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The Case Against Frank Vogel

Nothing says hip like a #TeamVogel hashtag. If there were a Pacers coach straw poll, Frank Vogel would win it. Players like Roy Hibbert and Dahntay Jones have openly pined for the 38-year-old’s return. Fans have launched a Facebook campaign. NBA writers, led by Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated, have themselves fallen into full-fledged group-think: Larry Bird should make Vogel the Pacers’ permanent head coach.

We disagree. Hiring the youngest coach in the league is not the best thing for a team whose starting lineup is young enough (average age: 24) to just trail the kiddies in Oklahoma City (23) and Washington (22) for greenest in the NBA. In an ideal world, do you really want coach and players learning together? Especially when you could get a great, known commodity like Rick Adelman, Lawrence Frank, or Mike Woodson?

In the end, Bird’s probably going to hire Vogel. But here are 10 reasons why he shouldn’t.

1.       Strategy Not as Infallible as Commonly Believed: Vogel receives a lot of credit for more consistently using Paul George, particularly in the playoffs, where everyone fawned over the decision to check Rose with the rook.  But Hardwood Paroxysm recently reexamined the choice to start George over Mike Dunleavy.

 

"As SI’s Zach Lowe explained prior to the start of the playoffs, maybe that wasn’t the best idea:

 

The Pacers have played much better with Dunleavy on the floor this season than they have with either George or Brandon Rush at shooting guard, and it’s not close. Indiana’s current starting lineup — Darren Collison/George/Danny Granger/Tyler Hansbrough/Roy Hibbert — has been outscored by about 10 points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball Value. The margin stays just as bad if you substitute Rush for George. But in 152 minutes with Dunleavy at the 2-guard spot, that lineup is +4 per 100 possessions.

 

Dunleavy was the only shooting guard on the roster consistently capable of creating offense, which Lowe explains could mean more to the Pacers than defense (which makes a bunch of sense when you consider just how awful this team was on offense)."

 

In the loss to Chicago, Indy managed point totals of 99, 90, 84, 89, and 89. The Pacers shot just 40.9% from the field in the playoffs, surpassed in futility by only the injury-riddled Knicks. George shot 10-of-33 (30.3 percent) in the series.

2.       Streaks: If the Pacers had flipped a switch and performed consistently well throughout Vogel’s time, that’s one thing. But Indiana was inconsistent from start to finish. Check out the roller coaster.

 

In chronological order: Pacers won 7 of 8, lost 4 of 6, lost 6 of 7, won 5 of 7, won 3 of 5, and then lost 3 of 5.

 

At the end of the regular season, there was none of this clamor for Vogel to be retained. And which sample is more reliable: four close/competitive playoff games, or 38 wildly variant regular season contests?

3.       What Vogel Did Is Not Unusual:  Since 2000, 109 teams in the major professional sports (NBA, NFL, MLB) have made a midseason coaching change.  After the switch, 68 percent of those clubs enjoyed improved win-loss records, according to ESPN Next Level. (Data as of Feb. 2011)

The headline of Peter Keating’s article for ESPN the Magazine was, "Don’t let miracle-worker coaches fool you. Turnarounds aren’t always what they seem."

Keating went on to explain, "Every year, a handful of coaching changes seem to trigger turnarounds. Fans inevitably react to these reversals of fortune by crediting the new guy (‘Jason Garrett really brings out the best in the Cowboys…’) while questioning the old guy (‘…but man, the team must have really been mailing it in for Wade Phillips’). But that’s misguided. Even the most incompetent headman is likely to enjoy a bump out of the gate, thanks to a statistical law of gravity called regression to the mean, [which] says they were bound to improve simply because they had been so bad. Most of the swings aren’t really meaningful at all once you consider how much team records jump around due to sheer chance. Sports teams, like panicky investors, tend to sell low, which leaves midyear coaching replacements nicely positioned to enjoy the bounce that comes as things inevitably even out. To judge a marriage, you need a lot more to work with than the honeymoon."

So there you have it. The fact that Vogel coaxed a 20-18 finish from Indy means next to nothing. Unfortunately, most everyone has rushed to judgment on the grounds that it was some kind of miraculous/unexpected turn. As you will see below, it was clear that the Pacers were destined to play better, regardless of the coach, simply due to the NBA calendar.

4.       Easy Schedule:  Prior to Vogel moving into the big chair, Indiana faced opponents with a collective .521 winning percentage. Frank, on the other hand, had the luxury of coaching against a much softer .461 schedule.  Of his 38 regular season contests, Vogel faced 22 teams that were .500 or below.  He earned 14 of his 20 victories against losing teams.

Even more stark is this angle:  an astounding 61.4 percent of O’Brien’s contests came against teams .500 or better.  Only 44.7 percent of the time did Vogel face such a tougher opponent.

