The NBA is a league of uncertainty. Deals made years prior have cataclysmic effects on teams years after the fact. The NBA Draft and free agency has become the sphere where General Manager’s careers are made and lost. Somewhere in the middle of those decisions lies the enigma that is the NBA head coach.
If championships are built in the draft and free agency, then they are surely won in the film room – and that’s where the disparities between coaches and front offices seem to take the most roots.
Because make no mistake: Frank Vogel, head coach of the Indiana Pacers until today, was not fired based on his track record as Indiana’s head coach. His win-loss record didn’t influence the decision of Pacers President Larry Bird, nor did his accomplishments with a depleted roster. What caused Vogel’s departure was simply a disagreement in style, and that’s one the front office will always win.
Vogel’s resume in his time with Indiana has been much about improving a roster that was stuck in mediocrity. The Pacers had missed the playoffs four straight years after a rebuild by the front office following a first-round exit.
In Vogel’s first season, he led the Pacers back to the playoffs, and followed it with a campaign that saw the team go deeper than they had since the 2004-2005 season, making it to the second round. He would then take the team to back-to-back berths in the Eastern Conference Finals in the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 seasons.
Following the 2014 season, Pacers star forward Paul George suffered a gruesome leg injury that sidelined him for the duration of the season. Roy Hibbert also disappeared in a carryover from a disappointing postseason, and the Pacers were left without two of their stars from the last few years. Vogel planned around it, however, and had Indiana in the playoff race until the last day of the regular season, missing the playoffs in a tiebreaker with the Brooklyn Nets.
And entering this season, Vogel was left with a team that was devoid of the same star power that it had seen from previous years, as David West left for the Spurs and Roy Hibbert was sent to the Lakers. The Pacers responded with signing brazen shooting guard Monta Ellis, and this highlighted the disapproval from the front office – most notably between the opinions of Bird and Vogel.
Since the end of the 2013 season, Bird had been a big proponent of George playing the 4, as opposed to his traditional role as a 3, in an effort to go small and run more on offense. George has made his disagreements with this style of play clear, even to go so far as to say he “wouldn’t consider” a move to the 4, and cited issues with health and the grind of a full season playing against bigger and more physical players.
Bird, however, has been louder and more vocal that the Pacers best chance to win is to go small and run a more spread offense. This boiled over in the offseason, with Bird going to Vogel and working out a deal to go small and move George to a more unconventional stretch-4. George’s protests went mute, and the Pacers started the season with the Bird-favored lineup.
Things started off hot, with the Pacers surprising many analysts to start fast. The defense would pay the price, however, as the Pacers fell to one of the league’s worst defensive records – a far cry from the pounding, bruising Pacers from years past. The team dropped nine of 16, and Vogel made the change back to a more traditional two-big rotation. The defense vastly improved, but points per possession dropped substantially.
Entering the All-Star break, things got worse between Vogel and the front office, with Bird openly criticizing the coaching staff and players. While the Pacers began winning, the anger from Bird was palpable, unable to commend Vogel or the Pacers as they clawed back into postseason contention, ultimately landing in the playoffs against Toronto. The big rotation for the Pacers wore down the Raptors, and coupled with awful play from the Raptors’ stars, and the Pacers were able to stretch the series to seven games.
But the decision was made months before. Bird said in his press conference that he “only saw coaches lasting three years, that’s my experience.” But rarely, if ever, is that the case for coaches that win.
Bird made clear in his press conference, perhaps to satisfy his own ego, that Vogel didn’t want to go, and even asked repeatedly for Bird to reconsider.
So what happened? Why would the Pacers part with a winning coach, one that had taken the organization to heights and consistency that it had not seen since Bird himself was walking the sidelines as head coach?
This is the way of the NBA today. Coaches, regardless of talent or skill-set, are ultimately the extension of ownership and the front office.
Why else would two of the coaches for the four teams in last season’s conference finals be unemployed at the start of this one? One of whom, Cleveland’s David Blatt, let go while leading the Eastern Conference and making it to the NBA Finals in his first season?
Better yet, why would Scott Brooks be left unemployed for making the Western Conference Finals three straight seasons?
Or Tom Thibodeau be canned after leading the Bulls through the most successful five-year period since Michael Jordan donned the red and white?
The simple answer is ego. But the more complicated answer, at least in the respect of Larry Bird, is scheme and demand.
Bird, for two years publicly – and probably a few more privately – has made his ideas clear that there is a need for a small ball revolution in Indiana. He has shown frustration at Vogel’s inability to get his star player to accept and embrace the approach. And even in the face of its failure, has decided it is a coaching issue.
David Blatt faced the dilemma in Cleveland. It’s not that he wasn’t winning, it’s that Dan Gilbert (and to a lesser degree, LeBron James) didn’t like HOW he was winning.
And therein lies the crux of the problem of coaching in the NBA. They don’t just want to win; they want to win their way.
Frank Vogel is a great and accomplished coach, one that will certainly find success in his next job.
Larry Bird won’t find another Frank Vogel.
But you’re missing the point if you think he wants to.