INDIANAPOLIS - Perhaps Frank Vogel's early success with the Indiana Pacers should be used as a case study.
Vogel replaced the older, gruffer Jim O'Brien at midseason last year. He took a team that was 17-27 and struggling with confidence, infused it with positive energy and a new approach, and led it to a 20-18 finish and a playoff berth.
Team president Larry Bird gave Vogel the full-time gig in the summer, provided him more tools and the Pacers took off. Indiana finished the regular season with a 42-24 record and the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Pacers took a 3-1 series lead over the Orlando Magic with a 101-99 overtime win Saturday.
Vogel, a 38-year-old from Wildwood Crest, N.J., finished third in the NBA's Coach of the Year voting last week. He has quickly found that delicate balance between being liked and being respected by his players. They sing his praises as emphatically as they voiced contempt for O'Brien.
"He came in after O.B. (O'Brien) and kind of changed the mentality, kind of gave everybody their confidence back and we started building from there," said Pacers forward Tyler Hansbrough, a frequent target of O'Brien's criticism. "So, not just this year, I think last year, he kind of set a tone for everybody in what we need to do and how we're going to do it, and every step along the way, he got better and better."
Vogel often has deflected credit, saying Bird and a coaching staff that includes holdover Dan Burke and new coaches Brian Shaw and Jim Boylen have put him in position to succeed.
Bird, in turn, has praised Vogel's performance.
"He's handled himself like a true professional," Bird said in March. "He's been around coaches that have had experience and had success in this league and he's learned a lot. I think he's done an exceptional job with these players. I think they trust him and they believe in him and that's why they're winning some games."
Bird certainly deserves his due. Even with young talent and salary-cap room, tools that draw big names, he stuck with Vogel. He added guard George Hill and forwards David West and Lou Amundson before the season started and guard Leandro Barbosa at the trade deadline, upgrading the talent and experience levels without breaking the bank.
In the early going, Indiana won games with defense while its offense struggled. Down the stretch this season, Indiana was one of the league's highest-scoring teams while maintaining its defensive intensity. Vogel was named Eastern Conference Coach of the Month after closing the regular season with a 12-3 record.
"He kind of was just thrown into the shark-infested waters last year," said forward Danny Granger, the team's scoring leader. "He didn't have any of that coaching experience when we got rid of O.B. This year, I think he has a lot more confidence in what he's doing. He has a different aura about himself, the way he carries himself."
Not that confidence was ever an issue for Vogel, a Rick Pitino protege and 1991 Wildwood High School graduate. Within weeks of becoming interim coach, he claimed the top teams wouldn't want to play the Pacers when - not if - they made the playoffs last year. Indiana indeed made the playoffs and gave Chicago all it could handle in the first round. This season, he often has said before games that Indiana is the better team and should win.
That swagger helps give him credibility.
"He tells you what he expects. He's point-blank with it. He trusts us as players," Hansbrough said. "I remember one game, I was missing shots and he said, 'Keep playing the way you are. Keep being aggressive and things will come.' "
The Pacers had talent last year, but the players wouldn't give O'Brien their best. They rarely have been criticized for a lack of effort during Vogel's run.
"He has a great relationship with the players," Granger said. "When you can get your players to play for you, bleed and sweat for you as a coach, you're a great coach, and that speaks to your character as a man. He believes in us, and in turn we believe in him. His optimism about what he believes we can do is infectious. We encourage each other, and it all starts with him."
Center Roy Hibbert went from barely playing at times under O'Brien to becoming an All-Star this year.
"He should be Coach of the Year," Hibbert said of Vogel before it was announced that San Antonio's Gregg Popovich was the winner. "He encourages, he gets us going, he instills a lot of confidence in all of us and he respects us, too."
Vogel is intricately involved in building good team chemistry, something that had been a problem for the Pacers in previous years.
"One thing that's overlooked in the league is camaraderie, how guys are able to get along, and I think Frank, he's able to fuel that in our locker room in terms of keeping things light," West said. "If there's an issue, he addresses it but keeps everybody positive. If there's a guy that might not be playing, he keeps him involved."
Vogel's belief in his players has created a rare bond.
"I don't think you'll find anyone in this locker room that doesn't buy into what coach Vogel says, and that's hard to say on any NBA team," Hansbrough said.