When Frank Vogel began interviewing for open head coaching positions this spring, he found an unusual job market. Typically teams looking for a new coach are coming off poor seasons or are in, or about to be in, the early stage of a rebuild. This cycle, instead, was headlined by contenders who expected to win right away. That includes the Suns, who this week hired Vogel to a multiyear deal to take over a championship contender.
Sports Illustrated sat down with Vogel to discuss the Suns, Chris Paul and an NBA that has seen several championship coaches, including Vogel, fired not long after winning their title.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Sports Illustrated: So, how strange was it to enter a job market with so many contenders?
Frank Vogel: Yeah, it definitely was a unique situation. For any coach that was involved with these teams that legitimately are championship contenders right now, in particular, Phoenix, Milwaukee and Philly. It’s unique from that perspective. But the thing about my background is I have experience taking over a very young team in Indiana and having success with them, taking them on some deep playoff runs. And also experience with a win-now situation, when I took over with the Lakers. With the situation where LeBron and AD were united, and we really felt like that was a championship robust type of season. So we had success there.
I feel like I’ve done both of those and I really am compelled by both types of situations. The long-term rebuild or, I should say, the ability to work with a young core and teach the game to those guys. And to really build them up into a powerhouse the way we did Indiana. That’s almost equally compelling to me as taking over a team that has a chance to win it all.
And I was asked about expectations and for me, I’m going to set my own internal expectations super high. So if that’s how it is externally, then so be it. I’ll rock with that. So I love this situation because we do have that ability. It is where I most recently just came from and I’m just thrilled to get started.
SI: You won a title with the Lakers. A couple of years later, you were fired. Nick Nurse won a title in 2019; he lost his job in Toronto. Mike Budenholzer won in ’21; he got fired in Milwaukee. What do you make of the current coaching climate?
FV: I don’t know what can be done about it, but I really hope that something is done about it. Because it’s difficult on the coaching profession, you know what I mean? And it’s a challenge for all of us. Look, we all know going in, nobody’s feeling sorry for us and we all know going in that there’s going to be high expectations. And if a team falls short of those expectations, the coach is in the front of the line, in the firing line. And it’s an unfortunate part of the business. We all do go into it knowing that’s a part of it.
But I just hope that the models that we’re seeing right now in the NBA Finals with the way the Denver Nuggets operate and the Miami Heat operate, the continuity of having a program and a culture. I just think there’s extraordinary value in that. And the roster will change from year to year, but if you’ve got a system and a leadership group that has had success, I think there’s extra extraordinary value in keeping that leadership group together as the roster changes from year to year.
SI: With Phoenix, what was the interview process like?
FV: I think some of the early messaging I got from [Suns owner] Mat [Ishbia] and from [team president] James [Jones] is that they valued my experience. Like I spoke about earlier, both having coached a young and developing team up into a championship contender and then also taking over a team that had an opportunity to win it right away was compelling to them. And I know that the program-building, the nature of a coaching job, every job is different. But they were looking for someone to come in and build a program with them. And I was very drawn to that, because that’s what I hope for when I take over a coaching job is that there’s going to be an opportunity for a long-term partnership. And that was communicated to me.
But they’re also very interested in the spirit of collaboration. They really wanted someone that was going to be a good teammate and a really good partner to them. And I’ve always prided myself in that aspect of the coaching profession. And that’s not always easy to do with the highs and lows, and dealing with the players that come and go. But to me that’s the basketball integrity that I’ve always taken a great deal of pride in, so I felt like I was a great fit. But those were some of the things that they communicated early on that they were looking for.
SI: I go back and forth on how good this coaching job is. On one hand, you have Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, one of the best duos in the NBA. On the other, Durant is 34, and there are some questions there, which we’ll get to in a minute. How do you see it?
FV: Obviously, there’s an immediate window with the guys you just mentioned. But this is a bigger thing for us. I think we’re going to have an opportunity to compete for championships for years to come. Obviously, we’re going to go all in on trying to get the job done this year. I actually love the fit of the current roster with Devin and Kevin being just the elite scorers on the wing, but the bookends of Deandre [Ayton] and Chris Paul, a Hall of Fame point guard, and a really, really talented center that could be an All-Star-level center for us, I think those pieces really fit.
