame, blame The Brow — or bad luck if you must — before the head coach who’s been without him for a big part of the season.
Side factor: Davis wanted Westbrook. So No. 5 on this list, and everyone’s favorite punching bag outside of Vogel, arrived in some part because of A.D.’s blessing.
No. 3: Rob Pelinka
Now we’re talking. Pelinka is, in fact, this team’s general manager. Yes? Right? Technically speaking?
He reaped much of the glory and praise when “his” team won the 2020 NBA title, and he should hardly escape notice now that things have gone badly. Being the GM of a LeBron-led team is as much about managing LeBron as it is anything else. Welcome, to slightly misquote the Godfather, the life you’ve chosen, Rob.
Old roster. Bad roster. Not enough defense. Not enough shooting. Not enough athleticism. Players who have about as much recent acclaim as Air Supply. The albatross that is Westbrook. Those are general manager issues, not coaching issues.
And while LeBron has influence, in a big way, on decision making, here’s something Lakers sources stress: It was Pelinka, more than anyone else, who wanted Talen Horton-Tucker over Caruso. That’s one place he wanted to plant his flag: On THT, a player he could take credit for, rather than Caruso, whom he could not.
No. 2: Kurt Rambis
Rambis’ outsized influence is understood by those in the know in L.A. He has owner Jeanie Buss’ ear and has enough sway, effective if unofficial, to help shape parts of the team’s roster and a good chunk of its culture.
It’s worth noting that, when the reporting came out that Vogel might be fired, it was Rambis whose name was attached to the counter-leaks that are inevitable in these kinds of power struggles — and the blame game that hugs struggling LeBron teams.
First, the details of that reporting: It stated that Rambis has been involved in pre-game coaching meetings. And, as if he’s longing to be parodied in a “Saturday Night Live” skit, he’s pushed for larger lineups featuring guys like Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan.
Get Byron Scott back in there and we’ll have a Lakers-Pretending-It’s-The-’80s bingo winner.
And second: Whoever came to Vogel’s defense by pointing out, via leaks, what Rambis was up to tells you that Rambis is involved enough to be a worthy target. You don’t go after those who don’t matter. Someone close to Vogel leaked that info because Rambis, to their thinking, is a problem.
We certainly agree.
No. 1 LeBron James
Nothing happens in L.A. without LeBron’s say-so. This is the third deep irony of the Lakers debacle. A big part of the reason LeBron came to L.A. — and why the Lakers recently won that championship — was because of that culture of star empowerment that the late, great Dr. Jerry Buss championed a generation ago; that his daughter Jeanie Buss retained and fostered; and that LeBron has advocated for during his reign in the league, and that he was clearly drawn to with this organization.
That fact about the Lakers is to be celebrated, and it’s a huge reason they won in 2020. But it also means, especially in LeBron’s case, that you take the good with the bad. You take the best player of all time (or, maybe, the second-best) and one of the worst GMs perhaps in league history. Because LeBron is both.
Through his “agent” Rich Paul and Klutch Sports Group, LeBron pulls the levers around him. Good for him. He’s earned it. He’s worth it. He’s just not very good at it.
One note: THT is a Klutch guy. Caruso was not.
This is LeBron’s team. And he’s the No. 1 reason it’s not very good right now.