On Matt Painter and Frank Vogel: The Messiness of Replacing a Coach
It’s officially the offseason, and we generally don’t write about recruiting because it’s a super weird process, and Purdue tragically shut down its football program several years ago so we don’t have a D1-caliber football team to talk about during the summer. Instead, the lads here at BS dive into our other favorite sports, with a particular emphasis on NBA (myself, Michael), NHL (JMoney, kinda Michael), IndyCar (Boilerdowd), competitive hotdog eating (Andy), and water polo (zlionsfan).
So the Indiana Pacers fired (err, I guess they just chose to not resign) head coach Frank Vogel. Vogel took over the Pacers HC job as they were a fledgling joke in January 2011, leading the Pacers to their first playoff berth on half a decade and pushing Derrick Rose and the top seeded Bulls through a tough 5 game series. Vogel and his staff made the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2012, the Eastern Conference Finals in 2013 and 2014, and put together arguably the best defense in NBA history from 2012-2014. The Pacers only missed the playoffs when superstar Paul George suffered a brutal broken tibia and fibula before the 2014-2015 season, and somehow took this year’s roster of misfit toys to a 7 game series against the Toronto Raptors.
On the other hand…Vogel’s offenses have never been too creative, resulting in offensive efficiencies ranked 10th, 20th, 22nd, 23rd, and 23rd during his five full years as HC. He also completely lost the locker room halfway through the eventual 1st place 2013-2014 season. His out-of-timeout plays have been consistently lackluster, and while Vogel’s gameplan and early in-game adjustments are usually effective, his late-game strategy and rigid adherence to flawed rotations (see: Game 5 of this year’s Raptors series) led to this eventual decision by Larry Bird.
Huh. Does any of that sound familiar?
Yes, it’s incredibly frustrating for both Pacers and Purdue basketball fans for Frank Vogel and Matt Painter to be such analogues (although, Vogel is a much better/more successful version of my beloved Matty).
Both Vogel (42 years old) and Painter (45 years old) are younger defensive coaches that identify with “smashmouth” basketball, who don’t exhibit too much offensive flexibility but represent their teams with a tremendous amount of class and dignity (read: they typically don’t call players out in the media, and handle business behind closed doors).
Both experienced lots of regular season success during their first few years as head coaches (Painter recruiting the Baby Boilers, four straight 25+ win seasons, two Big Ten titles vs Vogel’s development of Hibbert/Stephenson/George and three straight top 3 Eastern Conference seasons).
They both had moderate levels of postseason success (Painter’s two Sweet 16’s, Vogel’s more successful two Conference Finals appearances), but couldn’t quite break through to the next level.
Both had star players suffer devastating leg injures (Robbie Hummel, Paul George).
Both had periods of failure (Painter’s well-chronicled recruiting misses, Vogel’s locker room collapse in 2014 followed by George’s leg injury).
Both have rebounded with relatively successful seasons that ended on very sour notes (the Pacers’ winnable Raptors series this year, Purdue’s tourney losses against Cincinnati and Little Rock).
As I outlined after the end of this season, while nobody would put Painter in elite coaching circles, he is absolutely in that next tier of high-major coaches and has shown that he deserves the expectations placed on his shoulders. After Gene Keady’s dismal final years (and the dismal 2013 and 2014 seasons), Matt Painter has rebuilt Purdue basketball a level where we expect to compete for Big Ten titles and, at minimum, Sweet 16 appearances.
Take a look at most of the reaction to Vogel’s firing online…he’s pretty much a consensus top 10 NBA head coach. Frank Vogel, like Matt Painter, took a borderline farcical Pacers franchise after the 2005 Malice at the Palace and turned them into a perennial contender, falling short of the NBA Finals because LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh stood in the way. Even this year, when the Pacers roster talent was fantastically mediocre, Vogel coached them into close games against contenders, a playoff berth, and a near-upset of a fantastic Raptors team. They often fell frustratingly short of those wins, but their (lack of) roster talent suggests that they shouldn’t have been in those situations in the first place.
