EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Frank Vogel sets tone for Suns’ makeover, steps toward 1st title

Jun 2, 2023, 12:10 PM | Updated: 1:12 pm

If the Phoenix Suns are successful, it’ll be the type of six-week transformation that would make your favorite D-tier home makeover show on HGTV jealous.

They began it by inspecting the foundation and taking a few sledgehammers to the master bedroom, adding in a vaulted ceiling. Monty Williams was fired, and the result of the new bones is Frank Vogel.

It is a solid yet fairly predictable and uninspiring direction Phoenix took. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. Let’s get into why.

Vogel has been one of the best defensive minds in the league since he got his first crack at a head-coaching gig in Jan. 2011 with the Indiana Pacers on an interim basis.

Since his first full year with the Pacers, his five-season tenure from 2011-16 resulted in leaguewide defensive rating rankings of 10th, first, first, eighth and third, respectively.

Now, this was in the middle of a NBA transformation. I don’t know if you missed the asteroid strike or not but it wiped out players like former Indiana center Roy Hibbert that quickly became dinosaurs because of the modern changes coming. Hibbert, a two-time All-Star, was one of the last immobile bigs we saw still capable of dominating games defensively. Rudy Gobert is one of those amphibians you get pointed out to you at the zoo by the guide that informs you he is indirectly part of the dinosaur family tree.

If you’ll allow me to breeze right past Vogel’s two-year stint with the Orlando Magic that wouldn’t have gone well for anyone, Vogel proved his defensive prowess carried into different eras of the game by winning a title in his first year with the Los Angeles Lakers. That season, Anthony Davis was First Team All-NBA and First Team All-Defense, anchoring one of the best defensive squads in the last decade en route to a championship.

Davis and LeBron James’ supporting cast consisted of heady shooters like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Alex Caruso, Danny Green and Kyle Kuzma, who all were making the majority of their impactful contributions on the other end and inside the margins. A near-the-end-of-his career Rajon Rondo was the only other source of offensive creation, and it didn’t really matter, because they had those Davis and James fellas. Vogel produced a similar squad in 2020-21 that topped the league in defensive rating before getting bounced in the first round by Williams’ Suns.

Those Laker teams will essentially be the blueprint Phoenix follows to attempt winning a title next season.

Devin Booker and Kevin Durant meet the prerequisites few other star duos across basketball do in terms of being capable enough to carry an offense like that. The thought of Vogel turning any team into a top-10 defense and then Booker and Durant being a walking top-10 offense in their own right has sound logic.

The Lakers in Vogel’s three years placed 16th, 23rd and 19th in half-court offense, respectively, per Cleaning the Glass. A fair bit of that had to do with constant injuries for Davis and James. A fair bit of that had to with Vogel’s lack of imagination.

The style more or less has the same drawbacks we see with defensive-minded coaches. The primary focus is running to capitalize off the number of misses it generates and crash the glass to steal extra possessions so the defense can get another edge. Pretty A-B-C, 1-2-3 coaching.

In terms of the percentage of possessions the Lakers started in transition, they were top-10 all three years, according to Cleaning the Glass. When it came to getting extra possessions with offensive rebounds, L.A. was fifth in 2019-20 before the buy-in to that evaporated to rankings in the bottom-half of the league. With offensive creativity at a low, both with personnel and on the clipboard, the Lakers’ three-year ranks in turnover percentage were 23rd, 28th and 20th.

This starts to become an unfair portrayal of Vogel. I don’t want you to picture James Naismith stop-motion video and a coach scribbling on a chalkboard when it comes to the offensive knowhow. He is going to contribute but also obviously needs one of his top assistants to be capable in that department.

In what is by far the main benefit of moving on from Williams in favor of Vogel, the latter is excellent with mid-series adjustments on the defensive end in the playoffs. Part of that is due to his implementation of many different schemes throughout the course of a regular season. The defense evolves into a tricky, versatile beast.

Just when something is working for the opposing offense, Vogel will change it up. The big is going to hedge now. The help at the nail is now a step in that direction. The low man is staying in the corner one trip and comes across the key the next. “Ah, right, Davis is in a drop so we’ll get a ball screen going and oh no they switched it now what?”

Veteran guard Kyle Lowry, who won a championship under Nick Nurse with Toronto and could win another right now for Erik Spoelstra in Miami, was asked before Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Wednesday what it takes for a team to execute versatility defensively.

“Belief and trust in your coach, honestly, and belief in each other,” he said. “Being able to switch from zone to man to whatever you want to, trap, double-team, doing different things. You’ve got to be able to have a sharp mind and be in the moment and say, ‘Whatever Coach needs, I can do, will do.’

“It’s just fun to be able to switch things up, change rhythms, because sometimes you’ve just got to do something different, which in Toronto we did that, and in Miami we’re doing that now. We’re switching up and doing different coverages, different things. And the versatility that we have on this team is pretty remarkable.”

Let Lowry’s words shred any more doubt remaining, if there even was any in the first place, on Vogel’s ability as a coach. He’s attained that belief and trust in the past. He will again in Phoenix.

We watched Booker in his first-ever playoff series two years ago try his best not to get brain-scrambled by this. He racked up 18 turnovers in his first four games, something very unlike him before he cracked the code in Game 5 and onward against a hobbled Lakers group out of answers.

Vogel’s system, however, requires the right pieces in place to maximize it. The hard part, getting stars like Booker and Durant to lift the offense, is over.

That doesn’t mean getting the other boxes checked is a sure thing. And our cliffhanger as we cut to commercial on our home makeover show is Phoenix’s mad dash to the furniture store before the deadline comes.

We have to start with Deandre Ayton. He has more tools athletically than just about anyone in the league at his position to fulfill what Vogel would want out of him. Williams, however, rarely utilized them, sticking to a traditional drop coverage the majority of the time while sprinkling in an occasional switch. Trapping or hedging and recovering from there was something Ayton never got to do much. Was this due more to the coach’s stubbornness or Ayton’s inability to execute it?

The Suns’ lack of maneuverability this offseason, plus the way the last two years have ended, makes it likely at least Ayton or Chris Paul gets moved. With the size of their contracts, could Phoenix yield a return to get their own Caruso’s, Green’s and KCP’s to put alongside the star pairing? If the Suns believe Ayton can anchor a title-winning defense like he showed he could in the 2021 postseason, do they not move him? If so, how do they add the other pieces around him? Free agency is a tough ask, as previously covered in this space.

All this talk about the Suns hiring the right assistant coaches to build the offense, which is justified, is ignoring the fact the Suns have an assistant coach already on the floor in Paul. This is by no means to say he could be the architect behind the Suns’ new modern offense but he would work with those assistants in consistently trying to shape the new ideas on that side of the floor. James existing is the only reason Paul doesn’t have a clear-cut case as the best basketball mind with a NBA jersey on right now.

Then again, Paul’s defensive limitations at the age of 38 have shown more in the last calendar year. If Vogel has doubts about Paul’s capabilities there, that should be enough of a reason to move on. Then again, Paul has an argument for being the best defensive point guard of all time, with nine All-Defense teams to his name, tied for the sixth most ever. Having his voice out there on that end alone would make Phoenix better.

The lone certainties on the roster are Booker and Durant. As for the other five-to-seven spots Phoenix has to fill, who knows.

A big concern of firing Williams was losing the culture he fortified. We’ll see in a few years time on that front but Vogel arrives with an identity that will aid the Suns in targeting the right guys and sets a tone immediately for how they will win. That’ll do.

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