All Ball Sport: Let the Blame Game begin

Laker coach Frank Vogel during Laker Media Day in Oct. 2019, looking skeptical, when Anthony Davis arrived at the Lakers El Segundo training facility. Photo by Ray Vidal

Anthony Davis lifted Lakers hopes when he met the press in Oct. 2019                

by Paul Teetor

Webster’s Dictionary defines a scapegoat as a person blamed for the wrongdoings, mistakes, or faults of others, especially for reasons of expediency. Synonyms are listed as whipping boy, fall guy and patsy.

Meet Coach Frank Vogel, the Lakers newest scapegoat — and whipping boy, fall guy and patsy.

Vogel, who was fired Monday morning, is all of those things and more.

He’s the guy who replaced the previous scapegoat, Manhattan Beach’s own Luke Walton, three years ago when LeBron James decided that Walton had to go after LeBron’s first year in purple-and-gold ended without a spot in the playoffs.

Sound like a familiar scenario? The same dynamic is playing out just three years later. What LeBron wants, LeBron usually gets.

LeBron has already insisted he had nothing to do with Vogel’s firing, that he didn’t even know about it before it was announced.

Don’t believe him.

He also said Monday that the Lakers season was not a failure. That is the most absurd thing he’s ever said publicly, and another blow to his fading credibility.

Three years ago the Lakers wanted to hire Ty Lue to replace Walton. But the three basketball geniuses known as Kurt Rambis and Linda Rambis, also Manhattan Beach residents, and Rob Pelinka – the Lakers GM who takes orders from LeBron through his agent Rich Paul — wouldn’t let him hire his own staff, insisting that Jason Kidd be part of his staff and the de-facto coach-in-waiting should the Lakers falter.

No self-respecting coach would take the job with that condition attached, which is why Lue eventually became the Clippers coach and second choice Monty Williams ended up as the Phoenix Suns coach.

Eventually the Lakers settled on the very available Vogel. He had made his rep as a defensive whiz while leading the Pacers deep into the playoffs as a head coach a few years back. At the time Walton was fired Vogel had been fired by Orlando and was desperate to get another head coaching job without going back to an assistant’s job, as so many fired head coaches ultimately do. The problem for them is, once they take that assistant’s job, they end up being an assistant for life and never get another shot at a head job. 

So Vogel got lucky as the Lakers third choice and he led the Lakers to the NBA title in his very first season on the job by transforming them into a great defensive team.

Now, just two years later and with only three holdovers from that championship team – Lebron, Anthony Davis and Talen Horton-Tucker — he coached the worst defensive team in the league.

The season from hell ended in appropriate fashion this week when the Lakers finished 11th in the Western Conference and didn’t even qualify for the play-in tournament, whereby the 7-10 teams in each conference stage a mini-playoff to see who gets the last two spots in the real playoffs.

Even before the season officially ended Sunday afternoon, the inevitable finger-pointing and back-stabbing began. Some of the biggest names in Lakers history felt compelled to wade into the mud pile, and it wasn’t pretty to watch for long-time Laker fans. 

Interestingly, no one who understands pro basketball blamed Vogel, because he is, by all unbiased accounts, a very good coach who will find a way to maximize the talents of whatever    players he has on the roster. No, the real problem was with the roster construction — too old, too unbalanced and way too dysfunctional – rather than with the coach.

The greatest Laker of them all, Magic Johnson, got the blame game started Monday morning when he made an unusual appearance on Stephen A. Smith’s ESPN shout fest known as First Take, and casually stuck the knife deep into Pelinka’s back.

Magic said that last summer he had been contacted by DeMar DeRozan’s agent, who told him that the LA native and multi-time all-Star was anxious to come home and join the Lakers. Excited that such a top-tier player, and unstoppable scorer wanted to play here, Magic said he passed the info along to Pelinka and waited for the imminent announcement that the Lakers had signed DeRozan, thus boasting a new big three of LeBron, AD and DeRozan. 

