The search for Walton’s replacement took numerous twists and turns involving higher profile candidates. The Lakers, led by owner Jeanie Buss and GM Rob Pelinka and senior adviser Kurt Rambis, first missed out on Monty Williams, the Philadelphia 76ers assistant who reached a deal with the bottom-dwelling Phoenix Suns. They also reportedly made a three-year offer to former Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue, who reportedly backed out of negotiations because he sought a five-year pact.
Unlike Williams, Vogel isn’t a widely respected former NBA player. Unlike Lue, another former NBA player who coached the Cavaliers’ 2016 title team, he hasn’t guided a championship team.
But the 45-year-old Vogel boasts eight years of NBA head coaching experience, compiling a career record of 304-291 (.511) in six seasons with the Indiana Pacers and two more with the Orlando Magic. The coaching lifer began his NBA career as an assistant coach with the Boston Celtics in 2001 and has been out of work since he was fired by the Magic following a 25-win season in 2017-18.
Vogel is perhaps best known as a grinder who took the defensive-minded Pacers to the Eastern Conference finals in 2013 and 2014, where they lost to LeBron James’s Miami Heat in a pair of hard-fought series. The Pacers — with a core of Paul George, Roy Hibbert and David West — owned the NBA’s top-ranked defense in both of those seasons.
But Vogel’s reputation took a hit in Orlando, where he struggled to mold younger rosters. The Magic ranked below-average in both offense and defense during his two seasons before breaking through to the playoffs under Steve Clifford, Vogel’s replacement, this season.
That track record raises several questions as he steps into the Lakers gig. Vogel has no direct relationship with James or with any of this summer’s highest profile free agents, he hasn’t coached an above-average offense since 2012 and he is inheriting a mediocre defense and a roster that lacks a starting-caliber center.
Vogel’s first task will be to establish credibility and rapport with James, who recently expressed displeasure at Johnson’s abrupt exit, and the Lakers’ young prospects, who have every right to be skeptical of him, given that he was the franchise’s third choice. Coaching and managing James is a complicated bargain under any circumstances, but Vogel must also contend with the all-star forward’s natural inclination to wonder why Lue, his coach for three years in Cleveland, was passed over.
The Lakers, who haven’t made the playoffs in six years, have been hamstrung by various factional battles since Jerry Buss’s death in 2013. Vogel’s no-nonsense personality makes him a safe pick, but his hiring could develop into a point of contention for those in the organization who preferred other candidates. Sources close to the Lakers said Vogel received mixed reviews during the interview process and Rambis was his biggest advocate.
Indeed, Vogel faces at least three additional layers of pressure and uncertainty. First, James expects to compete for titles every season, but there isn’t enough talent on hand to make that a reality. Second, the short-term nature of Vogel’s contract makes him more financially expendable than most new coaches. Third, Kidd, a Hall of Fame point guard and James’s former USA Basketball teammate, surely has his own aspirations to return as a head position.
With their coaching position finally set, the Lakers can turn their attention to the upcoming draft lottery Tuesday and a summer of free agency recruiting. James desperately needs a second star to help lift him back into the playoffs, and striking out in July would be cause for another round of angst and public scorn. Now that the Lakers have given their job to Vogel, the question becomes: Will he be given a fair chance?