Suns have to hope Frank Vogel’s exit fixes broken team dynamic

May 9, 2024, 1:47 PM | Updated: 6:11 pm

Frank Vogel’s job first appeared in jeopardy back in December, when warning signs showed that the Phoenix Suns were not solidifying as a unit and struggling to create a new culture after the departure of Monty Williams.

That molding of an identity was always going to be the most important task for the franchise’s new head coach. What Vogel said he wanted that to be, what the end product wound up as and then the Suns getting defiantly swept in the first round made firing him the team’s only available decision after one season.

Vogel at his opening press conference in June said “our number one habit we develop all year is that we have to play harder and tougher and with more hustle than our opponents every night.” He described it as a “scrappy as hell” group and later on in training camp said they will play with pace offensively and get up 3s at a high level.

None of that came close to translating, not even for just a few weeks. There was not one set, signature style of play. Kevin Durant had a nod to that after the Suns were eliminated.

All of this was because of Vogel’s ineffectiveness at making his principles show up on the floor. At some point, he lost buy-in from his players.

It’s not clear when this happened, and maybe more reports will follow on the why. But his ability to properly motivate them and keep the group focused was nonexistent, as evidenced by over a dozen horrible losses and a few dozen uninspiring victories Phoenix had in the regular season.

Even the Suns’ much-hyped closing 10-game stretch of 7-3 included two abysmal efforts against the Los Angeles Clippers and the Oklahoma City Thunder smoking them without Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The Athletic‘s post-mortem report on the Suns’ season noted that the first Clippers outing was followed by a Vogel postgame outburst that players didn’t take seriously, which was properly reflected in their embarrassing play the following night.

The Suns never reached sustainability, an end goal of sorts to finally begin improving substantially enough to contend. There was no hope of finding constant 48-minute efforts or even just 40. There were only a few all year.

Execution and organization doomed them constantly. The fourth quarter was a nightmare. The types of turnovers mirrored those of a 25-win team. All of the negative trends on the court pointed back to a tremendous lack of connectivity off of it.

President of basketball operations and general manager James Jones a few separate times at his end-of-season availability referenced a lack of chemistry and cohesion, noting that the team first has to get on the same page before finding improvement. In a vacuum, those three things are most directly associated with the head coach’s starting responsibilities of stabilizing a locker room.

A head coach’s fate is always going to be decided by the players, and not just by how they perform. Whether it’s a young group that doesn’t know any better or a veteran-laden squad that does, how a locker room connects to a coach will dictate the amount of success it can have.

Ultimately, on a roster with large figures like the Suns, it can oftentimes come down to a personality match. And that’s where the biggest failure in this Suns season was. Devin Booker took on a bigger leadership role with Chris Paul’s exit but there was never going to be a definitive top player presence either alongside or behind him. That was always going to have to be the coach, and Phoenix’s key decision-makers picked one the team never had unwavering respect for.

As the season went on, indications that the Suns did not click with Vogel became more and more pronounced and confirmed. At times in the first round, once Vogel was done drawing up his play in the huddle before speaking on specifics, Booker had seen enough and walked away. He wasn’t sticking around to hear the particulars or the “rah-rah speeches.” There was Bradley Beal’s shouting at Vogel, jog-by of his extended hand or Beal’s choice not to say, “Yes, I would love to see coach back this year” when asked at exit interviews if he wants Vogel to return.

Is all of this Vogel’s fault? Of course not. Perhaps the largest concern on the docket for the Suns’ future is that their best players appear to be difficult to work with, or at least were for one well-respected head coach. But that’s been the case with a lot of talented NBA rosters over the years, and if those three aren’t fully bought in with the coach, then what are we doing here? Come on. There was no other choice.

Vogel did show this current roster iteration can succeed enough defensively. It finished tied for 12th in defensive rating and actually played better on that end against Minnesota than offensively. There were large spurts of great Suns team defense. The problem is that’s not how playoff basketball works, because the small spurts of significant slippage lost them all four games.

But the undoing of Vogel and his coaching staff was the offensive system. The part we’ll never know was how much of this was due to what the staff was emphasizing and running, along with how much of this was the players ignoring them and/or not executing. Either way, it was a complete mess.