So I think there’s an obvious window of what this team as currently constructed can do this year. But with Mat Ishbia as our owner, he’s expressed an interest of let's go after it with everything we have with this group, for now. But there’s going to be times where we move on to the next phase at some point, and the intent to put this franchise in a position to win a championship is going to be just as high then as it is now. So I think this is just going to be, honestly, the best era of Phoenix basketball, Phoenix Suns basketball, that this community has seen, not just in this short-term window of the group of guys that we have.
SI: You mentioned Chris Paul. There was some reporting this week that he may not be in the franchise’s plans moving forward. What can you tell me about that?
FV: There was a misunderstanding yesterday. We did not waive Chris. But there are ongoing conversations about all of the options to improve the roster, which include trades, a waiving of certain players and retaining the guys that we have back. Those are just ongoing conversations. And I personally have communicated with Chris and feel strongly about the opportunity to work with him. He’s someone I’ve just had an immense respect for over the years. Not only just his game, his toughness, IQ. He’s just one of the great winners our game has ever seen. And I feel like there’s a bigger picture to him having an opportunity with this group to take another last run to get that championship for him. And he’s done so much for this team the last few years, so I’m really hopeful to have an opportunity to work with him this next year. And I think he can really help us get over the top.
SI: You have a history of working well with big men. Roy Hibbert and David West in Indiana. Anthony Davis and Dwight Howard in Los Angeles. There’s been some toxicity between Deandre Ayton and the Suns over the last couple of years. How do you see him fitting in with this team?
FV: I have history with having great success with the elite rim protectors and with bigs in general. And I feel like I can take a lot of those lessons and use them to help restore Deandre to a place of prominence in this organization and in this league. He obviously has an immense amount of talent, and the talent fits the way I have played throughout my career. So I think he can be in an elite, dominant, defensive center in my system. And I think there’s an extraordinary amount of growth possible for what he does and brings to the table on the offensive side of the ball. So he’s got to own his part of whatever friction might have been here prior to this season, but I feel really, really strongly that I can position him to have a hell of a bounce-back year for us.
SI: Is it fair to say that with the way you coach defense, you need a guy like Ayton?
FV: Yeah, well, it definitely helps. It definitely improves our odds of being an elite defense. But the one thing about that is that the league has changed so much with the modern NBA and playing five shooters at once that there are times where they can put a lineup out there that plays your center off the floor. So I don't want to get pigeonholed into saying it’s a complete necessity. Because you have to be able to play with smaller lineups or you have to be able to position those elite shot blockers in a way that they can guard a three-point line and not get played off the floor.
I really believe the defensive system that we used in L.A. was very different than the one that we used in Indiana. And it was an evolution to match up with the way the modern NBA plays offensive basketball. And I think there are situations where we can keep him on the floor and minimize any potential damage of a team trying to small-ball us. I just think there are ways you can do it and there are protections that we have built into our defensive scheme that I did not have, quite frankly, when I was in Indiana. So I feel strongly about what Deandre can do for us. But we’re intent that you can get the job done even with a smaller lineup if needed.
SI: You coached an all-time great in LeBron James in L.A. You get another in Kevin Durant in Phoenix. What’s your approach going to be coaching him?
FV: I would say that it’s going to be similar, honestly. And just the way you should handle a star player doesn’t really change a whole bunch with regard to who that star player is. It’s a partnership. They’re going to require ownership in a lot of the decisions that we’re making. I feel like I learned a lot of lessons, not just in working with LeBron, but also being around Rob Pelinka and Kurt Rambis and their involvement with Kobe [Bryant] and Shaq [O’Neal] over those years. And, honestly, even beyond that with some of the other stars that the Lakers have had in their program.
So that was an extremely valuable lesson for me, in working with LeBron, but also being around those guys with the Lakers that have seen so many greats. And I think I can apply those lessons to really make KD feel great about what we’re doing and his role and his place in everything that we’re about to do.