Smash-Mouth Basketball With Coach Frank Vogel
A proud and once powerful Pacers franchise had been languishing as a lottery team over four straight seasons until President of Basketball Operations Larry Bird took a chance on a young assistant coach in the middle of last season. Interim head coach Frank Vogel inspired his players with a new style and a new system to play above .500 ball over the final 38 games and steal the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. The interim tag was appropriately dropped early in July.
“We made a number of changes but we just tried to structure our offense in a way that took advantage of our personal’s strengths,” said Vogel. “We wanted Roy Hibbert, who is a good passer out of the high post, to become a dominant low post threat and I think he has done that. We wanted the ball in Darren Collision’s hands to run the team in the early offense, on the break, and with a lot of pick-and-rolls. We reshaped our spacing so that our power forwards were not lifted behind the three-point line and Tyler Hansbrough could be more successful when he was in the game. We simplified dramatically and put more of an emphasis on spacing than the constant movement we had in the past and those things let us be more stable in our roles and better readers of defense when you know where the other four guys on the floor are going to be at all times.”
“Before it felt like everybody was playing into a system,” said Tyler Hansbrough. “Now everybody is going out there and playing to their strengths.”
The Pacers field a big line-up and upgraded their big men from last year by replacing Josh McRoberts and Solomon Jones with David West and Lou Amundson. Vogel has used this size as an opportunity to play a much more physical style of game than his predecessor.
“All of our guys embrace our style, our identity of playing smash-mouth basketball,” said Vogel. “We want teams to feel like they were in a heavy-weight fight after they have played against us. We want to play with physicality inside and be the stronger team.
“We want to crash the glass more than we did. We want to play a power post game and get teams in the penalty early and live at the free throw line. That’s part of what the identity of this basketball team is.
So far this year, smash-mouth basketball is getting Indiana to the foul line 26.5 times per game where they are out scoring their opponents by a comfortable 4.1 point margin. The result has been a fast 8-3 start to the season and a team that is exceeding expectations early on.
Vogel’s success as a head coach is only partially a result of implementing a style of play that was more suited to his personal. Vogel started his NBA career as the head video coordinator for the Boston Celtics in 1997 before becoming an assistant under Jim O’Brien. Vogel was also an assistant with O’Brien in Philadelphia and Indiana in addition to scouting for the Lakers and Wizards. Over 15 NBA seasons, Vogel has developed his own unique approach to the game.
“It’s my personality to believe in people more than not believe in people and see what they can do rather than what they can’t do,” explained Vogel. “So when guys were here last year, even though we were struggling a little bit, I could see what Larry saw in them when we drafted them or why we brought them here. It is just my personality to see the good in people and to believe in them.
“Everybody has to be shown that they are believed in. I am a head coach in the NBA because Coach O’Brien believed in me as a video coordinator many years ago and that I could be a good coach someday. When I was an assistant coach, he believed in me enough to move me up to lead assistant. Having someone believe in you is a very powerful weapon for anybody’s development in any field.”
It was Vogel’s belief in his players that inspired his team to accept the changes he implemented and rally a lost season into a playoff run.
“A lot of young guys got an opportunity to grow as a player instead of just being practice players,” said Hansbrough. “Paul and I in particular got a chance to be out there and do some things. Coach Vogel was the one working us out before he took over as head coach so he knew what we were capable of doing. He had confidence in us.
“We all rallied around together and felt like we had something to prove last year and it has carried over.”
“He believes in us but he also gets it done from a functional standpoint,” explained Roy Hibbert. “He started off as a film guy so he knows all the ins and outs.
“You have to be able to let us go out there and play, and if young guys fail, he builds us back up as opposed to getting on us and sitting us on the bench. He is the type of coach that when things are not working out, he lets you figure it out but also figures out how you can win.”
The support for Coach Vogel is strong and his principles permeate the locker room. Players understand what their coach is trying to do and are willing to sacrifice their own stats for the benefit of the team.
“They are all sacrificing,” said Vogel. “Roy Hibbert on a bad team could be averaging 25 and 13 probably if he was playing 36 minutes but he understands that we are at our best when we are able to spread the wealth. Danny Granger has proven he can score 25 points on a bad team. David West was averaging 19 and nine before he got hurt last year and he has played unselfishly and made sacrifices. Paul George, if there wasn’t as much talent around him could probably be carrying that same kind of load himself and Darren Collision before he came here as a rookie averaged 19 points and nine assists when the ball was in his hands playing 40 minutes a game as a point guard. You can go down the line. Tyler Hansbrough could be a starter, he is sacrificing. George Hill should be a starter, either at the one or the two.
“The greatest thing that we have going right now is that a number of the players on our team are making sacrifices for the good of the whole and it is leading to wins.”
Smash-mouth basketball was the right style of play to implement on a Pacers team that had the size and grit to make it work, and Vogel had the benefit of learning his players strengths and weakness as an assistant in Indiana before getting the head coaching job, but no one other than the coach could have believed that team was going to be in last year’s playoffs. However, it was his belief in the Pacers young talent that created the environment for the team’s success to develop so quickly. Vogel is proving that belief in someone else’s abilities can be a powerful tool and it’s a tool he has used very effectively in turning around the fortunes of the once floundering Pacers.