Instead, behind the scenes and unknown to Magic, LeBron was cooking up the trade that sent two established defensive players – Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Montrezl Harrell, as well as instant offense guy Kyle Kuzma – to the Washington Wizards for Russell Westbrook and his bloated $44 million salary ($47 mil next season.) That one crazy decision – to pass on DeRozan and instead trade for Westbrook – destroyed the Lakers season before it even got started. As Magic quickly pointed out, the Lakers had traded away the guts of their rock-solid defense and, even worse, were forced to give up another great defender in Alex Caruso because they had no money left once they acquired Westbrook’s contract. DeRozan ended up with the Chicago Bulls, where he averaged 28 points per game.

Then Kareem Abdul-Jabbar jumped in, criticizing LeBron for some of the things he’s said and done this season. He said he believes the Lakers star has a greater responsibility than most players in how he conducts himself given his elevated platform.

“Some of the things he’s done and said are really beneath him, as far as I can see,” Abdul-Jabbar said before the Lakers’ 129-118 loss to the Denver Nuggets. “Some of the great things that he’s done, he’s standing on both sides of the fence almost, you know? It makes it hard for me to accept that when he’s committed himself to a different take on everything. It’s hard to figure out where he’s standing. You’ve got to check him out every time.”

Abdul-Jabbar, on hand to present James’ teammate, Carmelo Anthony, with the newly designed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Trophy to honor Anthony as the NBA’s Social Justice Champion for the 2020-21 season, had already voiced his disappointment in James several times this season.

The first time happened after James celebrated a late-game 3-pointer in an overtime win against the Indiana Pacers by mimicking the dance that former NBA All-Star Sam Cassell made popular, the so-called “Big Onions” dance while pointing to his groin.

Abdul-Jabbar was pointed in his disapproval.

“For me, winning is enough,” Abdul-Jabbar said in a video posted through Substack, a subscription commentary website, in early December. “Why do you need to do a stupid, childish dance and disrespect the other team on the court? It doesn’t make sense. GOATs don’t dance.”

Abdul-Jabbar walked it back a few days later, saying he hadn’t meant to disparage LeBron. But despite his apology, it was an unprecedented event in the Lakers family. Basketball immortals simply don’t criticize basketball immortals-to-be, especially when they are both part of the league’s flagship franchise. Kareem soon realized he had violated the unwritten code, but the damage was done.

The Lakers blame game is sure to get even more vitriolic and intense in the next few days and weeks. As a public service to casual Lakers fans who may not follow the day-to-day doings of the most popular team in all of LA, All Ball has worked up a Blame Meter for the Lakers epic failure this season. In descending order, here are the culprits and their percentage of blame.

Blame Games 2022

Russell Westbrook: The worst part of the Westbrook trade was that even Little Stevie Wonder could have seen that Westbrook didn’t fit alongside LeBron. A ball hog who can’t shoot outside five feet, he has always relied on his other-worldly athleticism to get to the basket and score around the rim. Those kinds of players tend to fade fast in their early 30s as every smart NBA exec knows. Westbrook is 33 and proved he is incapable of re-shaping his game to adjust to his advancing age. That’s why the Lakers were his fourth team in four years. He couldn’t make it work with Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City, or with James Harden in Houston, or with Bradley Beal in Washington. But he swore up and down to LeBron that he would change his game, let LeBron handle the ball most of the time, and be happy as the third banana on a championship team. Then LeBron and his agent asked/begged/pressured General Manager Pelinka to make the trade — and in the process hollow out the defense that had carried them to a championship just one season earlier.

It got even worse once training camp opened. According to two players who were there, at the very first practice Vogel encouraged his players to grab a defensive rebound and bring the ball up the court themselves in an attempt to catch the defense in transition before it had time to set up. Westbrook immediately stepped in and disagreed, saying that he is the point guard and they should just give him the damn ball and let him attack the defense. The disrespect to Vogel was instant and intense, and it just accelerated as the losing started. There were public glimpses of the friction between coach and player when Vogel, sick of the endless late-game turnovers from Westbrook, held him out of several fourth quarters in close games. Asked about it, Vogel said it wasn’t personal, that he was just trying to give his team the best chance to win. Westbrook responded by saying that he had earned the right to play in the fourth quarter by virtue of his long and illustrious career. The feud simmered the rest of the season while Westbrick – sorry, Westbrook – complained that the fans and the media were being mean to him by using the ever more popular nickname of Westbrick, referring to his terrible outside shooting. When he hid behind his wife and children – saying they were afraid to come to the games because they might hear him being disparaged by hostile fans – he sank to a new personal and professional low.  

