Ranking the Lakers’ real culprits for the current mess: LeBron James tops the list, beleaguered Frank Vogel through no fault
None of this is Frank Vogel’s fault.
Let’s start there.
The Los Angeles Lakers are in bad shape, a mediocre team losing hope through a constellation of harsh realities: They’re old, they’re stoned, they’re poorly built, and they are – like all teams in LeBron James who flinch in the face of inevitable expectations – veering into 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 still surrounds LeBron James’ teams from churning out a slew of stories pointing squarely at Vogel – despite others sharing far more guilt, a list we’ll get to shortly. It’s the head coach who has woken up at the center of the storm of reports about his status: that he’s being assessed. That he could be gone if things don’t work out. That he gets fired. That he’s not going to get fired yet, but maybe later. Or not at all. For now. Or maybe he is, after all.
And it continues, and come what may, everything is designed with a clear objective: that there is enough noise so that, punished or not, the head coach is to blame.
Only he is not. Not really. Head coaches under LeBron are rarely to blame for the rosters LeBron wants, demands and is given. It’s not new. At the start of the 2010-11 NBA season, in LeBron’s freshman year in Miami, Erik Spoelstra also came under fire as reports attempted to paint the Heat head coach as the culprit for LeBron’s poor start. Miami and worthy, like today, of a quick shot. Only Spoelstra had Pat Riley, who had his back, and the pressure swell eased.
Vogel is unlikely to be so lucky, now or down the line, when it comes to loyal, unflinching defenders within his organization. The culture of the Lakers is not that of the Heat. And it’s hard 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 went to Chicago because the Bulls front office had a better understanding than the Lakers of his true worth. etc
Vogel is an excellent head coach. It was when he was in Indianapolis when he helped lead that team to back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals appearances. As one NBA coach told me at the time, “This guy is the real deal — he came into the video department, so he knows his s—. Don’t doubt him.”
For Vogel, there is no lack of irony here. His career could be largely defined by two rules of, let’s call them, NBA physics when LeBron James is involved: That the path past the King on the way to the Finals can be insurmountable. And that the coach if you don’t make the final can be fatal.
Vogel is the guy who coached the Lakers to a championship 15 months ago. And now, burdened by a bad team, an all-too-common Anthony Davis injury and the realpolitik of a LeBron team — and that of a Lakers organization mired in brutal dysfunction not long ago — he’s been put up to fail.
Surely it’s not Vogel’s fault that there are only three continuous players left from that 2020 title run, the one that happened 15 months ago. Or that a big chunk of the Lakers squad might feature an AARP ad. Or that Westbrook’s obvious and inevitable inability to fit on the ground has, in fact, happened.
So here are the real culprits, 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 was a disaster as a Laker. No, it will not work. And yes, his mere presence – the money his salary takes in the Lakers cap situation, his need for the ball, the fact that his game just doesn’t work in today’s NBA. and the fact that he’s exactly the person you’d bring to Los Angeles if you wanted to disrupt what the Lakers are doing – is a definite negative for his team.
But — big but here — Westbrook isn’t to blame for the Lakers bringing him to LA. He is what he is. A fierce competitor, a proud player, a former MVP and a big fade who doesn’t work in this NBA, and certainly not on this team.
But many players would like to be a Laker. That’s why there are wickets to make sure only the good guys can actually don that purple and gold.
No. 4: Anthony Davis
It’s amazing how little AD gets criticized for not being healthy. Of course, there are plenty 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 have another tongue-in-cheek alert: LeBron James, more than any other NBA player, inspires the truism that the best ability is availability.
This is not an AD ability. Not often enough.
Davis has reached the 70-game regular-season mark in just two of his nine seasons. He was injured in the playoffs last year. And he’s coming back to face the Brooklyn Nets, sources told CBS Sports, with many players and others within the Lakers organization beginning to doubt his tenacity and overall commitment to the cause.
Fair? Maybe not. But when you’re injured – and, in this case, resisting the play center when called upon – things can turn fast.
Plus, Davis’ absence will always equate to a much less effective team, especially if you want to avoid racking up minutes 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 much of the season.
Secondary factor: Davis wanted Westbrook. So number 5 on this list, and everyone’s favorite punching bag besides Vogel, came about in part thanks to AD’s blessing.
No. 3: Rob Pelinka
We speak now. Pelinka is actually the general manager of this team. Yes? To the right? Technically speaking?
He garnered 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 sour. Being the general manager of a LeBron-led team is as much about managing LeBron as anything else. Welcome, to quote The Godfather lightly, to the life you have chosen, Rob.
Old list. Bad list. Not enough defense. Not enough shot. Not enough athleticism. Players who have about as much recent fame as Air Supply. The albatross that is Westbrook. These are general manager issues, not coaching issues.
And while LeBron has a big influence on the decision-making, here’s something Lakers sources point out: It was Pelinka, more than anyone, who wanted Talen Horton-Tucker over Caruso. It’s a place he wanted to plant his flag: on THT, a player he could take credit for, rather than Caruso, who he couldn’t.
#2: Kurt Rambis
Rambis’ outsized influence is understood by those in the know in Los Angeles. He has the ear of owner Jeanie Buss and has enough influence, effective if official, to help shape parts of the team’s roster and much of its culture.
It should be noted that, when the report announced that Vogel could 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 grips teams. LeBron in trouble.
First, the details of this report: it indicates that Rambis attended pre-match training meetings. And, as if longing to be parodied in a “Saturday Night Live” skit, he pushed for bigger lineups featuring the likes of Dwight Howard and DeAndre Jordan.
Bring Byron Scott back 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 doing, tells you that Rambis is involved enough to be a valid target. You don’t go after the unimportant ones. Someone close to Vogel leaked this information because Rambis, in their opinion, is a problem.
We certainly agree.
LeBron James No. 1
Nothing happens in Los Angeles without LeBron’s consent. This is the deep third irony of the Lakers debacle. A big part of why LeBron came to LA — and why the Lakers recently won this championship — was because of that culture of star empowerment that the late, great Dr. Jerry Buss championed a while ago. generation; whom her daughter Jeanie Buss restrained and nurtured; and that LeBron defended during his reign in the league, and was clearly drawn to this organization.
This fact about the Lakers should be celebrated, and it’s a huge reason why 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 the history of the league. Because LeBron is both.
Through his “agent” Rich Paul and Klutch Sports Group, LeBron pulls the controls around him. Good for him. He deserved it. He’s worth the pain. He’s just not very good at it.
One note: THT is a Klutch guy. Caruso was not.
Caruso stays if LeBron pushes him. Westbrook and Melo are somewhere else if he doesn’t. Maybe Buddy Hield is here alongside Malik Monk, adding shots and stretching the floor.
It’s LeBron’s team. And he’s the main reason why it’s not very good right now.