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Sunday, April 11, 2021

Vogel’s resilience was key in Lakers’ title run

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It’s not exactly a secret that Frank Vogel wasn’t the first choice of the Los Angeles Lakers when they were conducting their coaching search last summer.

After all, the job was Tyronn Lue’s to take, and when the Lakers offered him a three-year deal that didn’t meet his financial expectations, they promptly looked to Monty Williams to fill the vacancy. However, the Phoenix Suns had other ideas and quickly wooed Williams with a five-year, $13 million deal, leaving the Lakers with nobody to coach a mostly empty roster with the exception of one LeBron James. They then would kick the tires with Mike Woodson, Jason Kidd, Juwan Howard and Lionel Hollins before even granting Vogel an opportunity to interview for the job.

After impressing the Lakers brass, Vogel had yet another hurdle to clear by acquiring the blessing of the aforementioned James, who after meeting with the “applicant” quickly agreed with management that the same guy who got the shaft with both the Indiana Pacers and the Orlando Magic was the right fit for a championship run.

Vogel hopped aboard on May 11 and sat back as the Lakers put a full court press on Anthony Davis, who agreed to join the party on June 15. Once Davis’ deal became official on July 6, Vogel suddenly had himself a double whammy to unleash on the entire NBA, and with the two best players in the league in his starting lineup, the Lakers came out of the gate strong winning 24 of their first 27 games and had things in hand at 49 up and 14 down when the pandemic hit, halting league play. When things resumed in the Orlando bubble, they would go through Houston, Denver and finally the Miami Heat to capture the NBA crown. It looked easy for Vogel and he quickly gave the credit to his players, specifically James and Davis.

What didn’t stand out to most was his meticulous preparation and the demands he placed on his superstar players. By seeking out their opinion of his plans before the regular season even began, Vogel won them over, establishing the respect needed to orchestrate his approach to coaching a high-profile franchise in a fish bowl media setting. He became their friend and a confidant, in addition to being their coach, which established both credibility and mutual respect.

When the Lakers world was rocked by the tragic death of Kobe Bryant, Vogel logically allowed his team to grieve, while maintaining his position of leadership, all the while allowing James to fight through the anguish of losing a mentor. When the return to basketball unfolded, he again looked to his players to get after it at their own respective pace, allocating playing time as he felt appropriate for a team and an entire metropolitan area that was in mourning. Eventually the Lakers would regroup and join the fray for a championship, but without Vogel being part coach, psychologist and leader, his team could have collapsed. Both James and Davis have spoken glowingly about their head coach, citing his direct style of communication and the way he seeks their input on changes.

In the end, the guy who wasn’t supported by ownership and the front office during his tenure with Indiana and who didn’t have any talent to speak of in Orlando prevailed. Sure, he wasn’t the initial choice in Los Angeles, but he proved to be the right choice. His calm demeanor and his second-to-none commitment to preparation provided the template necessary to manage the egos and idiosyncrasies of today’s NBA players and delivered a championship.

Not bad for a guy who once told me after a home blowout loss against a lesser opponent at Bankers Life Fieldhouse that he didn’t need to look at the film to be thankful there was another game the next day. Frank Vogel knew that night he could coach at the NBA level, and now the entire basketball world does. The pressure to repeat is already upon him and his star players, and something tells me he is more than up for the challenge next season.

Danny Bridges, who would like to remind Pacers fans that their team has now jettisoned two championship caliber coaches, can be reached at 317-370-8447 or at bridgeshd@aol.com.

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