David Fizdale, long been rumored to replace Frank Vogel as the next Los Angeles Lakers head coach, gets his chance to audition for Vogel’s job tonight. Vogel, out due to the NBA’s health and safety protocols, is on the hot seat because the Lakers have underachieved so far.
Fizdale is taking over the Lakers in a tough situation. The Lakers are expected to only have nine available players tonight, including shooting guard Chaundee Brown and center Jay Huff, two-way players from their G League affiliate, the South Bay Lakers.
The Lakers are not the only team that are missing several players due to COVID. Chicago will miss at least five players due to the protocols, including All-Star guard Zach LaVine. Forward Derrick Jones Jr. might be the sixth player out as he is questionable to return tonight.
Fizdale’s message to the Lakers is simple tonight: next man up. But what he implies to his team will be even more important.
“If you play hard for me, I will be the next Lakers head coach.”
This goes without saying. If the Lakers play harder and smarter for Fizdale, it’s a wrap for Frank Vogel as the team’s head coach.
Forget the results. The Lakers are expected to lose tonight. They are playing a Chicago Bulls team on the road that is second place in the Eastern Conference.
Focus on the process. Look at how the team plays over these next few games.
If LeBron James plays harder, Lakers GM Rob Pelinka might be convinced to make Fizdale the new head coach this offseason. If Russell Westbrook (averaging the third-most turnovers per game this season!) plays smarter, Pelinka will make this move by the All-Star break.
LeBron’s effort is something that no coach can control. But what can Fizdale do to compel Westbrook to better manage the game as the team’s point guard?
Here are three adjustments Fizdale can make tonight.
Adjustment #1: Adapt the Los Angeles Lakers offense to suit Russell Westbrook’s strengths
Frank Vogel’s biggest mistake is assuming that Westbrook runs the offense like LeBron James, Rajon Rondo, or even Phoenix Suns guard Chris Paul. James and Rondo can both effectively freelance in the half-court; Chris Paul can orchestrate Phoenix’s offense without a play call.
Westbrook’s game is much different. He turns the ball over too much when he is presented with creative freedom. He is better in a structured half-court offense. Fizdale must get him into a good rhythm by calling set plays with as few options as possible.
I would start by running quick hitters to get LeBron James the ball in the post. Let LeBron get all the Bulls players into foul trouble. Once Westbrook is settled in, and when LeBron needs a blow, he can then run the pick-and-roll with DeAndre Jordan or the pick-and-pop with Jay Huff.
Fizdale has to know his point guard – and adjust accordingly.
Adjustment #2: Have Westbrook run set plays for Carmelo Anthony and Isaiah Thomas when they are in the game
Carmelo Anthony does not like playing with Russell Westbrook! Anthony does not trust that Westbrook will consistently give him the ball.
This is why Anthony quickly jacks up the first shot available as soon Westbrook passes him the ball. Westbrook looks visibly pained whenever he has to pass the ball to Anthony in the post.
This dynamic kills the Lakers’ offense! The same dynamic killed Oklahoma City’s offense many years ago when the two first played together!
Westbrook and Anthony need to get along on the court! A new coach’s voice might be able to thaw out their icy relationship on the court.
But even if they cannot ever mesh on the court, Fizdale can call plays that force Westbrook to get Anthony the ball in the post. Let Anthony get into a rhythm by attacking the basket and getting to the free-throw line as soon as he enters the game.
This offensive set run by Rajon Rondo is ideally how Carmelo Anthony needs to be used as soon as he enters the game.
The play above presented two options: 1) pass the ball to Anthony in the post; 2) pass the ball to Thomas off the staggered screen. Westbrook will struggle if he is presented any more options on any given play.
Westbrook and Thomas also have potential as an offensive-minded backcourt. Fizdale can run some dribble-drive actions to where each player can attack the basket with their strong hand.
Adjustment #3: Pair Westbrook with Jay Huff and Chaundee Brown
Westbrook’s gift as a point guard is to turn fringe NBA players into legitimate rotation guys (e.g. Daniel Gafford). Westbrook has an opportunity to uplift two players who would not otherwise play meaningful minutes.
Like Gafford, last season, Jay Huff and Chaundee Brown (both under two-way contracts with the G League’s South Bay Lakers) present a skillset that Westbrook can enhance.
Huff is an ideal pick-and-pop target for Westbrook, as he is a proven knockdown shooter dating back to his time in college.
Brown is relentless sprinting ahead in transition – finishing adeptly with both hands. He also has enough of a three-point shot to keep defenses honest.
The Lakers can use Huff’s and Brown’s young legs to speed up the game’s tempo in order to suit Westbrook. They only have nine guys available so they have to run selectively.
Westbrook thrives when he is the clear underdog. Fizdale would be smart to let him play with the two young players and see what they can do when LeBron and Anthony need a rest.
Conclusion: David Fizdale is coaching for the job he wants!
Even in the NBA, players often take on the identity of their head coach. The Lakers took on Frank Vogel’s identity when they won the championship in 2020.
David Fizdale brings a much different voice to the team. Vogel’s identity is based on a physical brand of basketball suited for the 1990s. Fizdale’s identity come mainly from his time coaching LeBron James on the Miami Heat, which was predicated on pace and space.
Adopting that Miami Heat mentality will either make or break the Lakers season. If the Lakers respond well enough, Fizdale will get one the most coveted coaching jobs in the NBA today.
And it all starts tonight.