Why Jacque Vaughn could signal a move in the right direction for Nets

NEW YORK — Semantics matter, particularly in the titles of NBA positions. After the Brooklyn Nets and former head coach Steve Nash parted ways, the franchise named longtime assistant Jacque Vaughn as acting head coach, as opposed to the interim title Vaughn received when he filled Kenny Atkinson’s first chair during the disjointed 2019-20 season.

Vaughn was only told he’d be overseeing last Tuesday night’s clash against the Chicago Bulls. The Nets, as was widely reported, were moving forward with hiring suspended Boston Celtics head coach Ime Udoka, despite Boston’s play-caller being sidelined for an improper relationship with a subordinate. There were contract stipulations and other hurdles to clear, but Udoka’s ultimate succession appeared a foregone conclusion, according to multiple people with knowledge of the Nets’ coaching search.

Then Vaughn was asked to run Nets practice on Thursday. And then he was tasked with coaching a three-game road trip, collecting wins in Washington and Charlotte before a narrow defeat in Dallas, without a whisper of forward progress on Udoka’s potential hiring. So Vaughn kept coaching, kept serving, as the coach described, in whatever role the organization needed. By Wednesday, Brooklyn announced he would remain as the team’s head coach. Vaughn reportedly signed a new contract that extends through the 2023-24 season.

“I guess I was the write-in candidate, in the minds of the elections right now, but I’m OK with that,” Vaughn teased reporters. “I said to my wife, I might not have been her first choice, and we’ve been together 20 years.”

Brooklyn Nets interim head coach Jacque Vaughn signals to his team during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Charlotte Hornets, Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Rusty Jones)
Jacque Vaughn signals to his team during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Charlotte Hornets, Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Rusty Jones)

Exactly why it was Vaughn, and not Udoka, sitting before the assembled media prior to Wednesday night’s tip against the crosstown New York Knicks remains murky. Amid public outcry, and plenty of dismay from rival team personnel, there were credible rumblings around the league that commissioner Adam Silver’s office was providing some form of friction between Brooklyn and Udoka’s hiring. And while there are no formal grounds for the commissioner to disallow a team’s personnel decision, and there is no precedent for the NBA outright preventing team hires, there would have been nothing stopping the league from exacting more creative avenues, perhaps even ushering a subsequent suspension of Udoka if Brooklyn indeed named him head coach. Silver, after all, played a direct role in introducing Sixers ownership to Jerry Colangelo before the eventual conclusion of Sam Hinkie’s tenure in Philadelphia.

But this is now Vaughn’s moment. There were many figures throughout Brooklyn’s basketball operations who believed Vaughn was the right man for the job following a 7-3 stint in the 2020 Orlando bubble before general manager Sean Marks eventually hired Nash to pilot this star-driven roster.

Vaughn is beloved across the NBA, widely hailed as a brilliant communicator and as genuine as they come within a profession in which plenty of dogs have eaten other dogs. The fact Brooklyn completed a spirited 2-1 road trip under Vaughn’s guidance certainly helped matters in his favor. Marks went so far as deeming Vaughn the catalyst for his team’s success away from home.

“Over these last four games, it became evident we didn’t need to look elsewhere,” Marks said.

This will be Vaughn’s second tenure as a head coach following two-plus seasons at the helm of Orlando from 2012-15. He impressed Magic players then with his enthusiasm and fitness for the job, quite literally jumping in and out of drills as if he were still playing in the NBA himself. Vaughn’s 12 years as a point guard in the league adds to his credentials among players, and he’s still often found filling an active role in practice at 47 years old, still effectively functioning as a ball handler in certain walk-through scenarios, when that grunt work is often left for player development staffers and video coordinators.

Vaughn has been praised most often for his personability and is said to be a proven teacher on the hardwood. Various Brooklyn figures have mentioned his direct, digestible way of instilling his principles to players. Certain coaches can be harsh and aggressive, asserting their authority over the situation, taking a proactive approach to commanding respect from the roster. Vaughn purportedly understands the dynamic of how he can talk and when he can talk, whether that’s calling on a player directly in front of a group or pulling someone to the side. That dexterity was on full display during the bubble.

“You could see the way the guys gravitated towards Jacque and his coaching and teaching and charismatic attitude,” one Nets staffer told Yahoo Sports.

Vaughn was particularly effective in maximizing Caris LeVert, one of the young Nets gems mined during this Brooklyn regime’s original feel-good rebuild. LeVert’s individual rise was predicated as much on his health as it was skill development, and Vaughn managed to talk LeVert off the ledge whenever the combo guard sought extra work on the floor, with Brooklyn’s medical staff cautioning for rest amid his ongoing foot injuries.

One freeze frame still lingers in the minds of Brooklyn personnel. LeVert suffered a gruesome leg injury at Minnesota in November 2018, soaring high to block a transition layup attempt, but then crumbling to the floor in a pile. Yet before the stretcher was called to whisk LeVert to proper care, there was Vaughn, the first coach out on the court, kneeling beside his pupil with a roll of papers tucked into one hand and his other palm resting on LeVert’s shoulder as he cried in agony.

When healthy, LeVert of course bloomed into a blue-chip prospect worthy of Brooklyn’s package to later acquire James Harden. He starred under Vaughn in the Orlando bubble. Over six games that July and August, LeVert scored 25 points with 6.7 assists over 33.1 minutes.

Those shorthanded Nets, without both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, surged into the postseason under their interim leader. Vaughn utilized hyperactive zone defenses to combat a far larger Milwaukee team. And a Brooklyn unit that started Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Rodions Kurucs, Tyler Johnson, Garrett Temple plus Lance Thomas emerged with a three-point victory over Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks, then considered the Eastern Conference favorite. In Brooklyn’s final game before that postseason, albeit a one-point loss to Portland, Vaughn had his scrappy Nets bunch trap Damian Lillard all the way in the backcourt to try to force the ball out of his scalding-hot hands.

Rival scouts are expecting to see more zones from Brooklyn this season. This summer, Vaughn and other Nets coaches were contemplating various zone schemes to help boost Brooklyn’s defensive efforts when two smaller players — like Irving, or Patty Mills and Seth Curry — share the floor, sources said. Vaughn will have carte blanche to be creative with his schemes. When Durant sought the task of guarding Luka Doncic in Dallas on Monday night, Vaughn leaned into his superstar’s competitiveness and scrapped his original assignments.

Brooklyn found a natural gravitation around Durant these past few games. How Ben Simmons returns into the fold will play a significant ingredient in the Nets’ success under Vaughn. The status of Irving, still serving a suspension for his posting of an antisemitic video on social media and his subsequent refusal to accept accountability for aiding the spread of harmful misinformation, still looms as the largest pall hanging over this season. Marks and Vaughn both told reporters they’ve had no contact with Irving since he was barred for at least five games.

The Nets, though, have chosen a new straw to stir this drink. And throughout the muck that has surrounded this franchise, it seems Vaughn’s hiring has been met around the NBA as a win for one of the good guys.

“You just do what you’re supposed to do, man, every day and hopefully you get rewarded for it,” Vaughn said. “And if you don’t, you can look yourself in the mirror every night. And if you do get rewarded, off you go.”