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Column: If Lakers continue to stagger, Frank Vogel unfairly will be the first casualty

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. - DEC. 3, 2021. Lakers coach Frank Vogel yells instructions.
Lakers coach Frank Vogel shouts instructions to his players during a loss on to the Clippers on Dec. 3.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Nobody cheers for him.

Frank Vogel was introduced immediately after LeBron James on Tuesday night and the Staples Center roars quickly and ominously swept into silence.

His best player won’t unequivocally endorse him.

James was asked about the Lakers head coach this week and he responded by complimenting … the staff?

The calendar is flip, flip, flipping against him.

The Lakers’ aura is fading with every loss. The Lakers’ glamour is shrinking with every setback. The Lakers are muddling through this season looking less and less like the Lakers, with empty seats at Staples Center and canceled appearances on national television broadcasts.

LeBron James scored 30 points and provided energy on defense as the Lakers beat the rival Boston Celtics 117-102 on Tuesday at Staples Center.

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If things don’t change quickly, somebody is going to pay. Somebody always pays. In a Lakers world where the front office is always right, the blame rolls swift and powerfully and very much downhill.

Frank Vogel, they’re coming for you.

It’s not right. It’s not fair. It makes no sense. But they’re coming for you.

If the Lakers don’t roll off a whole bunch of games like the 117-102 victory Tuesday night against the short-handed Boston Celtics, Vogel won’t survive the season, and may not even survive the winter.

If the inspiring defensive effort and glorious glimpses of actual teamwork against the Celtics isn’t the start of something big, a quick and ugly end to their head coach could be closer than you think.

Vogel didn’t put together this mismatched roster, but he’ll still be blamed.

He didn’t trade the defensive core of a champion for a wild card of a guard who just doesn’t fit, but it will still be his fault.

He didn’t break up the culture of a champion to sign a bunch of aging stars who can’t figure out how to play together, but all of it will be put on him.

This is not Frank Vogel’s team, this is LeBron James’ team, but you can’t fire James. This is also Rob Pelinka’s team, but he’s not going anywhere. Heck, this is also Rich Paul’s team, but he doesn’t even work for the Lakers, so he’s not getting canned.

Make no mistake, Vogel will take the fall, and if the Lakers don’t rise above the mediocrity of their current 13-12 record, especially with James being active again, it will be sooner than later.

“We have a strong belief in what this group can accomplish,” Vogel said after Tuesday’s game. “We know there’s going to be some bumps in the road early ... we’ll stay locked in, stay together and improve. ... We’re seeing growth each game ... sometimes there’s wins, sometimes there’s losses, but we’re seeing growth each game.”

That growth is facing some serious potential stunting. Five of their next six games are on the road, then they return home to play Phoenix and San Antonio, then Brooklyn on Christmas Day.

They had best discover their mojo by then. The Lakers have always needed to own Christmas. If not, the sharps will be betting that Vogel doesn’t last past the All-Star break, and that’s probably right.

And terribly wrong.

Hello? Vogel won a championship two years ago, deftly directing the Lakers through the most difficult season in NBA history.

Anybody paying attention? Even with the shortest offseason in NBA history, Vogel guided the Lakers into being the league’s most dangerous team last spring until injuries finished them.

He’s not flashy, you can look at the bench and never guess he’s the boss, but that’s the point. He lets his players own the show.

He’s not an entertainer, his next great quote will be his first, but again, that’s the point. He never throws his players under the bus, never reveals their secrets, builds a team by protecting the team.

The Lakers have struggled over the first 24 games of the season, but LeBron James and coach Frank Vogel say they’re used to performing under pressure.

He’s not Showtime, which makes him the perfect complement to a Showtime culture. His solid and fundamental defensive emphasis is what created the Lakers’ 2020 championship. On a team of fliers in a town of fliers, he is a grinder, and it’s grounding, and it works.

His record is 107-61, a .637 winning percentage that is higher than any Lakers coach since Phil Jackson, and doesn’t that count for something?

Yet, the Lakers seem to avoid endorsing Vogel as steadfastly as Jennifer Lopez avoided being kissed by proactive beau Ben Affleck on Tuesday night when they were shown on the Staples Center video board.

When the Lakers hired Vogel in the summer of 2019, he wasn’t their first choice. They wanted Ty Lue. They wanted Monty Williams. Vogel was their third option, hired mostly to bring temporary peace to a turbulent situation.

Then, when they needed to extend Vogel’s contract last summer or he would become a lame duck this season, they gave him only one extra year, not exactly a massive vote of confidence.

This same lukewarm embrace continued this week when I asked James about Vogel’s job status.

“Frank’s taken some criticism for the way you’ve started — is that fair?” I asked. “And how would you evaluate how he’s done?”

James actually chuckled.

“I think criticism comes with the job, you know?” he said. “Frank is a strong-minded guy. He has a great coaching staff. And we as his players have to do a better job of going out and producing on the floor.”

Wait. So he endorses the staff — which includes head-coach-in-waiting David Fizdale — and doesn’t endorse Vogel? I gave him every chance, right?

“So, we’re a team and an organization that don’t mind some adversity, that don’t mind people saying things about us, obviously, because it comes with the territory,” James said. “Frank doesn’t care and we don’t either about what people are saying.”

That’s not exactly what I asked.

Before Tuesday’s game, I took the question to Vogel.

“Given the way the team has started, do you feel you still have the support of management?” I asked. “Are you worried about your job security?”

“No. I’m not,” he said about worries over his job.

“And I do, yes,” he said about feeling the front-office support.

Lakers forward Carmelo Anthony drives against Celtics guard Romeo Langford.
Lakers forward Carmelo Anthony drives against Celtics guard Romeo Langford during the first half Friday.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

I followed up with, “Have you had discussions with them about the future? ... Have they given you a vote of confidence?”

“Nope,” he answered. “We haven’t discussed it. We’re focused on the job, stay in the moment, focus on the task at hand, try to win the next game, try to get some momentum around our season.”

I finally asked, “Is it fair to put any blame on you?”

“It’s not up to me,” Vogel said. “I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it. Really just focused on the job.”

That focus was punctured this summer when Vogel saw defensive whiz Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and energetic Kyle Kuzma traded from that championship team for the scatter-shooting Russell Westbrook.

That focus was surely blurred when Vogel saw glue guy Alex Caruso allowed to walk to Chicago and eight mostly aging and disparate free agents coming aboard.

Vogel surely wasn’t thrilled when he was given this new team. But he hasn’t complained. And he hasn’t made excuses. And he’s continued to preach defense to a group that seems to have little interest.

Even if this crazily assembled roster doesn’t ultimately succeed, Frank Vogel has earned at least this full season, if not more, to attempt to shape them back into champions.

He’s done it before. He deserves at least a fighting chance to do it again.


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