Phoenix would go through personality changes mid-game, utilizing player movement to maximize the pressure Beal, Booker and Durant put on a defense to activate ball movement and force defenses to rotate, before halting all of that. The Suns would often run just one set motion, looking for a singular point of attack and either plodding the activity down to go at that or attempting to reset when the space wasn’t there, doing so in an awkward way that routinely killed possessions.

They never consistently found pace when the opportunities presented themselves. If you watched the Suns bench after a defensive rebound against Minnesota, most of the coaches were urging the players to push the tempo.

The initiation skills of Booker and Beal never properly synergized to run the offense. Booker, a more than capable player with this skillset, was moved off the ball more in January to make Beal the “point guard.” This was surely a decision by Vogel and his staff to give Beal a more defined role and make him feel valued, a foolish move in the moment and even more so in hindsight.

The dynamic was faulty, and even when Beal found success with the position, the capped ceiling was inescapable. Phoenix was 19-6 when Booker had eight-plus assists. The offense was at its best when the balance between the two shifted more toward him. Booker eventually just took over those duties midway through the first round. Too little too late.

This juggle and the turmoil of however much yelling and extended angst went on behind the scenes had Booker put in his worst regular season since the bubble year. Booker in ways is an easier player to monitor than most because he is always in rhythm. But he didn’t have that this year. He rarely found his flow and the disconnect of camaraderie screeched his defensive progression to a full stop, even taking him back down a few notches.

Why was he not able to play beyond the circumstances like we saw him do at the beginning of his career through all sorts of nonsense and four head coaches in four years? The Suns will hope a fresh start at the top of totem pole is what he needed. Suns owner Mat Ishbia first named “the head coach” and Booker as leaders of the team during his availability.

The usage of Durant bordered on schizophrenia all season. The best of his time in Brooklyn was with him moving into space off the ball through angled screens. Those variations could flow into Durant getting the ball up top to run pick-and-roll, which could then flow into further ball movement. That was small example of how Phoenix’s blender could have developed a way to get Durant attacking downhill without initiating to avoid the turnover concerns. From there, once he got rolling, the on-ball work could really explode.

It was far too hit-or-miss when the Suns would turn to this process, and instead, they relied the most on Durant’s mid-post isolations. The good news is this would often bring over double-teams. The bad news is in Game 3 of the regular season, the Los Angeles Lakers stacked that side of the court in a way to properly rotate back in time and Phoenix since then was rarely opportunistic enough through the ball rotations when Durant was doubled, the whole point of running it.

Durant spent a fair amount of time just standing in the corner as a spacer, a way in which the Suns do benefit from his gravity while also giving the defense a break by not even involving him in the action. The Athletic reported Durant was not a huge fan of this. That is not surprising after Williams used him in similar ways.

Jones responded to that report, claiming no team has ever maximized Durant before and the Suns want to be the first.

That is a bold claim, one the new top dog should take note of.

Who are the candidates to replace fired Suns head coach Frank Vogel?

Speaking of, the replacement for Vogel feels like it has to be someone very specific, a coach who will undoubtedly have the attention of the locker room and reign over it. For the second straight year, we will watch Phoenix circle the Ty Lue wagon over in Los Angeles (metaphorically speaking, of course). For the second straight year, he’s the best option by far, with others lacking the proper combination of gusto and comfort. For the second straight year, it is possible Lue won’t be on the open market.

The Suns will be competing to fill a job at the same time as the Los Angeles Lakers.

Mike Budenholzer does not seem like that type of leader but is the free agent with the best resume, which is likely why he is “prominent” in the search, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Maybe Sam Cassell is that type of leader, a 15-year pro who is currently putting in Year No. 15 as an assistant. He doesn’t have head coaching experience, though.

Scott Brooks does and oversaw the start of Durant’s career. Brett Brown seems primed for another opportunity after his time with The Process 76ers, and other uninspiring ex-head coaches include Kenny Atkinson, James Borrego, Dave Joerger and Terry Stotts.

When it comes to offense, there are three out-of-the-box suggestions. Does Ishbia get bold, influenced by his own collegiate roots and give a call to UConn’s Dan Hurley? Does Ishbia get bold, influenced by nostalgia and give a call to Mike D’Antoni? Does Ishbia get bold, influenced by top-tier podcast content and give a call to JJ Redick?

Becky Hammon is due. Ditto for Miami assistant Chris Quinn. Goodness gracious, is that Mark Jackson’s music?!

It’s not great and the Suns have nothing obvious to fall back on. The way their players responded also left them no other way to move forward.

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