The Lakers Have An Opening For A Fall Guy
11:28 AM EDT on April 11, 2022
The Lakers wrapped up their terrible, horrible, no good, very bad season on Sunday with a perfectly meaningless road win over the Denver Nuggets. Because they also won a completely meaningless game over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday, the Lakers finished their season with just their second winning streak of any length since the calendar flipped to 2022. Something tells me the momentum from this two-game run will not carry over to next season: For one thing, the Lakers were without all of their superstar guys, who've been shut down for the season; for another, head coach Frank Vogel is about to be out on his ass:
This report in all likelihood has not caused you a great shock. The writing has been on the wall for Vogel since at least mid-January, when The Athletic reported that his employment was "being evaluated on a game-to-game basis," and that he had "narrowly avoided" being fired after a humiliating 37-point loss in Denver on January 15, a loss that dropped the Lakers to 21–22 on the season. All they've done since then is go 12–27 and drop from seventh in the Western Conference down to 11th. Injuries haven't helped, but if the Lakers weren't committed to Vogel when his team was treading water, it should surprise no one to learn that they've soured on him completely now that their soggy remains are moldering on the ocean floor. Nevertheless, it's not usually a great idea to share this kind of information with Adrian Wojnarowski before you share it with the person being fired:
Vogel is not any more to blame for the current condition of the Lakers than any of the organization's other principals, but his job security was always flimsiest, if for no other reason than that there are at least four people in the organization who could have him fired. LeBron James and Anthony Davis are the two most important people working for the Lakers, and are functionally irreplaceable, despite glaringly declining performance. Rob Pelinka, Vogel's immediate boss, made a huge mess of the roster, both by trading solid players for Russell Westbrook and by filling in around the core a collection of bozos that makes even the worst of LeBron's Cleveland teams look like, well, the Showtime Lakers. Even if ownership dumps Pelinka, that would probably have meant cleaning out Vogel as well, since new executives rarely keep around their predecessor's head coach.
On the one hand, Vogel obviously hasn't had any big tricks up his sleeves to keep the Lakers afloat through hard times this season. On the other hand, unless you have literally Kevin Durant hiding inside your shirt, what is a coach supposed to do when Davis misses 42 games, Russ performs like hot crud, and the best of the other options are guys like Stanley Johnson and Wenyen Gabriel, guys who realistically might not have secured jobs on any other team in the NBA? On yet another hand, if the Lakers' main guys stay healthy and play well, what even is the role of a head coach but to ride their coattails to a championship? If Vogel can't work the margins and do big innovations and get the best out of the supporting cast during the hard times, what precisely is he doing to earn a paycheck? On still another hand, could even the best coach in the history of basketball get enough out of Malik damn Monk and Talen Horton-Tucker to keep the Lakers churning while Russ shits it up every possession and Davis misses half the year with assorted injuries? And are the Lakers likely to land the best coach in the history of basketball? Isn't this just shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic?
The bad news is the Lakers owe LeBron James, Anthony Davis, and Russell Westbrook a combined $129 million for next season, or approximately $7 million over the projected salary cap, and their store of future draft picks is wiped out after trading for Davis back in 2019. LeBron will be 38 years old next season, and Westbrook will be 34, and Davis has played a combined 76 games over the last two years of his career. Overhauling this miserable, underperforming roster will be extraordinarily challenging, to say nothing of coming out the other side with an improved team. What a mess!
Woj says the Lakers will conduct a "lengthy and expansive" search for Vogel's successor. Whoever they find will need the team's front office to do a job and for its core players to perform up to their reputations, or like Vogel the new coach will be riding some impressive coattails directly to nowhere.