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WHEN LIFE ISN’T FAIR: VOGEL IS BLAMED FOR WESTBROOK FARCE
The coach always is scapegoated when a so-called Superteam flops, but the Lakers’ targeting of Vogel is unjustified after LeBron James signed off on management’s ill-advised summer whim
For now, they are using the stiletto, stabbing Frank Vogel with short dagger jabs. But eventually, they will apply the guillotine, beheading him less than a year and a half after he helped perform a Hazmat sweep of a toxic, bungling, family-feuding organization and won a championship.
No act in sports is more abominable than the dirty political game of forcing a coach's ouster. That it's happening inside the mom-and-pop backrooms and dim corridors of the globally celebrated, documentary-stacked Los Angeles Lakers — and not being suppressed by the ultimate power-broker, LeBron James, and his behind-the-scenes henchman, uber-agent Rich Paul — makes it more sinister.
Oh, LeBron is acting like he’d never, ever undermine a coach, though he has done exactly that in Cleveland and Miami. This time, he strains to be a public diplomat as a legacy franchise drowns in shame, with Russell Westbrook sabotaging the Lakers when he was supposed to save them.
“I’m not in that business of pointing fingers or pointing blame or trying to put a quote at the end or at the start of someone’s commentary of what they feel our coaching staff is, or where Frank is, or where Russ is, or where I’m at,” James said. “If it’s not positive for me, I’m cool. It’s not my lane. I’m not a negative person. So if you got something to ask me besides trying to sh— on somebody, I’ll answer those. Which I probably don’t. It seems like y’all are in sh— mode right now.”
When pressed, he said, “I'm going to the movies with my wife, man. I gotta go.’’
He probably would love to keep going, to the airport, where a one-way flight would whisk him to Miami or Philadelphia or somewhere he could win a fifth championship. That won’t be happening in Lakerland, where James and the front office are involved in a fault-assigning conspiracy — LeBron’s traditional modus operandi when his teams flop.
Vogel, of course, is not the reason why this 22-23, eighth-place farce is doddering, disjointed, dysfunctional, defense-averse and dying a slow death. He isn't the one who hatched the disastrous maneuver to acquire Westbrook, guarantee him $44.2 million this season and $47 million next season, and watch him gut-bomb his ballyhooed homecoming with turnovers, clanks and a brooding snarl. No sane person who knows NBA megalomania and the delicate psychology of superstars thought it was smart to break up a contending roster, mere months after the trophy ceremony in the Disney World Bubble, and add a blustery Santa Ana whirlwind to a creaky and grumpy mix of Hall of Fame egos whose best days, except for LeBron’s, are behind them.
But as James continues to astound us with his performances and workload, at 37, it also must be pointed out — shouted out, actually — that he was the one who pushed hard for Westbrook when management floated the notion. James even had him over to his Beverly Hills home in July for a three-way deep dive with Anthony Davis. The King's approval stamp led to a deal that sent Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope — contributors, all — and the No. 22 pick in the draft to the Washington Wizards, while hastening the departure of Alex Caruso. Add one title-less superstar who craves the ball (Westbrook) to a title-chasing Monstar who needs the ball (James) to a skilled All-Star who wants the ball when he happens to be healthy (Davis) to a title-less all-time scorer who likes the ball (Carmelo Anthony), and what did LeBron and the front-office mental giants think was going to happen? Love, harmony and a painless ride to another champagne-spraying? Did they have a wayback machine to 2012? Not even James, with his persuasive abilities, can lobby the league to use three basketballs in a game. Beyond the disturbing absence of effort, chemistry, clarity and commitment, the Lakers have been ball-and-chained by Westbrook's selfish whims and maddening mistakes.
And there isn't a damned thing Vogel — or any coach on the planet, or any in the history of the sport — can do about this Superteam gone bad. They could summon a hybrid of Steve Kerr, Gregg Popovich, Mike Krzyzewski and Phil Jackson in his prime, and Westbrook still would be sabotaging victories while everyone other than James stands around waiting to lose. The coach is being scapegoated nonetheless, because that's how the blame game works in professional sports when a team underperforms. In particular, it works that way when manipulative stars want no part of accountability.
Though everyone but friends and family members — and maybe them, too — recognizes Westbrook as the problem, he still views himself as the acclaimed, record-breaking triple-double machine. Which is exactly what ails the Lakers, a.k.a. the Worst Team Stale Pedigrees Can Buy. Instead of acknowledging he is the issue and working on his jumper, his passing skills, his focus — everything, actually — Westbrook is too busy living in his Danger-Russ past to search for light in the darkness. The other night in Sacramento, where the game-operations staff played audio snippets of the classic-rock hit “Cold As Ice” every time he missed a shot, he fired back with his version of “Reelin’ In the Years.''
