Frank Vogel: An unfortunate victim of the NBA’s ever-changing landscape
May 9th, 2016

After being knocked out in the first round of the playoffs by the Toronto Raptors in a game seven decider this week, the Indiana Pacers and their president of basketball operations Larry Bird announced head coach Frank Vogel would not have his contract renewed.

Tantamount to a firing, the news has raised many eyebrows, these ones included. Vogel has long been revered as one of the better coaches in the game, a defensive craftsman who has maximised the limited amount of talent available to him over the years and made the once-disappointing Pacers into a consistent threat in the Eastern Conference.

In announcing the news, Bird said he felt the team needed a “new voice”. But he did not say what that meant, or why he felt it. He just felt it.

At the start of the year, it was felt that the Pacers needed a new direction. Specifically, that direction was to abandon their largely half­court game and play a higher tempo, full­-court brand of basketball with quicker offence and smaller, faster, more athletic players.

Notwithstanding the fact that such an offensive strategy generally relies on high efficiency outside shooting (which key acquisition Monta Ellis does not bring), this is the task Vogel was charged with.

He tried. He tried to convince superstar small forward Paul George to play power forward, to be the key piece in the Pacers’ paradigm shift to keep pace with the new NBA. When George would not concur, Vogel played one­time shooting guard C.J. Miles as a really, really small­ball power forward.

He tried to pair up George Hill and Ellis (and, up to a point, Rodney Stuckey), despite them being in many ways the same player and an ill­fitting pairing. And he tried to make do with only one good big man (rookie Myles Turner, for whom the future is extremely bright even with a few missteps on the way) and a few merely decent ones. His best big man was a small forward who did not want to be one.

To decide that change was needed is fine. To decide that that change had to be the coach just because he has been there for nine years is not fine. Players are allowed to have imperfections, and so must coaches be. If there were things the Pacers felt that Vogel needed, they should have gotten them for him, and allowed him time to adapt to them.

Bird himself said when describing his team that there was George, Turner, “and the other pieces”. He knows there were only two core pieces in place, with the rest being a mish­mash of pieces from other jigsaws.

Some were left over from the previous half­-court, defense­-first, grind­-it-out Vogel Pacers of the recent past that were so effective, and some were just acquisitions that never truly fit even if the price of acquiring them was right. Vogel never had a team with sufficient talent to make sufficient noise. And so if it matters that he has been there for nine years, it surely matters that Bird has been there since 2003.

If the team is unhappy with Vogel’s ability to completely transform his previous (and highly successful) coaching style, maybe they shouldn’t have given him a team in which C.J. Miles was the second best four spot option.

Asked to play small and asked to do so without the adherence of by far his best player, Vogel tried anyway. And if he resorted to starting Lavoy Allen an unsavoury amount of times (while also relying on career backup Ian Mahinmi as often the sole and normally senior big man), it is because he was given little choice.

Ultimately, the coach has taken the blame for a systemic problem, one born out of a logical­ enough overall plan that was burdened by insufficient execution.

An obvious parallel here can be drawn to the situation between the Chicago Bulls and former head coach, Tom Thibodeau. Thibodeau built a team, a good team, built around defence, micromanagement, a staunchly inflexible and predictable playbook and his own raspy yelling.

He was demanding, sometimes painfully so, but the results were there. By being demanding of his players, Thibodeau got the best out of them. Yet by being demanding and inflexible, the front office found him impossible to work with, which ultimately led to his firing despite all the relative success he had brought.

Between 2010 and 2014, Thibodeau and Vogel played similar brands of basketball. Defensive, rather slow, highly effective. Both are now gone as their teams have tried to switch to a new brand – both, seemingly, were not deemed suitable to spearhead that transition. The difference comes in the execution.

In a nasty divorce, the Bulls cleared out Thibodeau last summer and brought in Fred Hoiberg, a man head hunted on as supposedly far more of a player’s coach (thus nullifying any of the dissent that it was said was increasingly rife behind the scenes) and who would turn the team into a faster, more athletic, more modern NBA team designed to compete at the highest levels. In both aspects, Hoiberg has thus far failed hugely – while it is certainly true to say that he has not yet been given the right players to fit the offensive style he has been asked to play, it is also indisputable that the infighting got worse, not better.

Vogel, meanwhile, was given the opportunity to try and make that change this year. But he was only somewhat given that opportunity. Vogel was asked to play smaller and faster with pretty much the same team that he had before – changing David West and Roy Hibbert to Monta Ellis and Myles Turner is not in itself enough to cause a shift.

