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The case for Jacque Vaughn as Nets head coach

Reed Wallach offers his thoughts on who should be the Nets new head coach ... the guy who’s going to lead them into the bubble.

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NBA: Chicago Bulls at Brooklyn Nets Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

The reports flew out from a podcast appearance from Shams Charnaia mid-week that Jacque Vaughn is going to have a “legitimate” opportunity for the Nets job come this offseason.

Vaughn was hired to be Kenny Atkinson’s lead assistant back in 2016 and has been with Brooklyn along their road from the worst team in the NBA to a title contender. With his ties to the Spurs —and head coach experience with the Magic, Vaughn was pegged by Marks to help Atkinson transition into his first-time head coach role. Marks and Vaughn left San Antonio for Brooklyn more or less together.

Reading between the lines of some comments made in recent weeks, whether it is spun for the narrative or not, Atkinson may have not been as buddy-buddy with some players as it seemed. A coach whose strength is in developing young players, Atkinson may not have meshed well on a personal level with some of the bigger names on his roster.

D’Angelo Russell didn’t mince words about the former Nets coach when asked, saying “I’m not going to give it to Kenny,” he said. “I still don’t think he knew what he had, honestly. I don’t think he knew what I was capable of in the fourth quarter.” On top of that, Charania mentioned Kevin Durant being unhappy with some of the habits developing in the organization earlier this week. Shams described KD’s comments as “choice words.”

Russell didn’t have the contractual security —or nearly as much pull — as Durant or Irving do in Brooklyn. With the two seemingly ready to move on from Atkinson, Marks (and ownership?) acted. That is how this league works. When stars talk, teams listen. Even before the season began, Marks had told people, the two were “not afraid to speak their mind” before pausing and adding, “and that’s a good thing.”

Even if Durant lauded Atkinson on Media Day this past September, things changed after more than half a season with the Nets roster.

Enter interim coach Jacque Vaughn, who assisted Atkinson in building the culture that helped sway Durant and Irving into thinking Brooklyn was the place to continue their careers and win their next ring, this time together.

Vaughn’s first head coaching gig was uninspiring, going two seasons and change in Orlando after the team canned Stan Van Gundy and dealt Dwight Howard. He didn’t really get a fair shake taking on a rebuilding roster (Victor Oladipo, Tobias Harris and Nikola Vucevic were all on the roster under Vaughn at some point, before all reached their All-Star levels), as seen through the underwhelming record of 58-158. Many will see those numbers and write him off. But Brooklyn in 2020 is hardly Orlando in 2012.

Current Lakers coach Frank Vogel made a quick pitstop in Orlando, too, between his success in Indiana and Los Angeles. Must Vaughn forever be considered a poor coach because his first stint took took place under unfortunate circumstances, or has he just not had the right opportunity yet?

Vaughn is ingrained with this organization, there since the start of this iteration of Nets history. Did Atkinson’s tone fall on deaf ears as time wore on? With a new, more talented cast of characters at the top of the roster? Could pushing Vaughn to preach a similar message, albeit differently, be the right kind of juice the Nets need? Maintain the infrastructure but keep the superstars satisfied? It’s possible.

It was Vaughn who worked out Irving pregame, often the first two people on the court. A 12-year journeyman point guard who played with the Nets in New Jersey in 2004 and 2005 and was a reserve on the Spurs 2007 title team, Vaughn clearly has a rapport with the Nets star point guard. Many like to discuss Irving’s personality and how he deals with coaches. Well, read the tea leaves. Vaughn passes this test.

Looking at the rest of the coaching candidates. Does one stick out among the rest?

Tyronn Lue famously coached Irving when the Cavs came back to stun the Warriors in 2016. Lue, currently an assistant in LA with the Clippers, would bite at getting back to the the bench in the lead role ... with the prospect of capturing a second title. However, the relationship with Irving is not clear and Lue did step away from coaching Cleveland due to health-related concerns. ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz mentioned that Lue balked at taking the Lakers job last summer because LA wasn’t going to pay him his quote, but that another contender may not let him slip through.

Mike Brown has coached both Durant and Irving, most recently with Durant in Golden State. Brown, the associate head coach with the Warriors, signed with the club the same day Durant did in 2016, and has Spursian ties similar to Vaughn. Brown, who had his time with Kyrie Irving stopped quickly, saw immense success with Durant in Oakland.

He also is the coach of the Nigerian Olympic team, which Spencer Dinwiddie plans on joining. Brown was also mentioned in Arnovitz’s coaching article as a name to keep an eye on during the coaching carousel. He led his team to the playoffs in six of seven full season as head coach with the Cavs and Lakers and is still only 50 with a lot of experience. To me, Brown should have the inside track if the Nets opt to bring someone from the outside.

Past that, there is the ESPN duo of Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson. The two have been out of coaching for quite some time and it’s hard to believe the Nets would look there for their next coach. There have been other names floated out there, and others may emerge whenever the off-season starts, probably this fall (but in these times you never know). Mike D’Antoni could be out in Houston. His contract expires after this year but he’s 69 years old.

(This could wind up as a classic millennial discourse: “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” There’ll be time for that later!)

Any of the aforementioned names have more splash, more sizzle, more sparkle than a journeyman named Vaughn. They make waves and can give the hot-take artists a sound bite after sound bite in the few days after he’s hired. However, Brooklyn may be best suited sticking with the man in the role now.

Vaughn’s attempt at building a resume to bring to this job interview stopped before it ever got off the ground. Two games into his new post, he’s the only undefeated coach headed into the bubble! The NBA will now pick up for eight games and the post-season. Vaughn will have at least 10 games on his resume’ and hopefully a postseason round (or two?) at Walt Disney World to prove his worth to Brooklyn.

Vaughn could be exactly what his title is right now, interim head coach. Durant and Irving will have significant influence on the decision of who will coach them for the foreseeable future — for better or worse. They could already have set the wheels in motion.

Think of Durant and Irving as the stars of a blockbuster movie. They did not like the way the movie was being directed and exerted their creative power to have the director removed.

The producer, Sean Marks, still has a vision for his movie and while the director, Atkinson, could not connect with the two actors, he believes that his right hand man could step in and direct the movie as well if not better. Atkinson and Vaughn collaborated on movies before and saw improvements year over year in their films. The narrative was better. So were the production values. Still, the producer thinks his second unit guy may be able to connect better with his stars and get the best performance — and better ticket sales — out of them.

While it does seem that Vaughn doesn’t jump off the page as a head coach, going for a big splash may not be needed. Brooklyn made their splash by signing KD and Kyrie. There are talented coaches on the market for sure, but none of them are so far superior that they must be hired for the Nets to succeed.

Given the current coaching climate, that Jacque Vaughn is being given a “legitimate opportunity” should be not surprising. It might even be inspiring.