“I hope they played that the last 14 years, too,” he said. “It's funny they play it now. That's cute.”
The last 14 years don't matter. All that matters is this: James has lost maybe his last chance to win a championship, Davis might never return to optimum health, and Westbrook has caused the Lakers considerable harm for his massive salary. After Vogel finally yanked him in the final minutes of a home loss to woeful Indiana, Westbrook tried to leave the floor before he was coaxed by teammate DeAndre Jordan back to the bench, where he mouthed something in Vogel's general direction.
“Playing the guys I thought were going to win the game,’’ explained Vogel, who was mortified when Westbrook showed no interest in guarding Caris LeVert on a blow-by layup with about seven minutes left.
The benching only delays the inevitable. More than halfway through the regular season, top basketball executive Rob Pelinka — complicit in the messy drama, his reputation still debatable after rescuing it in the Bubble — knows he must do something drastic. But trading Westbrook before the Feb. 10 deadline is impossible — no fool would inherit such a paralyzing contract — which means one of sport’s legacy organizations is stuck with its brilliant brainstorm. So the front office turns to the most convenient fall guy. Vogel did board the team plane Thursday to Orlando, but it almost surely will be his final road trip with a murderous stretch beginning Sunday — at Miami, at Brooklyn, at Philadelphia, at Charlotte, at Atlanta — and multiple losses expected. The only reason the Lakers still are expected to make the Western Conference playoffs: The league has moved forward with its play-in tournament. But even with that break, they’re only five games ahead of the Kings — who have beaten them twice — and postseason elimination. For now, the official word from management is that Vogel is being monitored.
What a disgrace. Even with the banners, the billions, all the built-in advantages as an entitled franchise in a throbbing market of 18.8 million where every star dreams of playing, the Lakers are run like a corner convenience store. Owner Jeanie Buss refuses to employ a streamlined, 21st-century management structure — unlike the state-of-the-art Golden State Warriors, she doesn’t have a general manager (Bob Myers) and head coach (Kerr) who collaborate on all decisions and shut out underlings. Instead, she continues to let her longtime friend, Linda Rambis, slip into big meetings with her. This enables Rambis’ husband, Kurt, to poke his nose into Vogel’s business — and possibly return to the bench himself. Rambis has been around the franchise since his goggled playing days in the 1980s, as the original on-court irritant, and later as Phil Jackson’s coaching confidante. Wait, Buss wouldn’t bring back Jackson, her one-time boyfriend, for another shot at 76? Isn’t he tired of Montana by now?
Forget it. LeBron never would have it, surely preferring top Lakers assistant David Fizdale, his favorite aide during his two-title run with the Heat and Pelinka’s choice to fill in when Vogel was sidelined by COVID-19 protocols. This wouldn’t be the first time James presides over the in-season dismissal of a coach, but unlike his scheme in Cleveland — where ash-canning David Blatt after a failed NBA Finals appearance led to a title with Ty Lue — Vogel's inevitable departure won't lead to a U-turn of fortunes. This roster is beyond help, and as long as Westbrook is hogging the salary cap the way he hogs the rock, it can't be fixed for next season unless they cut him and absorb enormous sticker shock. This is who the Lakers are, in another solar system, light years behind the Warriors and Phoenix Suns. This is what LeBron created when Buss and Pelinka let him play GM last summer, when he should have been in Cabo.
An upstanding pro who has been fired before, in Indiana and Orlando, Vogel admirably tries to stay above the fray. “I don't feel like I'm under siege," he said. “It's not hard to do my job; I'm very focused on the task at hand. I've always been that way.’’
He’s the very same coach and man he was when he hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy. He hasn’t regressed. Frank Vogel has been chopped at the knees by a power play gone bad. Somewhere, he should be allowed to appeal to a higher court of head-coaching employment. But he knows what is unavoidable, sooner than later, because he heard the dreaded vote of confidence from the person in charge: “Coaching staff has been great. They put us in position to succeed, and it's up to us to handle the business, so there's always things that we all can do better.’’
So claimed LeBron James, twisting the knife slowly, letting Vogel bleed as he tells his guy Fizdale to be Ty Lue. “Fiz,’’ he calls him.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.