Road to Repeat: Vogel deserves more credit for keeping Lakers afloat despite injuries

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LeBron James carries a certain aura of invincibility. Yes, he can be beaten, but his body has seemed indestructible since the moment he stepped foot onto an NBA court. In his first nine seasons, he missed just 32 regular season games — a mere 3.6 games per season. Very rarely do we see “The King” with a dent in his armor, giving him a legitimate case to be crowned the most durable basketball player (and maybe even athlete) we’ve ever seen.  

However, with 17 seasons behind him, games and minutes piling up, the 36-year-old suffered a high-right ankle sprain that has kept him out of action since March 20. James, who preaches availability as one of his greatest attributes, sent out a tweet after hearing he would miss over a month of Lakers games. He wrote, “Nothing angers and saddens me more than not being available to and for my teammates.” 

James’ durability is obviously one of his best traits, but it has created a sense of “LeBron-dependency” among players and coaches for teams he’s played on. Naturally, James is usually ready to lace up come game time. There is no backup plan because there is rarely a need for one. Luckily, James has never faced a major injury in the postseason and has yet to miss a playoff game in his career. 

Having LeBron on the court is like having another coach on the floor at all times. James will point players to where they should position themselves and when they should move to the other side of the court, getting his team into their sets. Or, he might just get down in the post, hold the ball high above his head, and survey the opposing defense — telling his teammates when to cut or screen to generate easy baskets. 

Because James has the ability to see the game at a different level than the rest, his teams are at their best when he commands the ball a majority of the time. While we credit the 17-time All Star for his durability, we must point out his lack of malleability. Unlike Kevin Durant or Stephen Curry, who you can simply plug into any team and fit right into the game plan, James needs to be the team’s engine. And when you take that engine out, it’s not so pretty. 

In James’ second stint with the Cavaliers, his teammates and coaching staff developed a severe case of “LeBron-dependency.” They never really figured out how to win without their superstar, posting a dismal 4-23 record over four seasons when James was sidelined. 

It was a similar story during James’ first year in Los Angeles under head coach Luke Walton, as the Lakers finished with a 9-18 record while James missed time with a groin injury. In his second season with the Lakers, James missed just four games, with the Lakers falling short in two of those games. 

After losing James on top of losing power forward Anthony Davis, it would not have been a surprise to see the fourth-seeded Lakers fall to the middle of the standings and become a candidate for the play-in tournament. Without James, head coach Frank Vogel loses his engine, but with no Anthony Davis, the wheels come off too. 

So how have the Lakers managed to sustain a 6-8 record without their two-headed monster? How have they managed to stay afloat on a ship without its sails?

It starts and ends with Vogel. He has the ability to put a defensive juggernaut on the floor regardless of the available personnel. Pre-injury, LeBron was defending at an All-Defensive team level, playing the “free safety” role to perfection on the back line. Davis was deterring shots at the rim while hounding opponents with his 7-foot-6-inch wingspan. Vogel has transformed the identity of this Lakers team into a hard-nosed, scrappy defensive team that will contest every jump shot, meet anyone at the rim and dig into opponents to make each trip down the court a living nightmare.

Since James’ ankle injury, the Lakers have maintained the second-best defensive rating in the league without their two best defenders. Vogel has kept his squad in the hunt for home court in the first round of the playoffs, just a game behind the fourth-seeded Nuggets. With James’ and Davis’ returns on the horizon, it could have been a lot worse for the Lakers; this 6-8 stretch, including a 4-3 road trip, will be forgotten when the calendar hits June, but avoiding the free fall down the Western Conference will be critical when playoff seeding is decided. 

Vogel has been under-appreciated throughout his career, but he deserves a huge chunk of the credit for this Lakers season. Every night, he and his coaching staff put together a stout defensive game plan that suffocates opponents. Vogel has proved to be the best defensive coach in the Association and should be considered for the Coach of the Year award. 

Sahil Kurup is a freshman writing about the Los Angeles Lakers. His column, “Road to Repeat,” runs every other Friday.