Vogel and Painter are both young, extremely talented coaches with clear strengths, and glaring weakness. In an era where basketball coaching turnover is at an all-time high, the value of continuity with young and promising head coaches cannot be valued enough.
But their biggest difference: Frank Vogel didn’t build these teams, while Matt Painter has.
The Pacers front office must take their share of the blame, and that’s where some of the calls to replace Painter (and, to a degree, the underlying philosophy of the Purdue athletic department) have been the strongest.
Larry Bird, the Pacers’ President of Basketball Operations and architect of the last decade’s worth of teams, functions as both the biggest asset and liability of the Pacers.
Bird and GM Kevin Prichard’s staff do a tremendous job identifying collegiate talent, drafting/trading for Danny Granger, Roy Hibbert, Lance Stephenson, Paul George, and Myles Turner with draft picks all outside the top 9. Bird sold David West on picking Indiana over the Kevin Garnett-era Boston Celtics, and has the clout to get a meeting with any non-superstar free agent on the market.
On the other hand, Larry Bird is hard-headed and stubborn, evidenced by his desire for Indy to play smallball despite every piece of data (and his own admissions) suggesting that they don’t have the right players for that scheme. He’s also prone to incompetence…like the 2011 Trade Deadline, when the Pacers desperately needed another backcourt scorer, but filed paperwork for an OJ Mayo/Josh McRoberts trade two minutes late, so it was voided. That’s a real thing that really happened.
Like I’ve written for Purdue, the thought process behind “should we move on from this head coach” is much more complex than we make it out to be. Vogel leaves the Pacers the most wins and second highest winning percentage (behind Bird) in their NBA history, and overachieved when his second best player on this year’s roster was…George Hill? Rookie Myles Turner? Teambuilding has been the core issue behind the Pacers failures, and Larry Bird’s changing philosophies clashed with Vogel’s desire to, I guess, win games and stuff.
Firing a coach at any level is a messy business, but firing a coach and changing the entire culture is a much more difficult endeavor. It’s what the Pacers are trying to do now, and it’s what would happen if the athletic department in West Lafayette decides to go in a different direction with the basketball program.
Matt Painter does not overachieve with rosters, that much is certain. But he tends to do a decent job with roster construction. We’ve chronicled his recruiting successes and failures on several occasions: The Baby Boilers, developing LewJack and Ryne Smith, the 2012/2013/2014 classes, Caleb Swanigan. Also, the 2010/2011 classes, Gary Harris, Chasson Randle, Branden Dawson. You get the idea.
I can absolutely understand the rationale behind replacing Frank Vogel, just like I understand some of the calls to replace Matt Painter. But the idea that they need to be replaced because “they’re not Greg Popovich/Coach K, or even Rick Carlisle/Tom Izzo” is a dangerous way to run a team.
Changing coaches while keeping previous structures of team-building and resources…if done correctly, it’s a genius move that takes a team from good to great (like the Golden State Warriors moving from Mark Jackson to Steve Kerr). If done incorrectly…well, you’re Purdue football changing from Danny Hope to Darrell Hazell. The coach might be better in a vacuum, but when it’s built on the same cracking foundation the results don’t change…or they get worse.
The biggest takeaway in all this is the same conclusion I came up with when I dove into the first 11 years of successful college basketball coaches:
Matt Painter and Frank Vogel are both very good coaches, but aren’t irreplaceable. The problems arise when you try to fill their shoes with possibly inferior coaches…like, let’s say, Mark Jackson to the Pacers or Cuonzo Martin to Purdue.
Larry Bird needs to absolutely nail this hiring, or the undeniable flaws in his process will bleed into his results. Remember, the last time Bird conducted a full-scale search to find a new head coach, he replaced Rick Carlisle with Jim O’Brien.
That’s the issue when continuity is disrupted to rebuild on a cracking foundation: no matter what you do, the structure comes tumbling down.