In a film session after the Lakers squeaked by with a win over the Atlanta Hawks, there was plenty for them to improve. But Frank Vogel doesn’t like to harp too much on negatives, and if he has a point to make he often employs movie clips. This time, he turned to Rocky Balboa and Adonis Johnson.
In a scene from the movie “Creed II,” Balboa stood with Johnson in front of a mirror and pointed at the young boxer, saying that was his toughest opponent.
“Every time you get into the ring, that’s who you’re going against,” Balboa said.
Vogel wanted to remind the Lakers about the importance of self-reflection.
In the same film session he showed another clip about basketball — it showed point guard Rajon Rondo faking a lob to LeBron James, and James faking that he was going to block Rondo’s shot.
That message? It’s good to have fun.
“We find a lot of different things to laugh about that are also good points for our team,” said Phil Handy, one of Vogel’s assistant coaches. “His film sessions, at some point there’s always going to be some comedy to it. It’s not about always chewing us out. Constructive criticism comes with laughter as well.”
By this time last season, the Lakers had already seen two players suspended, one superstar start to lose his patience and the head coach get called into the president of basketball operations’ office to get berated over how the team began the season.
A year later, drama has been noticeably absent from Lakerland. One reason for that has been Vogel.
After spending a career learning how to unify teams, including stops as a head coach in Indiana and Orlando, Vogel is now acing his toughest test. His style is more collaborative than authoritarian. His positive view and his jokes come with hard-won mutual respect.
“Frank is a great leader,” Lakers assistant Jason Kidd said. “He has that beautiful mind. And he’s just real chill. … He just doesn’t stress over a lot of stuff and that’s as simple as it gets.”
Managing the staff
Having just parted ways with an inexperienced head coach in Luke Walton, the Lakers wanted to fill their new staff with people who’d had experience as head coaches.
It worried an old friend.
“One guy that went there for an interview told me they had told him they wanted just former head coaches [as assistants],” said Dan Burke, an assistant coach for the Indiana Pacers. “Oof. How many of those guys are ready to kind of … I was worried for Frank.”
Burke has since realized that Vogel’s personality would help make that work. The two of them worked together in Indiana as part of Jim O’Brien’s staff from 2007 to 2011. When the Pacers fired O’Brien and promoted Vogel, he empowered Burke to focus on the team’s defense.
Vogel had practice with an experienced staff at Indiana. Burke joined the Pacers staff before Vogel, and former Portland Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan joined Vogel’s staff in 2013. The group guided Indiana to the Eastern Conference finals in 2013 and 2014.
Lionel Hollins has been coaching since 1985, most of it as an assistant. He was the Grizzlies head coach from 2009 to 2013, and the Nets head coach from 2014 to 2016.
“He likes feedback,” Hollins said. “… It’s a think-tank type of situation.”
Kidd, though, a former head coach for the Bucks and Nets, had never been an assistant. Some wondered if he would be content in that role. He’d interviewed for the Lakers’ head coaching job before being considered as an assistant. Kidd had previously declined interview requests this season so as not to draw attention away from Vogel.
Asked about the outside perception that he would be after Vogel’s job, Kidd said that’s not an issue.
“I think the key word there is outside,” he said. “For whatever reason there’s always noise around the Lakers from the outside but on the inside it was always a calm situation. … There was never a discussion. It’s more or less, he knows I have his back, and he has mine and that’s what a team is all about.”
Said Handy: “I think there was a lot of bad media around maybe some of his past experiences as a coach. I think you have to judge people by what they do with you. … I think J’s been tremendous because he brings a lot of value as a Hall of Famer, champion and someone who’s got coaching experience as well. He’s been of the mind-set of ‘I need to learn how to be a really good assistant coach.’”
Handy is the only front-of-the-bench assistant on Vogel’s staff who doesn’t have head coaching experience. He grew up with Kidd, but didn’t know Vogel until interviewing for a position on his staff. But he did know former Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue, who turned down the Lakers’ offers for the job.
“I mean honestly, if I sit here and say no, I’d probably be lying,” Handy said, when asked if he had any reservations about the organization. “But even with that, it may have been reservations, but in my mind … I came in with a clear conscience and said, ‘Hey listen, this is a fresh start for everybody.’”
Working with players
It is not always easy for an NBA player to see limited minutes on his team. It helps, though, to have a coach who offers full transparency about his thought process.
“I’ve had coaches where I’m scared to talk to or don’t know how they’re feeling that day or not knowing if I’m going to play, stuff like that,” Lakers guard Troy Daniels said. “As a player, I accepted it as a young guy because I thought that’s just what the NBA is.”
Vogel isn’t like that. He talks to Daniels individually about his plans for Daniels in each game. If Vogel plans on using someone else more, he has that difficult conversation.
“You feel like you belong, you feel like you’re actually a part of the team,” Daniels said.
Said Kyle Kuzma: “That just makes it easier on the team because most guys know what they are going to do on a nightly basis, where they are going to get their shots, where they are going to get their plays called and whatnot.”
That is a trait Vogel had to develop.
“I think he learned and he adjusted, found what works and what doesn’t,” said Paul George, the Clippers star who began his career with the Pacers. “My whole time what made it so remarkable and so great with the system that he had was just positive, very positive influence, and it was great — tough days, long days, tough road trips, he always found the positive.”
George flourished under Vogel’s tutelage. Vogel had a knack for making each player feel important.
“He helped my confidence a lot. More than anything, bad game, good game he always kept me aligned,” Pacers center Myles Turner said.
How his stars react to him has been critical, too. In that respect, Vogel has also excelled. He isn’t afraid to coach LeBron James, and James often praises Vogel even when he isn’t directly asked about him.
“When I was going through all their pick and rolls I think the only guy handling the ball was LeBron so that helps too,” Burke said, with a chuckle. “But that’s smart. You gotta play that game… I think you gotta be smart enough to know who the guy is.”
Not everyone gets Vogel’s jokes right away. Or catches his movie references.
“I didn’t even know who the guy was from ‘Creed,’” Hollins said, referring to Michael B. Jordan, who played Adonis Johnson.
When asked if anyone is on Vogel’s level with movie quotes, Hollins enlisted the opinion of Dru Anthrop, the Lakers’ head video coordinator, who happened to be nearby preparing for a game.
“I don’t know if anyone can be,” Anthrop said. “Coach would always give me three or four movies a week that he’d say you’ve gotta see this movie. I’d be like, all right, but you also gave me a lot of work to do.
“If it’s an ‘80s movie and you work for coach, you gotta know it.”
Said Burke: “I don’t know if he ever saw a good movie in his life but his movie references are great. Some of them I don’t know. ‘Dumb and Dumber’ I didn’t really watch.”
It’s the spirit of his references that matters to those he coaches and those who work for him. He likes to have fun. He likes to remind players of their strengths. He’ll pick his moments for critiques.
“I think just his low key, his funny personality,” Kidd said. “… He believes he has a really good team, good coaching staff and so he’s being himself.”
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