The players have to be right, and the players have to be good. Hoiberg took what most if not all will agree is a more talented Bulls team, an expected Eastern Conference competitor, and missed the playoffs outright. Vogel took an expected lottery team to 44 wins and a game seven decider.

Along the way, Vogel has developed Turner (guilty at times of overly subbing out the young guy for the vet, perhaps, but Turner could be seen to improve throughout the year and that probably is not a coincidence). Yet when he did so, the small ball philosophy had pause for thought. More Raef LaFrentz in style than Serge Ibaka, Turner was good enough to be the one others fit around. But they didn’t. So what then?

Consider also that there has never been much in the way of rumours of discontent amongst the Pacers in Vogel’s entire tenure there. He ran a good clean ship, and won the respect of most, both within the team and amongst his peers.

Bird clearly felt that Vogel did not have the players’ respect sufficiently, and did not motivate them enough, but from this side of the fence, it is hard to see how. If ultimately the only thing that matters was that Vogel did not get his rotations quite right, or couldn’t make Paul George completely pliable to the front office’s will, that seems like a misunderstanding of the priorities.

It surely matters more that Vogel took a team led by C.J. Miles, Rodney Stuckey, an alarmingly past ­his ­best David West and the spluttering Roy Hibbert, and got them to 38 wins in 2014-­15. When given little to work with, Vogel worked wonders. And when given a lot to work with….well, we’ll never know because it never happened.

As much as the Pacers have always been a little short of talent outside of George, It is, of course, understood that it is always hard to acquire talent. Yet, aside from superstar players, the hardest talent to acquire is that of a head coach, one with the interpersonal skills, vision and basketball nuance to create a competitor. As far as can be seen from this side of the fence, they had that, and they are letting him go.

If this is because he started Lavoy Allen over Myles Turner, never quite knew what to do with C.J. Miles or too often took out Paul George and George Hill at the same time, those are teaching points rather than reasons for a change.

It is extremely difficult to find all of the good that Vogel brought, as will be evidenced by how much he will be courted by all the teams with coaching vacancies this summer. Consider also that even when openly sacrificing defence (and his specific defensive philosophy), Vogel’s team still managed to hold both Kyle Lowry and DeMar Derozan to sub-­32 percent shooting in their playoff series. That is a coaching success.

Bird’s stated reason for the decision was that the Pacers needed a “new voice”, a nebulous concept that doesn’t really mean anything. (What evidence was there that the old voice wasn’t being heard? What is the new voice going to bring? What wasn’t Vogel saying?).

This seems to refer directly to Vogel’s relationship with George, who was clearly coasting at points in the regular season and who took a while to engage after starting off the season being told he was moving position against his will. If Vogel is being replaced by George because Bird feels after six years that the two will never properly get on and George is the priority, then perhaps this is, and long has been, unavoidable.

Yet concurrent with this, Bird admits to a hands­-off, distant approach to his front office management, one in which he does not speak to the players himself. The decision to move George to power forward was eminently logical, but no one asked or forewarned George of the intent, so it is surely no wonder he was unhappy with it. If a “new voice” is needed, maybe Bird could have been that new voice back then.

Beyond George, the “new voice” critique seems hard to evidence. Was a new voice going to invigorate the always ­lackadaisical Lavoy Allen, shorten Bismack Biyombo’s wingspan and keep him off the offensive glass, fix Miles’s jump shot, stave off injuries or stop Monta Ellis’ decline?

When Bird decided (he now admits) that Turner was good enough to abandon forcing the small ball brand and play in a more traditional style during the middle of the year, what chance does a coach have to succeed?

Set up to fail, Vogel still nearly succeeded. A new coach may come in and progress to the second round next year, but this is not a failing on the part of Vogel, who took injuries, a talent dearth, high roster turnover and a significant change in the NBA’s culture and still managed two Conference Finals appearances.

Change for the sake of it is rarely, if ever, anything but a backwards step. And if Larry Bird knows what he wants, he does not seem to have done a very good job of communicating it.

Vogel will land again somewhere soon. Of course he will – he is proven quality in a league that still trots out retreads due to the lack of said proven quality. It will be most interesting to see what he can do with a new team behind him.

Many a good coach leaves their team because of some animosity or some irretrievable situation that submarined an otherwise profitable tenure, as was the case with Thibodeau. But Vogel leaves under no such cloud. The only cloud is over the front office who let him go without much explanation, and for whose failings he is the scapegoat of.

Posted by at 10:28 AM