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The Los Angeles Lakers' braintrust is leaning heavily toward making coach Frank Vogel the scapegoat for their own failure to build another NBA championship-level roster around LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
Vogel was "coaching for his job" during Monday's victory against the Utah Jazz and will continue to be "evaluated on a game-to-game basis" going forward, according to The Athletic's Bill Oram and Sam Amick.
In other words, Vogel could be fired any day now.
The Lakers won the title just two seasons ago. They lost a first-round playoff series to the Phoenix Suns last year, largely because of the groin injury Davis suffered midway through Game 4. Now, they are 22-22, seventh place in the Western Conference and half a game from falling to ninth. An elite defensive team each of the previous two years, the Lakers rank 18th in that regard this season, and they are worse offensively. Their -1.5 net rating on the season is worse than any other team with a record even close to .500 or better.
So, what happened? Well, for starters, Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka traded his depth this past summer for Russell Westbrook in a deal widely panned at the time. Pelinka swapped Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma and Montrezl Harrell — all of whom have helped the Washington Wizards post a better record than the Lakers to this point — for Westbrook, who has been a predictably disastrous fit in L.A.
Westbrook is a ball-dominant point guard who led the league in turnovers last year, shot well below league average from 3-point range and does not make up for either on the defensive end. All those characteristics have held true this season. It is a harsh reality that ultimately led to Westbrook's breakups with perennial All-Star partners Kevin Durant, Paul George, James Harden and Bradley Beal. Anybody who has watched the NBA in the past decade understood Westbrook was not going to fit alongside James and Davis, either.
Yet, Pelinka pulled the trigger on the trade, and Vogel is in danger of paying the price for it. Few of Pelinka's moves have worked since Magic Johnson recruited James to the Lakers and Davis forced his way to L.A. Pelinka further stripped the championship team's identity this past summer, opting to pay Talen Horton-Tucker over Alex Caruso, and then signing a slew of past-their-prime veterans to patch a roster together.
Pelinka already conceded defeat with the return of Rajon Rondo, trading the 35-year-old for nothing in return. Likewise, Carmelo Anthony, Avery Bradley, Wayne Ellington, Trevor Ariza, Kent Bazemore and DeAndre Jordan would have made for a sensational supporting cast a decade ago, but certainly not now.
Westbrook and Dwight Howard both called out the team's lack of effort following Saturday's 37-point loss to the Denver Nuggets. The locker room may well be tuning out Vogel, but no coach should have to remind 10-year veterans that they need to try in order to win. And no amount of trying is going to help a bunch of 30-somethings stay in front of a talented next generation that wants nothing more than to beat the Lakers.
Vogel has been tasked with making chicken salad out of chicken (stuff). Extended absences for James and Davis have not helped his cause, either. Davis was just cleared for practice after a left MCL sprain cost him the previous four weeks, but the timetable for his return to game action is still uncertain. James has carried an impressive load in Davis' absence, but the toll on a 37-year-old in his 19th season has to be concerning.
The schedule gets only more difficult from here, too. The Lakers have the league's third-hardest remaining slate, according to Tankathon. Nine of their 14 games between now and the All-Star break are on the road. Eight of them come against teams with a better record. It is unclear what Lakers owner Jeanie Buss, her senior basketball adviser Kurt Rambis and Pelinka expect from Vogel over that stretch, but anything better than the same .500 record is a standard no coach could expect to reach with a guillotine looming overhead.
Much has been made of Magic's tweet on the state of the Lakers after the blowout loss to Denver: "We deserve more than a lack of effort and no sense of urgency." James took to Twitter a day later to apologize to Lakers fans and promise "we'll be better," denying his statement was a response to Magic's criticism. More fascinating was James' answer when asked why he declined to speak to the media Saturday.
“I didn’t like what was going to come out of my mouth,” he told reporters after Monday's victory. “So, I decided not to speak with you guys, because I understand that some things that I say can be everywhere. So, I didn’t want that for my teammates at that point in time, so I decided to just keep it to myself.”
There was no mention of the coaching staff. James put the onus on his teammates, and he was absolutely right. Vogel is far from the Lakers' biggest problem. Even if you trusted this front office to reconstruct the roster around James and Davis, Pelinka has nothing of value left to trade and nobody to blame but himself.
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