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Jacque Vaughn has overachieved, but will that be enough?

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Orlando Magic v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Ashley Landis - Pool/Getty Images

Merit.

It’s supposed to be the be-all and end-all of everything Brooklyn has done since Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson started the culture thing back in 2016. The underdog identity and mentality they established worked for the the franchise, with each new chapter giving it more credence ... until it came to managing and coaching superstars. That is decidedly a work in progress.

For Atkinson, that chapter didn’t last very long. Jacque Vaughn’s relationship with superstars still must be proven, but as far as maintaining and massaging that underdog culture, Vaughn and his coaching staff are doing just fine, thank you very much. Brooklyn is 4-2, playing with a skeleton crew, having beaten the Bucks and Clippers and clinching the 7-seed in the playoffs.

Despite the likelihood of a high-profile coaching search, the “Bubble Nets” are not afraid to show their loyalties, and lobby for him as the head coach...

Vaughn and Caris LeVert, for example, have worked closely for years. It’s no surprise to see the two gelling in Orlando.

“We knew he was a great leader, so it’s great to see it pay off in the wins and loss columns,” LeVert said on Sunday. “But we’ve been seeing it behind the scenes.”

“We love playing for him,” Garrett Temple added post-game. “We really love it. And I’m happy that we’re able to get some wins, and we’re playing the way we’re playing under him.”

“He’s done a great job,’ said Jarrett Allen on Friday. “He’s been able to rally us together, rally us under his system, help us believe in him and believe in the things he’s doing for us. He’s just done an unbelievable job.”

It’s not just because of the on-court stuff either. Temple recently called him a “player’s coach” which should come as no surprise given his history of playing, coaching and scouting in the league. He spent 12 years as a player —getting to The Finals twice and winning it all with the Spurs in 2007. He’s now served as a head coach in Orlando and Brooklyn, an assistant coach in both Brooklyn and San Antonio and as a scout in San Antonio. He’s seen it all from various perspectives.

Moreover, it’s the things we don’t see that has won him players’ trust, like encouraging players to read certain books or listen to certain podcasts during difficult times, leading discussions about fight for social justice, as he did while celebrating the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, making sure everyone on the team is educated and registered to vote...

Doc Rivers, his former coach in Orlando, vouched for him personally before the two battled on the sidelines Sunday.

“Listen, I coached Jacque in Orlando, he played with me for an entire year,” Rivers said before the game on Sunday. “So I’m a big fan of his. He was one of those players, similar to (current Clippers assistants) Ty Lue, and Sam (Cassell), that you knew when they retired, they would be coaches.”

And Rivers didn’t limit himself to what a good guy Vaughn is. He noted after the game that the Nets head coach had a game plan that flummoxed his guys.

“They attacked us,” Rivers said. “They were clearly the team that had the right approach at the beginning of the game. I thought we joined the game a little bit. When you spot someone 20 points, it’s hard to come back from that.”

“They lived in the paint,” Rivers added. “Whenever you see a team in the paint, it increases 3s.”

“I hope he gets a good shot here,” added Rivers whose lead assistant, Lue, is considered a front-runner for the Nets job.

What may matter most is that the Brooklyn Nets have Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on their roster. So they will obviously play a major role in any decisions going forward. After all, the two had no problem showing Atkinson the way out of the hallway he built. Marks, in fact, has called KD a “very loud voice” in discussions.

Stiil, there’s a reason the Nets are in the position they’re in. Without Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, the Warriors are the worst team in the NBA. Without KD and Kyrie, the Nets are playoff-bound.

There’s a lot of reasons for that, but one of them has to be that there is a foundation to build on. And with any organization, it’s the people that make up the culture and that includes the players not named Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving.

Take LeVert. Marks took a chance on the kid after three foot surgeries and now he’s the leader and no. 1 option on the team in Orlando, averaging 24 points per game. He was on crutches when Marks introduced his first signings back in July 2016.

Another guy on the stage with LeVert was Joe Harris, the staple in Brooklyn over the past four years – one of the remaining with a small ego and large work ethic. He’s the second scoring option behind LeVert and a top-3 3-point shooter in the game. He’s a free agent after this season and it’s going to cost the Nets a good buck to keep him. Will they? He said he would like to retire a Net. We’ll see.

Or how about Allen, the 22-year-old who was yanked out of the starting lineup this year because DeAndre Jordan had no intentions of being his backup. He’s averaging a double double this year, and has shown he can be the best big on the floor during resumption.

Take the six games how you’d like. Unprecedented circumstances, less talent, whatever your counterargument may be; these guys are in the trenches in Orlando while everybody else cheers them on from home. What they’re doing in Orlando keeping the underdog identity alive, hanging by a string.

Those days of being the underdog will soon be over and decisions will be made.

Marks said he wouldn’t judge Jacque Vaughn on wins and losses, but he might want to reconsider. Vaughn became the third winningest coach in Nets history after eight games, trailing Lawrence Frank and P.J. Carlesimo.

He’s shown an ability to communicate with players and a willingness to try new things outside what we’re used to. That includes using four different starting lineups in the six games, utilizing a zone defense, allowing players to utilize the mid-range and of course, stretching minutes beyond what we’re used to. Plus the little things, like taking timeouts at the appropriate time and putting his best players in at the very end of a quarter to assure a basket and momentum entering the next quarter.

“He’s done an amazing job, everybody in the organization trusts him,” LeVert said after the Nets defeated the Kings on Friday. “He’s been doing great with adjustments and things like that.”

The larger question, of course, is Vaughn’s relationship with KD and Kyrie. We haven’t heard from them on Vaughn. He and Irving have a good relationship. Vaughn was essentially Irving’s position coach, working with him before games. Beyond that. it’s a bit of a mystery.

The ball, of course, should be in Marks’ —and Joe Tsai’s— court. There seems little doubt that Marks, who’s worked with Vaughn three times, is giving Vaughn every opportunity to succeed. And it should be noted as well that Marks made sure Vaughn was named “head coach,” not “interim head coach,” when he replaced Atkinson. That matters.

We’ll find that out whether that all matters when the search process for a new head coach is announced. Atkinson overachieved and he was fired, so it’s hard to say anything would surprise. As one source close to the Atkinson situation told NetsDaily, “Nobody saw it coming.”

Still, one thing can’t be denied: a tremendous showing from Vaughn. He has already exceeded all expectations and deserves the job based off merit. After all, that’s what got the Nets here in the first place.