PHOENIX – Frank Vogel led the Lakers to an NBA title in his first season in Los Angeles by finding a way to mesh the skills of stars LeBron James and Anthony Davis.
The veteran coach is now in a similar situation in the desert, where he takes over a Phoenix Suns team led by stars Devin Booker and Kevin Durant.
The blueprint is there. Vogel just needs to make the pieces fit.
“The first thing I can apply is direct belief,” Vogel said Tuesday during his introductory news conference. “Now because I’ve done it, I’ve been a part of it. If the talent is in place, that you can galvanize a group and take the league by storm.”
Vogel did just that with James and Davis, leading a team that went 37-45 the year before to the franchise's 17th NBA title in the Florida pandemic bubble.
Vogel's new team is already on the rise.
Monty Williams took over a team that won 19 games in 2018-19 and guided it to the NBA Finals within two years.
When two embarrassing playoff exits followed — Phoenix trailed by 30 at halftime in both home losses — new Suns owner Mat Ishbia and general manager James Jones decided a change was needed. The Suns fired Williams on May 13 after four successful seasons, hoping a change in message could get the franchise back near the pinnacle.
“I just felt we needed an injection of a different voice, a different energy. It’s really that simple,” Jones said. “And as we evaluated where we were and where we wanted to go, we just saw a gap and we needed to fill it.”
Vogel takes over a roster in flux.
Booker, one of the league's best scorers, will be back. So will Durant, a 13-time All-Star.
Point guard Chris Paul was the cog the Suns appeared to missing when he joined the franchise in 2020, leading Phoenix to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1993 in his first season.
The 38-year-old continued to be an effective floor leader in his 17th season, finishing fourth in the NBA in assists at 8.9 per game this season. Once the playoffs rolled around, Paul's body gave out for a second straight year, a strained groin knocking him out of the Suns' final four games.
The Suns also have to decide whether to stick with center Deandre Ayton or trade him.
The 24-year-old has dominated at times, disappeared others. Ayton faded in the playoffs this year for a second straight season, his averages dipping even before he suffered a rib contusion in Game 5 against Denver.
“He can be a big deterrent (defensively) and there’s still areas that he can grow offensively,” Vogel said. “I’m intent on really connecting with him and restoring him to an All-Star level player.”
Vogel has surrounded himself with proven assistants.
David Fizdale was an assistant under Vogel with the Lakers after serving as the head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies and New York Knicks. He will be joined by Kevin Young, one of the NBA's top assistants who was a finalist for the job Vogel eventually got.
Their biggest task will be to add a bit of grit to the glamour of Phoenix's two high-scoring star players.
Vogel is a defensive-minded coach with a successful track record that includes an NBA title and two trips to the Eastern Conference Finals as the Indiana Pacers' coach.
A dose of D could be just what the Suns need.
“The No. 1 habit that we develop all year is that we have to play harder and tougher and with more hustle than our opponents every night,” Vogel said. “Because if you develop that habit over 82 games, boy when you get to come playoff time, you know when every team’s trying to ratchet it up it’s already going to be there for us.”
Like in LA, Vogel is not facing an overhaul.
Booker and Durant are still two of the leagues best scorers and the franchise is two years removed from a trip to the NBA Finals. Add the right complementary players and the Suns could remain one of the Western Conference's best teams.
“We’re very close,” Vogel said. “A lot of things have to go our way. You need a lot of luck and you need some breaks along the way, but I feel like the foundation is in place. We've got to just make some moves around the edges.”
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