We’re coming up on the five-year anniversary of Los Angeles Lakers owner Jeanie Buss firing her own brother in an effort to mend her legendary franchise’s broken front office structure. Magic Johnson seized power from Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak in February of 2017, and though he didn’t reign for long, two of his assigned underlings — general manager Rob Pelinka and influential senior basketball advisor Kurt Rambis — ultimately took over after his resignation. Their results have been mixed. Of the five seasons since Johnson’s appointment, four have been disappointments: two lottery years on the front end and two play-in jaunts on the back. Sandwiched between them was an accidental championship.
LeBron James needed no help maneuvering his way to Los Angeles. He even brought Anthony Davis with him. But when the time came to put a team around them, the Lakers went for broke in an ill-fated Kawhi Leonard recruiting war. It was a calculated risk that could have given the Lakers a dynasty. It should have blown up in their faces when Leonard took a week to settle on the Clippers. By that point, most of the NBA‘s best free agents had signed elsewhere. The Lakers were forced to settle for what was left, building a sort of default supporting cast around two stars we’d later learn were transcendent enough to carry a group of ragtag misfits to a championship with or without Leonard. It’s somewhat fitting that this front office’s best season was the one in which it had the least control over its roster. After all, it couldn’t even land its intended coach.
The Lakers wanted to hire Ty Lue to coach James and Davis. They couldn’t seal the deal because they sought a degree of control they’d later prove incapable of wielding. Lue was offered only a three-year deal. The Lakers wanted control of his coaching staff. Lue, then one of only seven active head coaches with a championship ring, balked at those restrictions. So they settled on Frank Vogel, another happy accident, and he coached them to a championship under extraordinarily difficult and unique circumstances. He wasn’t rewarded for that with an immediate contract extension. No, the front office made him wait until the 2021 offseason, when they reportedly added only one year to his deal.
It should therefore be unsurprising to hear that Vogel is coaching for his job right now, according to The Athletic’s Bill Oram and Sam Amick. That meager extension spelled it out months in advance, creating a fall guy for a failed season that hadn’t even begun. Vogel has certainly played a part in that failure. It never should have taken him 18 games to realize DeAndre Jordan has no business starting NBA games in 2022. His devotion to Avery Bradley can be similarly perplexing at times when superior options in Malik Monk and Austin Reaves are sitting on his bench.
It’s been a struggle for Vogel. He is attempting to coach a team that he doesn’t exactly have. The defensive identity he spent the past two seasons cultivating is gone. Bradley is one of its last remaining scions. When the chips are down, that’s a player Vogel can trust. We may have learned on Monday that he lacks such trust for Russell Westbrook. With his job on the line, Vogel gave him just 27 minutes and 40 seconds of playing time in their impressive win over the Jazz. That’s his lowest figure of the season in a competitive game. Vogel lacks the political capital to bench Westbrook outright even in fourth quarters, but the necessity to do so will surely be something the organization will reckon with at some point this season.
But it’s not as though he traded for Westbrook. Blame for that falls on the executives who saw an opportunity to reshape a championship roster, but only ended up dismantling it. Shooters were replaced with redundant, high-usage ball-handlers. Defenders were swapped out for turnstiles. Even the personality fits were often disastrous. Dennis Schroder, a Sixth Man of the Year runner-up, and Andre Drummond, who had never won a playoff game to that point in his career, both joined a championship team and demanded starting roles. Their lack of self-awareness is nothing compared to Westbrook’s. If the Lakers thought they could convince him to cut back on turnovers and take wiser shots, well, they didn’t exactly watch much of him in Houston or Washington.
It’s made the failings of this year’s roster feel a tad predictable. Vogel managed to keep the No. 1-ranked Lakers defense afloat without James and Davis last season, thanks in large part to the ferocious work Schroder, Alex Caruso and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope did at the point of attack. All three of them are gone, yet Vogel is held responsible for the defense’s collapse? A bad defensive roster is more often than not going to yield bad defensive results.