Not only was the schedule easier, but as Indiana had shown the past three seasons, it is always simpler to win games in the second half of the season, when teams out of the race play younger players, when teams already locked in playoff position rest starters, when injuries deplete rosters, when teams waive the white flag (see: Bobcats, Charlotte), etc.  In the first half of the season, everybody’s fresher, everybody’s still doing all they can to try to win.

5.       PLAYOFFS?!!:  Much-repeated is the fact that Vogel led Indiana to its first playoff berth since 2006.  But that should be largely irrelevant in terms of evaluating his future as coach.

See, in seven of the past nine seasons, 37 wins would not have been good enough to make the postseason in the Eastern Conference.  Vogel caught the league at a very fortuitous time.  The ineptitude and stench of Milwaukee and Charlotte had a lot more to do with the Pacers’ playoff spot than Vogel’s coaching.  To credit Vogel for making the eighth seed is almost like a father praising his son for not being a total screw-up.

6.      Blown Leads:  This was an alarming on-court trend after Vogel took over.  For our purposes, a blown lead is one in which the opponent comes all the way back to either tie or go ahead.  Whether the Pacers eventually won or lost is not considered here. We’re just looking at the number of times Indy failed to protect a double-digit advantage. (Note: each of the numbers below comes from its own, separate game).

Without further adieu, here are the blown leads: 20 points, 17 points, 13 points, 14 points, 15 points, 16 points, 13 points, 15 points, 20 points, 10 points, and 11 points.

Additionally, there was a game in New Jersey in which Indiana allowed an 11-point lead with 2:24 to play to be cut to three with 40 seconds remaining. The Nets missed a tying shot.

And there was a contest against Milwaukee at home where the Bucks trimmed a 14-point, second-half deficit to a single point. Drew Gooden missed a game-winning three, and the Pacers barely escaped with an 89-88 victory.

Such sloppiness doesn’t speak well at all for Vogel, and it happened in 13 of the 38 games he coached. Yikes. But it seems he’s gotten a pass for all the big, blown leads. Not sure how.

7.       Old Regime: First, the obvious. Vogel was part of the staff that has already departed. Jim O’Brien was here along with Walter McCarty, Vitaly Potapenko, and Jay DeFruscio. All of them are gone. Except Vogel. It’s a weird way to bridge eras.

 

      To make matters worse, Vogel never coached on anyone else's staff BUT Obie's. And if Jim was fired ostensibly because some of his ideas/strategy/style didn’t work, why hire a successor exposed to nothing BUT the ideas/strategy/style of the guy you let go?

8.       Doesn’t Share the Players’ Perspective: In NBA history, coaches with Association playing experience have accounted for 58.7 percent of the championships won (37 of 63). Vogel didn’t make the league. Nor did he even play high-level college basketball. This does matter.  A few years ago, The Atlantic published a paper from Cornell researchers titled, "Why Do Leaders Matter? The Role of Expert Knowledge."

 

Recounted the magazine: "The authors calculated NBA coaches' winning percentages between 1996 and 2004 over 15,000 regular-season games. They found that coaches who had spent some time as a player got far better results out of their teams than those who hadn't. On average, teams with former all-stars as coaches placed six spots higher in league rankings than teams with coaches who had never played in the NBA, a huge bump-up in a league with only 29 total teams during the years studied….Leadership skills tend to derive from expert knowledge of a given trade, not from some mysterious alchemy of natural intelligence and interpersonal skills."

   That’s bad news for Vogel’s infamous boasts and brags. It suggests the rah-rah statements only go so far.

9.       Going ‘Good Cop’ to ‘Bad Cop’: Vogel was able to become close to certain members of the team as an affable assistant. How could this be a negative, you ask? Well, going from aide to head coach is hard enough. Those who have had the experience say the transition is even more difficult when it occurs with the same team. 

      Pat Knight was an interim head coach elevated from the bench after his father’s retirement. He had the interim label removed in 2008 and, after an unsuccessful tenure, was fired by Texas Tech in March. He said part of the problem was he never got past the substitute teacher stigma. "I think it's hard for anybody who takes over when he was an assistant first," Knight said. "[The players] don't look at you as the head coach."

10.   Most Coaches Fail: According to BookOfOdds.com, the average tenure of a coach in NBA history is just 2.6 seasons.  The chances a coach will last longer than that average are just 1 in 3.75. So when an owner and GM huddle over a list of candidates, their goal has to be hiring someone to run a team for four, five, six years. Does it not? Getting that far almost certainly indicates some measure of success.

 

Okay. So, if time of employment is a harbinger of winning, who are you betting on to last longer in a job with the Pacers?  Frank Vogel, a blank slate minus a track record?  Or Rick Adelman, who coached six seasons in Portland, eight years in Sacramento, and four in Houston? How about Lawrence Frank, who ran the Nets into his seventh season? Even Mike Woodson, a veteran of six years in Atlanta?  It’s as easy as the difference between someone you know can build a foundation versus someone you hope can solidify the franchise against more coaching turmoil.

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