Percentage of blame: 51%                   

Owner Jeannie Buss: She’s the boss and the buck stops on her desk Ever since her father, revered owner Jerry Buss, died back in 2013 and handed the reins of the team to his daughter, the Lakers have been a total mess. They missed the playoffs in seven of the nine years and won one NBA title that no one cared about because it was played in a Florida bubble while the early days of the Covid-19 Pandemic raged outside. For some reason, the mainstream media has been extremely reluctant to hold her accountable. Maybe it is fear of being labeled misogynistic. Perhaps it is because of her slam-dunk victory over her feckless playboy brother, Jimmy Buss, when he tried to stage an internal coup against her a few years back and failed miserably. She got a lot of credit for that but, really, how hard is it to beat back your idiot brother? Especially when all the relevant documents made it crystal clear her father intended for her to take the reins because she had worked within the organization and paid her dues for 30 years while Jimmy Buss was acting like a spoiled rich kid well into his 50s.

She has failed the franchise because she did not hire a professional basketball executive to replace the fired Mitch Kupchak, who is now slowly but steadily rebuilding the Charlotte Hornets. Hiring her BFF Linda Rambis as her top advisor was a classic corporate mistake, and then bringing Rambis’s husband Kurt into the mix just compounded the mistake. While the mainstream media fixates on how the Lakers will dump Westbrick and his bloated contract this summer, the real question is will Buss finally do the smart thing and hire some real NBA executive types to fix this mess?

Percentage of Blame: 25%

Linda Rambis, Kurt Rambis, Rob Pelinka: This is the so-called Lakers Management Team. But none of them are remotely qualified for their high-level executive jobs. Linda Rambis got hers by virtue of being Jeannie Buss’ BFF for the last 40 years. Kurt Rambis, who made his rep as an over-achieving power forward on the Showtime teams of the 1980’s, is a failed Lakers interim head coach who was shoved aside when Phil Jackson was hired in 1999. He then flamed out as the coach in Minnesota and as a top advisor to Jackson in New York. Pelinka got his job because he was Kobe Bryant’s agent and Bryant recommended him to Buss. Again, the real question for the Lakers this summer is will they replace this terrible trio with some qualified execs? If not, the nightmare will continue indefinitely.

Percentage of Blame: 13%

LeBron James: 

The second-best player in NBA history – behind only the incomparable Michael Jordan — has a long history of bending his current franchise – first the Cavaliers, then the Heat, then the Cavaliers again and finally the Lakers – to his will. That means bringing in the players he wants to play with and allowing his friends and associates to essentially infiltrate and run the franchise. After four years of that chaos in Miami, Heat President Pat Riley had had enough and made it clear there would be no more special rules for LeBron and his friends. So LeBron promptly left. 

The Lakers traded away their future to get Anthony Davis when LeBron demanded they do that. This year he wanted Westbrook, his old friend Carmelo Anthony, his even older friend Rajon Rondo, and worn-out journeymen Trevor Ariza and Kent Bazemore on the team. AD was injured most of the year and the other four were complete flops.

Now the brutal truth is that the Lakers have only two assets that could be traded – their 2027 and 2029 first round drafts picks – unless they bite the bullet and put AD up for auction. But after his injury filled three years in LA, the best they could get are two first round draft picks, and probably not high enough picks to get a new franchise player.

The reality is that the Lakers are looking at four or five years without making the playoffs – and watching the resulting high draft picks go to the New Orleans Pelicans, who got them in the AD trade.

Percentage of Blame: 11 %

Frank Vogel:

Given the right roster in 2020, he coached them to an NBA championship in his very first year. Given a roster of mis-fit parts, over-the-hill fading stars and untested kids like Austin Reaves and Stanley Johnson in his third year, he finished out of the playoffs.

Percentage of Blame: 0%          

Contact: Follow: @paulteetor. ER


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