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On Tuesday, the Phoenix Suns ushered in a new era, presenting Frank Vogel as their new head coach.
In the wake of Monty Williams’ firing three weeks ago, the Suns concluded their coaching search by choosing Vogel over a few other finalists, including Kevin Young and Doc Rivers. Introductory press conferences are usually filled with optimism and positivity, but Vogel’s also shed light on what to expect from his philosophy, his general approach to coaching and how he’ll lead the Suns moving forward.
Here are five observations from Frank Vogel’s first presser as Suns head coach.
1. The Suns needed a new (but similar) voice
While most of the questions understandably revolved around Vogel, Tuesday also marked the first time general manager and president of basketball operations James Jones addressed the media since Phoenix decided to make a coaching change.
When asked about firing Williams, Jones called it a hard decision, but one that needed to happen in order to inject a different voice that could fill the gap between where they were and where they wanted to go.
“We set out a few years ago to build a foundation of excellence,” Jones said. “We set out a few years ago to become a franchise that many would call elite, and we’ve taken some steps towards our goal of winning a championship. But as we looked forward, we needed another leader, someone that could elevate us to the next level.”
Vogel quickly proved himself a worthy candidate in the interview process, reflecting the traits Jones and owner Mat Ishbia were looking for.
“Through this process, after talking to many great candidates, many amazing coaches, we settled on the guy who we think has all the qualities,” Jones said. “Leadership, honesty, integrity, championship experience, a love for the game, a passion for the community — those are the attributes and the traits that Frank embodied.”
Ironically enough, many of those traits were once used to describe Monty Williams at the start of his tenure, and especially at its peak. In describing how Vogel brings out joy while asking players to do difficult things, Jones used phrases similar to the ones Suns players used to describe Williams.
“An underrated trait is a he’s a guy that knows how to bring the toughness out of you without barking, without screaming, without pushing,” Jones said. “And he gets you to believe that you’re tough, even if you aren’t, until you actually started doing it.”
But after enduring humiliating blowout losses at home to end their season in back-to-back years, Williams’ message was no longer being received. Those descriptions no longer fit the bill, and it was time for a change.
Moving forward, the Suns are hoping Vogel — who believes he earned his PhD in building relationships with superstars during his time with the Los Angeles Lakers — can prove to be a more effective communicator and motivator.
“All of my players have always seen a genuineness to partner up with them and to do everything I can to put them in position to reach their goals, both individual goals and team goals,” Vogel said. “And I think those those relationships are everything when you’re trying to achieve what we’re trying to achieve. We’ll put a great deal of effort into that, and I believe in where it’s gonna go.”
Vogel mentioned allowing Devin Booker and Kevin Durant to weigh in on game plans, but called it a necessary “time investment” to build relationships with all his players.
“If I’m not touching those guys, each player on my team every day, then I’m not doing my job,” he said. “It’s very, very important to me to understand what the pulse of our team is. I always tell my assistant coaches, my trainers, like, I want to know what guys are feeling when they’re coming in. And if somebody’s not feeling great about their role or what’s happening, I want to know about it so we can address it and help those guys.”
2. Frank Vogel brings championship experience
Vogel may sound similar to Williams in a few ways, but the biggest separator between the two wound up being the reason the Suns chose him as their next head coach.
It’s the first thing we mentioned when Vogel’s hiring was reported, and it’s the first thing Mat Ishbia alluded to when that hiring became official Tuesday morning.
“This is an important day for our organization as we continue to build a championship culture on and off the floor,” Ishbia said in a statement. “Frank is an accomplished coach who understands how to win an NBA championship, which is our priority.”
Vogel is the Suns’ 21st head coach in franchise history, but he’s the first one who’s ever won an NBA championship. Despite already climbing that mountaintop with the most prestigious franchise in the league back in 2020, Vogel is aware of how monumental that achievement would be here in the Valley.
“It would mean the world to me,” Vogel said. “I know what it’s like to be a fan that wants to taste that championship, and I am just thrilled with the opportunity to be the coach that leads this team to its first.”
Vogel grew up as a Philadelphia 76ers fan, but when they traded one of his favorite players, Charles Barkley, to the Suns back in 1992, he started following them instead. As he fell in love with the Suns from afar, he discovered that Phoenix was a great basketball city.
Now he gets to coach that same organization, trying to lead them to the promised land while knowing full-well what it takes to get there.
“The first thing I can apply is direct belief, because I’ve done it, I’ve been a part of it,” Vogel said. “I know that if the talent is in place, that you can galvanize a group and take the league by storm. We have that type of talent here. We have that type of IQ and experience and firepower. And certainly, we’re gonna build on that.”
Vogel said he believes this team is close to winning a title. It will require some luck and a few breaks along the way, but the foundation is in place.
“We gotta make some moves around the edges, and we gotta put in the work,” he said. “It does not happen organically. A great deal of effort and sacrifice and togetherness has to be achieved for us to become a championship team, but I believe we can do it.”
As long as the Suns have a healthy Booker and Durant, it’s a championship-or-bust season. Does Vogel embrace that kind of pressure?
“Hell yeah,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve been with teams where we’re gonna take the long road, and that can be fun, that journey can be fun, but I love the mindset that we’re gonna go after it right away, with all we have. I don’t give a damn about what the outside narrative is around expectations or whatnot. I care about what our expectations are, and our expectations are to go for it — this year, and hopefully every year that I’m here.”
