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The Phoenix Suns reportedly have a new coach. Friday morning, The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported that Frank Vogel has agreed to a five-year, $31 million deal to replace Monty Williams as the team’s next head coach.
In the wake of another second-round playoff flameout, capped off by another embarrassing double-digit loss at home in an elimination game, the Suns parted ways with Williams and his instrumental impact on helping build up the organization’s culture. No team won more games over the last three seasons than Phoenix, but a change was needed. Now Vogel steps in as the hopeful upgrade in the main seat.
As an NBA head coach, Vogel has enjoyed successful stints with the Indiana Pacers and Los Angeles Lakers, as well as a less-than-successful two-year run with the Orlando Magic. The biggest questions for the Suns still revolve around how they’ll build their roster around Devin Booker and Kevin Durant, but for now, here are five things to know about Frank Vogel and his fit in the Valley.
1. Championship experience of Frank Vogel wins out
The five reported finalists for the Suns gig included Vogel, Nick Nurse, Doc Rivers, assistant Kevin Young and Sacramento Kings assistant Jordi Fernandez. Nurse, Vogel and Rivers were the only ones to hold head coaching positions in the league, and all three of them had won titles. But when Nurse took the Philadelphia 76ers job, and one realized that Rivers hadn’t won a championship since 2008, Vogel’s resume suddenly looked more attractive.
In the end, his championship run with the Lakers in the 2020 NBA Bubble, as well as his multiple trips to the Eastern Conference Finals with the Pacers, seem to have won out over the competition:
Vogel is a sensible candidate; in fact, he was No. 3 on our list of the top candidates for the Suns job. He’s not necessarily the flashiest hire, and only time will tell if he’s the definitive upgrade the Suns needed after firing one of the greatest coaches in their franchise’s history.
However, Vogel does have experience taking multiple teams through deep playoff runs, he’s won a title in the last five years, and even after factoring in two sub-30-win seasons in Orlando, he still holds a lifetime .526 win percentage as a head coach, as well as a 49-39 playoff record.
He’s not a sexy, splashy hire, but he’s more than capable of getting the job done.
2. Attention to detail on defense will improve
The Suns haven’t been slouches on defense for a while now. Under Williams, they ranked seventh, third and sixth in defensive rating over the last three seasons. More than anything else, their ability to field another top-10 defense will depend entirely on how Phoenix builds the rest of its roster over the offseason.
With that being said, there’s no question there will be intention on the defensive end of the floor under Vogel, and Phoenix stands to improve on that end with this hire. Aside from two seasons with young Magic rosters and one season with a horribly constructed Lakers roster, Vogel’s teams have always featured formidable defenses:
Again, a coach is only as good as his roster, but if James Jones is able to bring in some 3-and-D players, Vogel has the defensive acumen to make Phoenix truly stifling on that end of the floor.
Booker’s growth as a defender over the last two seasons and Durant’s underrated defense ensure buy-in from the Suns’ two stars on that end. The question is what he can extract from Deandre Ayton, an athletic and mobile big with all the right tools who regressed significantly on that end this season.
Ayton’s lackluster shot-blocking numbers will hopefully improve with Vogel’s touch, given that he’s worked with elite defensive bigs like Roy Hibbert, Myles Turner and Anthony Davis. This hire doesn’t preclude an Ayton trade by any means, given that his production doesn’t match the $32 million max money he’ll be making next season. But if the Suns can’t or don’t swing a DA trade, Vogel’s arrival is Phoenix’s best chance of maximizing his potential on the defensive end.
Vogel’s attention to detail should also be an upgrade come playoff time in terms of in-game adjustments.
The Suns were already a great, top-10 defense. Now they stand to be elite, as well as capable of adjusting their coverages at the most important time of the year.
3. Can Frank Vogel build an elite offense?
Vogel is a defensive guru, but his teams’ offenses haven’t exactly blown anyone away. A look at how his teams have ranked in offensive rating, pace and 3-point attempts over the years provides a glimpse as to why:
- 2011-12 Pacers: 8th in O-rating, 20th in pace, 22nd in 3PAs
- 2012-13 Pacers: 19th in O-rating, 25th in pace, 15th in 3PAs
- 2013-14 Pacers: 21st in O-rating, 23rd in pace, 25th in 3PAs
- 2014-15 Pacers: 23rd in O-rating, 22nd in pace, 18th in 3PAs
- 2015-16 Pacers: 25th in O-rating, 11th in pace, 20th in 3PAs
- 2016-17 Magic: 28th in O-rating, 14th in pace, 15th in 3PAs
- 2017-18 Magic: 25th in O-rating, 12th in pace, 14th in 3PAs
- 2019-20 Lakers: 11th in O-rating, 11th in pace, 23rd in 3PAs
- 2020-21 Lakers: 24th in O-rating, 21st in pace, 24th in 3PAs
- 2021-22 Lakers: 22nd in O-rating, 7th in pace, 17th in 3PAs
As Anthony Irwin of Lakers Lounge put it on on the PHNX Suns Podcast, Vogel “handled the defense…and LeBron [James] handled the offense.” The Lakers could afford to do that with a top-two player of all-time leading the way, but even with KD and Book on this roster, the Suns need to install an effective offense that maximizes their talents, while also punishing defenses for paying too much attention to the two stars.