The Lakers surely knew that when they constructed this roster. For all of the luxury tax concerns re-signing Caruso would have caused, the Lakers could have largely made up the difference by eschewing their mid-level exception and keeping their 15th roster spot open. Even if the Lakers originally earmarked the mid-level exception for Patty Mills, the pure decision to pursue another scorer rather than keep Caruso was as much a basketball decision as it was a financial one. A spare ball-handler on a roster that already had James and Westbrook and would soon add Monk was deemed a higher priority than a single defensive-minded guard.
That fixation on dribblers has afflicted the Lakers since Johnson was running the show and they used their leftover 2018 cap space to sign Rajon Rondo, Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley instead of shooters. James himself surely influences it, but there’s a difference between consulting a star player and allowing him the latitude to hurt your team. A front office making bad decisions is one thing. A front office ceding decision-making power to a single player is something worse.
It is, again, not a coincidence that the best version of this team was the one in which the front office held the least power to target such players. The 2020 roster didn’t sign unnecessary ball-handlers because they largely weren’t available. The players left on the market once they missed out on Kawhi were the 3-and-D players who ultimately won them a championship. Those were the players the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers used to help James win his first three. There was never a clear basketball reason to deviate from that proven blueprint aside from LeBron’s age. In many ways it read as a defiance, both a bid for the sort of control that cost them Lue and an act of Lakers exceptionalism meant to prove that this franchise need not be beholden to the common sense binding others. That same logic is probably what will wind up allowing the front office to sacrifice Vogel for their sins.
When Jeanie Buss assembled this brain trust, she started with the most famous player in Lakers history. After landing Johnson, she paired him with the agent of Kobe Bryant, the second-most famous player in team history. Rambis won multiple championships with the Lakers as a player, executive and assistant coach. This is what the Lakers do. Prior to Pelinka, the Buss family had never hired a lead basketball decision-maker who did not previously play for the Lakers. The Lakers are often described as a family business. It didn’t matter that neither Johnson nor Pelinka had front-office experience when they were hired. It doesn’t matter that Rambis won only 28 percent of his games as a head coach or that he was described as “beyond unpopular” with Knicks players when working under Phil Jackson in New York. All three are part of the Lakers family, and no matter how many positive qualities he may possess, Vogel is not. He was a hired gun brought on only after Lue sniffed out the dysfunction that wound up awaiting him, and that makes him the perfect patsy for the Laker lifers above him in the pecking order.
Buss can hardly be blamed for operating her franchise this way. She was 18 when her father bought the team and has seen it win 10 championships since. The Lakers have mostly been exceptional enough to justify such exceptionalism. But for the past decade, they haven’t been. They missed the playoffs six years in a row and were rescued from further obscurity only by the grace of this generation’s greatest player. Buss was dissatisfied enough with her brother Jim’s pre-LeBron failures that she was willing to oust her literal family. Now, she faces a similar test with her Laker family.
It’s a test of accountability. Whether or not Vogel deserves to be fired is ultimately debatable. Here’s what isn’t: The front office has done a far worse job building this team than he has coaching it. Pelinka and Rambis gave Vogel a defective roster and they are just as culpable for its impending failure as he is, so if he goes, it stands to reason that they should be shown the door with him. So long as all three are in their present roles, their goals should be aligned toward fixing the mess they’ve collectively made.
There’s just no basketball reason to believe that firing Vogel in the middle of the season would do that. David Fizdale went 1-5 in Vogel’s place after he caught COVID, and won just 17 games in his last full season in a top job. Phil Handy may be a hot coaching prospect, but he’s never been a head coach before. No outside candidate could possibly install a new system in fewer than 40 games. Firing Vogel and replacing him with an inferior coach does nothing to help the Lakers win the 2022 championship, and everything to scapegoat him for their inability to do so long enough for the front office to take a crack at the 2023 crown.
That’s not an opportunity they’ve earned, and it’s not an opportunity Buss should give them. If the coach they hired can’t win with the roster they built, then their jobs should be no safer than his. They made Vogel’s bed. They should be prepared to sleep in it.