The Nets team that stormed into December is a totally different one than the despondent, dysfunctional one that limped into November.
The personnel didn’t change, but their passion and sense of purpose did.
And for that, many players credit the man guiding it, Jacque Vaughn, with having successfully lifted the attitude and atmosphere around Brooklyn in his first month in charge.
“He just holds everybody accountable, honestly,” veteran Joe Harris told The Post. “He challenges everybody in here to be the best version of themselves with whatever’s going to help the team out.”
Vaughn stepped in as the interim head coach on Nov. 1, inheriting a 2-5 mess. Since then he’s engendered players’ trust and commitment, earned the permanent job and changed the vibe inside the HSS Training Center halls and Barclays Center walls.
Oh, and gone 11-6 in his first month (and a day) on the job.
“They’re in the process of establishing that identity,” Wizards head coach Wes Unseld Jr. said of Vaughn, his former boss. “You’re seeing that on the defensive end. I don’t know how much is different, but a little bit more buy-in, a little bit more commitment. You can tell there’s more intent.
“They’ve done a terrific job; top 10 since Nov. 1 on both sides of the ball. Got to give Jacque and his staff a lot of credit. It shifted. They’re a different team.”
When Vaughn replaced departed coach Steve Nash — whom Kevin Durant had tried to get fired over the summer — Brooklyn was 29th out of 30 NBA teams in defensive rating (119.1) and 28th in net rating (minus-6.5).
Since? Tenth in offense (113.1), fourth in defense (108.5) and fifth in net rating (plus-4.6) after Friday’s tilt vs. Toronto. Oh, and tied for second in wins.
“The spirit and the togetherness seems to be on the uptick,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. He’s already gotten three up-close looks at Brooklyn, with the Nets winning on Oct. 21 and the night before Thanksgiving before losing to them yet again on Friday.
“The defense, obviously, some of the numbers have shown that it’s been very good. I heard the Nets are top 5 or something since he took over. That would be big. Anytime you’re top 5 in defense for any stretch of games it’s a plus.”
How has Vaughn enacted such change? Let’s dig into it.
Keep it simple
Apparently clarity isn’t only vital in diamonds; it’s pretty useful in coaches, too.
Whether Nash’s message was insufficient, indecipherableor just plain ignored, it didn’t get through. Vaughn has gotten the players to not only understand his instructions, but enact them according to Harris, one of just two Nets remaining from the squad that Vaughn coached during the 2020 Orlando bubble.
“He does a really good job of just simplifying stuff,” Harris said. “When we go through our pregame prep, I feel like everybody [is clear]. He just has an open dialogue with everybody. He wants to hear guys’ opinions on different stuff.
“Collectively, you just feel really well-prepared. That’s JV in a nutshell. That’s how I felt playing for him when he took over for Kenny [Atkinson] and in the bubble. I feel like we were always really well-prepared going into every single game.”
Sometimes basic can be better, if you do it well enough.
For example, Vaughn’s morning shootaround this past Wednesday was short and simple, with just three clips from the prior win (including how to clean up sloppy turnovers against the blitz) and three more in preparation for that night’s tilt vs. Washington (who’d hurt them on the offensive glass).
Brooklyn was in the right spots in Wednesday’s victory, their nine turnovers just two off their season-best.
“I try to keep things simple, [and] really be specific on how we can get better,” said Vaughn, who added he tries to be just as transparent about expectations and roles and minutes. “That communication happens. [The starter] gets his mind ready and he knows he’s going to play.
“’Patty [Mills], you may play. Markieff [Morris], you may play.’ So, overall, just being more matter-of-fact with this group and not giving them excuses. Not like ‘OK, somebody’s out, somebody’s in, we’re searching for excuses.’ No excuses. Put on your jersey, come to play. I’m going to coach my tail off as much as I can, give you as much energy as I can. Give to the group. Don’t be a taker: Be a giver.”
Over the years, a long laundry list of coaches have given Vaughn pearls of wisdom. He spent the most time playing for and coaching under NBA all-time wins leader Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, but he also suited up for Hall of Famers Roy Williams at Kansas and Jerry Sloan with the Utah Jazz.
Vaughn even played in Orlando for Doc Rivers in 2002-03, sandwiched in between the latter’s NBA Coach of the Year Award season and his NBA title run with the Celtics. And even though Vaughn insists he had no clue he’d end up coaching, it was obvious to Rivers from a mile away. Or more like a decade away.
“Jacque is one of those guys that you knew,” said Rivers, who still texts with Vaughn. “There’s certain guys, honestly, if you asked coaches, there’s a layup: He’s gonna be a coach. Jacque was definitely at the top of that.
“I jokingly told him years ago, ‘the worse you shoot — and I was an awful shooter, too — the better coach you become. Jacque, you’re going to be one hell of a coach.’ ”
Vaughn’s first head coaching stint in Orlando — 58-158 — was closer to hellish. But his Nets encore has gone more swimmingly. And the same traits that Rivers saw in him then are the ones he’s honed over the years to have a 17-9 mark in Brooklyn.
“His IQ,” Rivers said of Vaughn, a two-time Academic All-American. “And he just loved the game. I mean, he studied the game. He’s got the competitive genes…So you just knew that he’d be a coach.”
Popovich clearly agreed. After Vaughn spent his final three seasons playing for the Spurs, he went right to the bench and spent his next three coaching under the five-time champ.
Still just 37 at the time, Vaughn then struck out on his own, taking the Orlando job. On a team with no direction and little talent, though, he struggled through 2 ½ tough seasons.
“It’s part of my journey,” Vaughn said. “I was a pretty young head coach, 37. I’m closer to 50 [now] than I am to 37, so I’ve learned a lot through the course of the years.
“I’m a coachable individual, hopefully, and even with you [media] guys, the growth — I’m different at these things than I was 10 years, 15 years ago, so it’s good to see somebody grow as individuals. You can’t get too old for that.”
You can teach an old dog new tricks
Vaughn’s age isn’t just visible in a beard flecked with gray. It showed up as a wiser coach during his 7-3 interim stint in 2020. And a more experienced one that ended Friday 9-4 since having the interim tag removed on Nov. 9.
“In today’s NBA, [it’s important to have] the ability to communicate with guys on as small as things as what time do we want to leave, to big things as pick-and-roll coverage and lineups on the floor,” said Vaughn. “It’s OK to have that kind of communication.
“I might’ve resisted that as a young coach, where I thought I had to prove to everyone that I knew every answer all the time and wasn’t vulnerable to ask someone a question and get an answer from a player. That’s changed.”
His ability to build those relationships and get that effort has been huge.
To a man, the Nets seemed to genuinely like Nash. But he couldn’t seem to hold them accountable, and failed to get a clear message across to them.
“He does a terrific job communicating with players, holding guys accountable,” said Unseld Jr., who spent 2½ years as Vaughn’s assistant in Orlando and praised the Brooklyn coach’s poise. “He’s a remarkable teacher and great basketball mind. And he’s got a level of toughness that exudes a little on his teams.”
That toughness has come through in the way Vaughn has been able to hold the entire team accountable, from the two-way players all the way up to stars like Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant.
“Yeah, if you’ve been issued a team jersey, you show up and you play,” Vaughn said. “That’s how we are. There’s no excuses. I’m not about the ‘next man up’ thing, because they’re all men on the team. Overall, you try to win that day’s game; that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re not looking for any excuses. We don’t want any. We don’t want any handouts.”
Vaughn didn’t get any in his playing or coaching career. And he’s instilling that in the Nets.
No, make that his Nets.
- How Jacque Vaughn is bringing a sense of harmony to the Nets
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