The need for additional shot creators, ball-handlers and shooters is apparent, and a lot of this will come down to what James Jones is able to accomplish this summer. But in the playoffs, the Suns’ offense became two-dimensional, especially once Chris Paul went down. Deandre Ayton was a non-factor as someone who couldn’t create his own shot, and the 3-point shooting completely dried up.
Booker may have put together one of the most scorching-hot individual playoff runs of all time, but it wasn’t enough when Durant struggled in the Denver Nuggets series. Aside from one Landry Shamet outburst in Game 4, the Suns only got one other double-digit scoring performance out of their bench during the playoffs.
The Suns’ offense devolved a bit too heavily into iso-ball, and Phoenix struggled getting up 3-pointers. Despite being a top-10 team in 3-point efficiency all season, the Suns ranked 17th in attempts, and during the postseason, they dropped from 32.6 attempts a night to 25.8 per game — the lowest mark among all 16 playoff teams. Implementing a system that prioritizes basic math (like getting to the rim and hoisting 3-pointers over midrange prowess) would make Book and KD’s lives easier.
4. Nailing the assistants will be key
Vogel himself may not be the man for that job of revamping an offense that was top-10 when everyone was healthy, but he’s well known for his willingness to collaborate and allow others to scheme the offense.
If that’s the case, nailing the hires for the rest of his coaching staff will be monumental in compensating for one of his biggest weaknesses as a coach. Several names like David Fizdale and Phil Handy have already surfaced:
Despite the unpleasant ending to his Memphis Grizzlies tenure and subsequent time in New York, Fizdale is a well-respected basketball mind who has head coaching experience and spent time working under Vogel and Erik Spoelstra.
Handy, meanwhile, is a beloved staple on the Lakers coaching staff for LeBron James, who also worked with him on the Cleveland Cavaliers.
However, the Suns’ best candidate for the Suns’ associate coaching position is the guy who already held the title under Monty Williams: Kevin Young.
In any case, bringing in someone to basically serve as an “offensive coordinator” for Vogel’s lead assistant is a necessity. It would allow Vogel to play to his strengths as a defensive-minded coach, while covering up for some of his flaws on the offensive end.
The Suns have plenty of firepower between Booker and Durant, as well as CP3 and Ayton (if they’re still here). Getting someone to handle that end of the floor while maximizing Vogel’s attention to detail on defense would represent a perfect pairing and immediately upgrade the potential of this hire.
5. Retaining Kevin Young is a priority
Kevin Young played an instrumental role in constructing the Suns’ intelligent pick-and-roll attack. He’s been compared to the “next Erik Spoelstra,” he’s gotten interviewed for multiple head coaching positions over the last few years, and he was credited last season for suggesting that Phoenix crash the offensive glass more often, which paid dividends.
And there’s the obvious: Up until Friday, it felt like Young was gaining steam for the Suns’ head coaching job. Rivers and Vogel had championship experience, but Young felt like he had more upside as a younger assistant on the rise. Devin Booker’s support certainly didn’t hurt either.
The notion that Booker was “pushing” for Young has since been refuted, but Young coming so close to getting the job raises the interesting question of whether he’d want to stay in his same role. Doing so would most likely require a raise of some sort, especially since Monty Williams was recently hired by the Detroit Pistons and feels likely to recruit him.
With Young garnering buzz as a future head coach in this league, the Toronto Raptors currently have a vacancy for the big seat as well. Perhaps Young wants to stay in Phoenix, continue being Booker’s assistant coach and take on a more prominent role in sculpting the offense. Maybe he’d rather rejoin Williams in the Motor City, or perhaps the Raptors will be banging down his door soon enough.
But if he does stick with the Suns, he stands to become the exact type of offensive-minded, second-in-command that Vogel needs. It might allow Young more freedom to implement his ideas on offense, earn a payday and allow Vogel’s defensive mind to shine. That might be Phoenix’s best path to doing what it’s never done before and winning a championship.