3. Building out a ‘dynamic’ coaching staff
In the end, the head coaching gig seemed to come down to Vogel and associate coach Kevin Young. When Young fell short of the main seat, it would’ve been natural for him to follow Williams to Detroit, interview for the Toronto Raptors vacancy, or simply look elsewhere for a new job.
Instead, Jones said it was “critical” for the Suns to retain him on Vogel’s coaching staff.
“Throughout the entire process, we’ve had frank discussions with Kevin around his desire to be in Phoenix,” Jones said. “He wanted to be here, we wanted him to be here, because he’s a great coach and he wants to win. So given the opportunity to stay here and continue to build with us, it was an easy decision for him, and it was an easy decision for us.”
Making Young the highest-paid assistant in the NBA at $2 million a year certainly didn’t hurt, but he had helped the Suns build their current foundation and wanted to continue to see it through. He knew where they had been, understood where they were now, and could help Vogel lead them to where they want to go next.
While it doesn’t seem like Vogel had a ton of say in the matter, he’s approaching the situation with empathy. It’s natural for Young to feel disappointed he didn’t get the main gig, but Vogel was highly complimentary of his “basketball integrity.”
“I’ve had numerous people from his past reach out to me and just double down on that level of what a great guy he is and what his basketball integrity is about,” Vogel explained. “And I’ve got a high level of respect for him. Kevin’s gonna be a head coach in this league very soon. He understands that, and I think the whole league understands that.”
Vogel pointed out he won’t lock in on specific roles for his assistants until he finishes rounding out his coaching staff, but Young’s role probably won’t be far off from what everyone expects.
“What I can tell you is I love what he did from an offensive coordinator type of role here in the last few years,” Vogel said. “I got a great deal of respect for his offensive mind. But when you’re on the cusp of becoming a head coach, you’re a great coach on both sides of the ball.”
As for David Fizdale, another well-paid addition to the Suns’ coaching staff, Vogel is plenty familiar with him from their time together in Los Angeles. He highlighted Fizdale’s ability to adapt to the “modern NBA” as it continues to evolve.
“Evolution has been necessary, and I love the way we changed the scheme and system to come into LA and won the championship in year one,” Vogel said. “But the league continues to change even more since then. So I think that immediate corporate knowledge is something that really makes Fizdale attractive to me.”
Young may be a new relationship to build, but in Fizdale, Vogel now has someone he’s already comfortable with on his staff.
“I got a great chemistry with him too,” Vogel said. “Like, we work our asses off, but we have a lot of fun in the process. I just really, really respect his pedigree, his championship pedigree as an assistant coach, and the fact that he’s been a head coach in this league.”
4. Scrappy Suns
The Suns have become known as a talented, winning basketball team. But ever since Jae Crowder left — and even before that, to a certain degree — they’ve rarely been called “tough” or “physical.”
Frank Vogel seems determined to change that, declaring the start of a new era of Suns basketball.
“I will be committed to bringing a championship-level culture both on and off the court, a culture centered around hard work, toughness, intelligence, teamwork,” he said. “And when we get out there and play, we’re gonna be scrappy as hell. We’re gonna have talent out there, but we’re gonna be a scrappy team that plays harder than our opponent every night.”
Booker and Durant are hardly pushovers on the court, but “scrappy” has rarely been used to describe players of their caliber. For Vogel, earning that label starts by putting in the work.
“When we get out during practice and training camp, I think we set the tone very early on of what’s expected, of, really, how we coach practice, how we coach our film sessions,” he said. “But our guys are gonna hear that 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. Because if you develop that habit over 82 games, come playoff time, when every team is trying to ratchet it up, it’s already gonna be there for us.”
5. Frank Vogel says all the right things about Deandre Ayton
We’ll dive into this a little more in-depth on Wednesday, but for all the questions surrounding Deandre Ayton’s future in Phoenix, Frank Vogel answered them as well as he possibly could have.
Ayton’s $32.5 million price tag is a bit steep considering his production, inconsistent performances and declining rim protection, but for his part, Vogel sounded intent on being the new voice that can hopefully coax a return to form out of DA.
“I think he can be one of the best centers in the league, and I think he’s shown that at times throughout his career,” Vogel said. “I know he showed it when we played him in the playoffs a couple years back, and he shot about 80 percent from the field and deterred every drive, every cut, every effort to attack the basket. He can be a big-time deterrent. And there’s still areas that he can grow offensively, but I’m intent on really connecting with him and restoring him to an All-Star level player.”
Vogel, who’s known as a defensive-minded coach, probably won’t be overhauling DA’s offensive role in one summer. Ayton’s lack of self-creation remains the biggest roadblock to his potential on that end of the floor, and nobody can overcome that hurdle but Ayton himself.
However, after a season in which Ayton’s numbers as a rim protector were as bad as they’ve been in years, Vogel understands the importance of defensive anchors. He’s coached elite shot-blockers before, including Roy Hibbert, Myles Turner, Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee, so if Ayton remains on this roster by the start of next season, hopefully Vogel can get him back to the kind of interior force he was during Phoenix’s run to the 2021 NBA Finals.
In fact, Vogel’s elite defensive system may hinge upon it.
“I think it starts with the big fella,” Vogel said. “I’ve always had elite rim protectors, and you can get the job done without that, but boy, when you got a guy like that in front of the basket deterring everything that comes to the rim, you just get stronger in everything, because the perimeter can push up more and be aggressive. I have a scheme that I believe is the best in the league at tailoring those strengths into the group.”