NEW YORK – Jacque Vaughn was viewed as such a temporary solution in Brooklyn that his successor was already assumed before he coached one game.
That was two months ago. The Nets had parted ways with Steve Nash and were expected to hire suspended Boston coach Ime Udoka. Vaughn would run the show until Udoka arrived, then slide back down the bench.
Turns out, Vaughn hasn't gone anywhere — except nearly to the top of the NBA.
He has led the Nets to 12 straight victories, the longest winning streak this season, and within a game of the Celtics for the best record in the NBA. Vaughn not only got the Nets playing good basketball, he also provided calmness to a franchise that had endured 10 months of turbulence.
“Obviously, it’s worked out,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said before the Nets routed San Antonio 139-103 on Monday night — the second straight game in which the Nets never trailed and the second time in six games Brooklyn rang up 100 points through three quarters. (The first was 91 in the third-biggest first half in NBA history against Golden State on Dec. 21.)
The Nets always figured to score with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving heading the roster. But Vaughn demanded they become better rebounders and has turned them into better defenders, making the Nets look capable of keeping this hot streak going.
“You can tell there’s a special energy in the locker room, so we just want to take care of that,” Irving said.
Vaughn showed the Nets what he could do in 2020, when he coached them during the NBA's pandemic restart at Walt Disney World. Missing a number of their top players who either couldn't or chose not to play, Vaughn guided an undermanned Brooklyn team to a 7-3 finish and a playoff berth.
Yet general manager Sean Marks hired Nash, his former teammate, despite Nash's lack of coaching experience. Marks cited the Hall of Fame point guard's ability to build relationships within a team and expected that would help the Nets craft a culture.
Nash couldn't, but Vaughn appears to be doing so. He ended his career playing for Popovich in San Antonio, and remembers how time together during team dinners and bus rides helped the Spurs players and coaches build what was long the NBA's model organization.
“And so it you can create that in the locker room, that’s what this thing is about,” said Vaughn, who was chosen as the Eastern Conference coach of the month for December.
As he was finishing his career in the 2008-09 season, Vaughn found motivation lacking. He had young children and noticed it was tougher to work out. He had prided himself on always being in the best shape on the team. He discussed his options with Popovich, who offered Vaughn the chance to hang around the Spurs and watch the coaches work.
Vaughn no doubt learned plenty about Xs and Os from the five-time champion. But it's his demeanor, the way he speaks confidently yet optimistically that has made Vaughn the right guy at the right time.
“The thing about Jacque is that he doesn’t want the camera. He’s not going to seek attention. He’s a quiet dude but he’s very contemplative,” Popovich said. “He thinks things through and he’ll have a sort a peace about him and he engenders respect. He doesn’t do anything unnecessarily. He’ll have standards, he’ll hold them accountable and he knows what he’s doing.”
And his players are performing. Irving, who was suspended when Vaughn took over on Nov. 9, has been focused and playing at an All-Star level again. Center Nic Claxton is leading the league in field goal percentage. Reserve Yuta Watanabe has been the league's best 3-point shooter.
The Nets are 19-3 since mid-November, the best record in the league, with recent victories over Eastern Conference contenders Milwaukee and Cleveland. Boston, the only team to beat the Nets in 13 games in December, returns to Brooklyn for a showdown next week.
Vaughn might be building a team that can take down the Celtics.
Better yet, he might be building one that can live up to his old Spurs.
“Hopefully you’re trying to foster that with this group,” he said, “and hopefully that leads to us having a parade one day.”
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