Larry Bird really did it. The writing was on the wall and it didn’t get scrubbed off before Thursday’s news conference, when Bird announced that the Pacers would not be renewing head coach Frank Vogel’s contract.
The decision seemed inevitable immediately after the Pacers bowed out of the playoffs in game 7 of the first round against the 2nd seeded Toronto Raptors. Bird wasn’t willing to endorse Frank in the aftermath to assure us that his job was safe, and when he announced the press conference everybody could do the math.
Vogel’s reputation and record as a head coach have been stellar. He compiled a record of 250-81 across five-and-a-bit seasons and a playoff record of 31-30. His defensive rating during this time is No. 1 among all head coaches in the NBA. He led the Pacers to the Conference Finals twice and the playoffs every season except for last year, when Paul George was out with that broken leg. Roy Hibbert and Paul George were All-Stars during his tenure, and Lance Stephenson came pretty darn close.
So was this a matter of the grass is always greener on the other side? Does Larry simply not like Vogel? He even rubbed it in at the press conference, saying that Vogel was trying to convince him to change his mind.
I don’t want to harp on about it. Read Zach Lowe’s piece here about the pros and cons of Frank’s coaching and Jared Wade’s piece here about how things went wrong between Larry and Frank and his piece here about potential successors.
Here’s what I think. Judged on success alone, Frank Vogel should never have been fired. This year was supposed to be a rebuilding year without David West and Roy Hibbert, the anchors of the team. It was Paul George’s first full season back from that nasty leg break. Ian Mahinmi became a starting center. Monta Ellis and Jordan Hill, both players with suspect defense, joined the team. Myles Turner is a rookie who missed a chunk of games early on with that hand break. Rodney Stuckey and CJ Miles, both key pieces, also missed games with injuries. Ty Lawson joined at the end of the season. It was far from an ideal situation and yet the Pacers made the playoffs with 45 wins, 7 higher than the major predictors. They pushed the Raptors to 7 games when most thought it would be a short series, including yours truly.
And yet, it was the way the Pacers bowed out to the Raptors that probably hurt Vogel in the end. The game 5 collapse revealed a stubbornness and inflexibility that has plagued his tenure. The team’s inability to put points on the board has always been a problem, something Bird keeps going on about. In pushing the Raptors to 7 games and making us think the Pacers probably could have and should have beaten them, Frank went from an overachieving coach to an underachieving one. Had the Pacers lost in 5 or 6 hard-fought games, we’d probably be thinking, well, the Pacers just didn’t have enough talent, but at least Frank got the most out of them. In losing in 7 and making us think they should have won, we’re left wondering maybe Frank hasn’t maximized the team’s potential.
But look, no coach is perfect (except maybe Popovich). It’s easy for us to sit here and criticize what Frank did and speculate on what he could or should have done. Outside of Pop, Kerr, Carlisle and perhaps Spoelstra and Doc Rivers, are there really any coaches as highly regarded as Vogel? You look at a guy like Brad Stevens, who is no doubt a brilliant young coach, but the Celtics also lost in the first round, and to Atlanta — a team no one is scared of — no less.
That’s what makes the Vogel firing a bit of a head-scratcher. It’s clear Bird’s thinking is that the Pacers defense is more attributable to assistant Dan Burke (who will stay) rather than Vogel. So his belief is that the team can maintain their elite defense with Burke while raising their offense through a new coach. But why not keep Frank and get another offensive-minded assistant? Is it really as simple as getting a fresh voice in the locker room? And who out there is capable of what Bird envisions? None of the names being thrown out there is a sure bet. D’Antoni? There are no Nashes or Stoudemires on this Pacers team. Brian Shaw? We saw how his star nosedived in Denver. Jeff Hornacek? Who the hell knows?
Another big unknown is how the players will respond. They all seem to like Vogel (maybe except Jordan Hill, who said he never got an explanation on why he fell out of the rotation, though if you’ve watched him play I think no explanation was necessary). They all agree the locker room is fantastic and that everyone wants to win. To break all that up and bring in a brand new face is a big risk that could backfire big time.
Personally, I don’t think Bird should have fired Vogel, who did the best anyone could have reasonably expected under the circumstances. Bird didn’t put in the right mix of talent for Vogel to play the style he wanted. As many have said, Bird should look in the mirror first, consider he was the one who drafted Tyler Hansbrough, traded Kawhi Leonard for George Hill, traded Danny Granger for Evan Turner, signed Andrew Bynum, and picked up Chase Budinger.
That said, I’m not entirely against getting a fresh voice. I mean, it’s not like this team is going to the Finals any time soon, so why not roll the dice to see if another coach can get them to score more points? As for Vogel’s impact on player development, you never know. You can point to how Vogel developed Hibbert in an All-Star and Stephenson into a near-All-Star and how poorly the two have played since leaving Indy, but it’s impossible to say if Vogel deserves credit for that. Likewise, you can’t put all the blame on Vogel for George Hill not really improving since coming from San Antonio, or for Evan Turner and Gerald Green playing below potential, or for Andrew Bynum, Chase Budinger and Ty Lawson not panning out. Would Kawhi Leonard be the type of player he is today he Indy kept him? It’s a never-ending game of what ifs with no outcome.
Anyway, it’s going to be an interesting few weeks and months coming up. Vogel’s not going to be out of a job for long and he’s going to do a great job wherever he ends up. As for the Indiana Pacers, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.