If there was ever an anecdote to discourage college coaches from jumping into the pro racket, the cautionary tale of Frank Vogel would be it. Titles talk, everyone else walks. Ask Lionel Hollins about the dangers of front office regime changes.
When Larry Bird returned to the Pacers front office last summer after a yearlong sabbatical, the vibe around the Pacers was positive. However, Bird bares no allegiances to the coach who helped right the ship.
And according to FOLB (friends of Larry Bird), the Pacers 40-year old coach’s job is on the line over the next few weeks. In all likelihood, the Pacers must at least reach the Conference Finals for Vogel to keep his job.
Marc Stein’s report was an unexpected development in the Pacers turbulent saga during the second half of the season and unprecedented in its timing. Despite struggling down the stretch, Indiana beat Miami and Oklahoma City at home to clinch the No. 1 overall seed in the East.
However, as an integral part of assembling the Pacers roster, Bird may internally feel like his roster management was equally as important to Indiana's meteoric rise as Vogel and maybe more. Bird won titles in Boston with a pair of average coaches and may feel that Vogel is just another dime in a dozen like KC Jones, Jimmy Rodgers or Bill Fitch. Or his ego may have convinced him that the Patron Saint of Hoosier State Hoops is the sideline savior for Indiana.
In early March, Bird made the unconventional choice of offering constructive criticism at best and passive-aggressive warnings at worst through the media on Vogel's coaching methodology.
"A lot of times, we don't take the fight to [the opponent]," Bird told the Indianapolis Star on March 11. "A lot of times we sit back and wait and see how it goes. And that was the case even when we were winning a lot of games early in the season. We've got to be mentally prepared to really go after the teams we're playing against. We can't have the mindset it's just another game; it's a very important game. All of them are.
"I'm sort of going to Frank's side because he's had so much success by staying positive. We do have to stay the course. But I also think he's got to start going after guys when they're not doing what they're supposed to do. And stay on them, whether you've got to take them out of the game when they're not doing what they're supposed to do, or limit their minutes. I will say, he hasn't done that enough."
Not exactly the vote of confidence you expect to hear about a coach who's led a team to the best record in the Eastern Conference. The pressure on Vogel should have Scotty Brooks wishing to his lucky stars that the Memphis Grizzlies don’t sweep Oklahoma City at home and take a 3-1 series lead over the second-seed heading back to Chesapeake Energy Arena.
The Thunder’s hipster head coach took over the Thunder two years before Vogel and has been fortunate enough to reach the NBA Finals once, but has also benefitted from the development of the Thunder’s young All-Stars.
Vogel molded a team that was crumbling with his predecessor Jim O’Brien’s up-tempo offensive style, devised a scheme that suited his roster, got more out of Roy Hibbert than anyone thought was possible and accelerated Indy’s development.
It's been smooth sailing for Brooks, but he may get stuck in the mud in Oklahoma City. If Vogel’s on the stove unless he reaches the Finals, Brooks should be going short sleeve with no jacket like a ‘90s shoe salesman to keep sweat puddles from pooling up on the sidelines. An NBA title has been the expectation in Oklahoma City for three years and last season’s five game series defeat at the hand of Memphis is fresh on everyone’s minds as OKC’s men fight bear again.
Instead, Oklahoma City’s management has laid off of Brooks and the franchise and allowed the chips to fall where they may. No one expected the Pacers to become contenders this quickly. Although, he was part of the braintrust that selected Paul George out of necessity after Butler’s Gordon Heyward was unexpectedly snatched up one pick earlier in 2010, Bird made two drastic mid-season trades that altered the chemistry of the Pacers locker room.
General manager Kevin Pritchard, who is sensitive to these tip-toe acts after he was unexpectedly told an hour before the 2010 NBA Draft that it would be his final night as GM of the 50-32 Portland Trail Blazers, responded to the rumors by sending out a tweet indicating that Vogel's job is safe, but the fact that it even came to this point is ludicrous. If Chuck Daly were held to Vogel’s standard he would have flamed out of Detroit after the Pistons ducked out in the first round of the ’86 playoffs.
Vogel’s removal wouldn’t be unprecedented. The Pistons ousted Rick Carlisle in 2003 after a 50-win season and conference finals berth so that Larry Brown could bring his winning algorithm to a title-ready team. Miami’s Stan Van Gundy mysteriously “resigned” midway through a season that would end with his mentor Pat Riley hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Vogel isn’t a transcendent coaching savant and his offenses can be somewhat unsightly to a naturally prolific scorer of Bird’s ilk. O’Brien doesn’t tout a Showtime offense or a renowned Triangle offense. He simply espouses a physical brand of defensive basketball that funnels all penetration into David West or Hibbert’s black hole.
A coach with a more balanced offensive repository to draw from could do wonders, but there’s something to be said for not disrupting continuity. Unless, Larry Bird is walking through that door.