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FILM STUDY: The Wonderful World of Vaughn ... Part II: The Offense

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In Part II of his Film Study of Jacque Vaughn’s coaching in the ‘bubble,’ Matt Brooks looks at how Vaughn tinkered with the Nets offense in the post-Kenny, post-COVID era.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Brooklyn Nets Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

I’m running out words to describe this miscellaneous group of misfit toys proudly bearing Brooklyn Nets uniforms. Unbelievable. Magical. In my best Vizzini voice, inconceivable!

I mean, just glance at some of these victories. A must-win game against the league-best Milwaukee Bucks? Not a problem, consider it done. Uh oh, the LA Clippers are on the schedule, a team that many (*raises hand*) had winning the whole dang thing. Pshhh, easy dub for the bubble Nets, as the Clippers didn’t hold a lead during the entire freaking game. Not once!

Just as we all expected, right?

Had it not been for those accursed Phoenix Suns and their one percent odds of advancing to the playoffs (curse you, Devin Booker!), this Replaceables cast of gritty Brooklynites would’ve been the story of the bubble. Shoot, they still might be; our friends at The Ringer can’t help but express their excitement for this TLC-led seven seed (I truly cannot believe I just typed those words out. The TLC-led Nets. Again, WHAT is happening?!? Just 2020 things, I swear.)

Hey, the 50/40/90 shooting line is the gold standard and those are his numbers in Disney World!!

Last week, I analyzed some of the defensive changes head coach Jacque Vaughn has put into place to prop the Nets into uncharted waters. This week, we’re looking at the other end of the floor. Strap in. We’ve got a lot to cover.

The way Vaughn has run the offense isn’t all that different from what we saw during the days of Kenny Atkinson –– at least in terms of where Brooklyn is finishing plays. Relative to the field, the Nets are still a bottom-four team in midrange attempts, and they remain a top-six team in 3-point frequency. Interestingly, Brooklyn’s at-the-basket pressure has been sloughed off precipitously. Pre-bubble, Brooklyn ranked second in at-rim frequency. Now, they’ve fallen to 16th in a field of 22 bubble teams.

Where the Nets have seen offensive changes is in their process –– how they get to these shots. The crux of Brooklyn’s offensive flow still stems from the pick-and-roll like most other squads in this league. But there is more to an NBA offense than just a repeating loop of screen-and-dives. Vaughn has emphasized greater harmony between the guys donning those always crispy black-and-white threads, culminating to a more balanced attack on the floor. Brooklyn has traded out empty isolations for pass-happy all-inclusive half-court masterpieces that recall memories of the 2018-2019 Nets of old(-ish). The pre-hiatus Nets were a bottom-six passing team that flicked 274.3 passes on average. Now, they’re hurling 305.1 passes per game in the bubble, a top-six mark according to NBA stats.

Garrett Temple shares this perspective, telling Kristian Winfield of the Daily News, “I think we’ve played as a unit. The one constant has been our ability to share the ball, which is great, which bodes very well for playoffs as well, especially with the type of team that we have down here.”

But as my guy Meek Mill always says (yes, we’re very close friends in real life. I’m definitely not making that up. Stop laughing!): There’s levels to this ‘ish.

Or should I say posts.

Because Jacque Vaughn? The man has a thing for the post. Post Malone, Postmates delivery, postmodern art, “Such Great Heights” by The Postal Service. At least, that’s what I would assume while watching the guy run an NBA offense.

Per Second Spectrum, Brooklyn’s elbow and low-post touches have both risen under Vaughn’s overseeing eye and ultra strong grey-streaked goatee, rising from 10.0 to 11.7 per game and 1.1 to 5.0 per game, respectively. The beauty of using high- and low-post action with more frequency is that it provides these Nets with different angles to attack from and alternative routes to sniff out passing lanes, thus prompting that aforementioned bump in egalitarian approach. The 45-year-old Vaughn has become somewhat of a bubble mad scientist, whipping up overflowing volumes of unexpected Brooklyn buckets with a cupboard of ingredients stripped barren to its reserves.

Since arriving on campus, masks on and ready to compete, these resilient Nets have flashed consistent instances of triangle offense scrumptiousness. Below, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot dishes to Donta Hall standing in the high-post, triggering additional off-ball action out of that delectable triangular formation. Somewhere, Phil Jackson, lover of all things triangular, sits stoically in his redwood Missouri cabin, following Rick Carlisle’s orders, fiddling with a Native American trinket, and fawning over these Brooklyn Nets on what I can only assume is 16-inch by 10-inch 1993 Sony TV set (he just strikes me as an old school type of dude, yanno?), smiling.

Vaughn’s also exercised elements of “horns,” which, in reality, is very similar to the high-post set seen above, but with mirrored positioning of bigs on both elbows (and shooters slotted in the corners). The first clip in the video below begins with Chris Chiozza crossing the mid court line and surveying the landscape of the half court, with Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen placed at both elbows. Chiozza has the choice of passing to or receiving a screen from either of his two teammates, and he opts for the former by dishing to “The Fro” on the right side of the floor. Rather than standing by lackadaisically, perhaps picking out some of the remaining pulled pork sandwich he had for lunch from between his teeth, Chiozza continues his movement and sets a quick “flare” ­­–– a screen that creates open three-point space, typically with the screener’s body facing the sidelines –– for Caris LeVert, who pops for three. From there, LeVert receives the handoff from Allen and some snappy perimeter passing provides Joe Harris with a decent look from three.

(The same set, with different personnel, can be found in the second clip.)

They’ve also ran some “pistol” action, which entails a ball-handler (below, Caris LeVert) dribbling toward a wing slotted in the corner (Joe Harris) while a third player (typically a big like Jarrett Allen) stands in the middle of the floor ready to screen for either player.

As Orlando prepares to “ice” Caris LeVert by trapping him along the sideline, Joe Harris recognizes the Magic’s aggressive scheme and “ghosts” the possession by faking his apparent ball-screen and streaking toward open space. Allen, all the while, sets a quick flare for Joe Harris on the frantically recovering James Ennis, further displacing him from the play and gifting Harris all the room he needs to detonate off a singular dribble.

No player has benefited more from Vaughn’s high-post preference than Jarrett Allen. Under Kenny Atkinson, Allen’s playmaking opportunities primarily emanated from the short roll –– a split-second, knee-jerk passing decision typically performed under heavy defensive duress. Hold on to the rock for too long? You might miss a passing window. Or worse, cough up an unforced error in the form of a charge or travel. It’s a tricky way of learning passing on the fly. Here’s an example of that below versus the crosstown rival.

As detailed by my colleague Nolan Jensen, Allen’s role as a passer has changed drastically. His elbow touches have risen by about three per game in the bubble campus, and it’s no coincidence his assist average has instantaneously followed suit (up to 4.2 AST in Orlando from 1.3 AST pre-bubble). Utilizing Allen as a pinch post threat gives the 22-year-old ample time to catch his bearings, clutch that trusty basketball, scan the floor for available passing options, and wait for the play to materialize in front of his eyes as his teammates screen and cut off one another. In comparison to the abrasiveness of the short-roll, Jarrett’s current utilization ­­–– the high-post –– is damn near basketball meditation; it’s zen. Time is on his side. As the skeleton key to Jacque Vaughn’s breakneck sixth-speediest offense, Allen is ironically finding ways to learn the game at a slower pace. And that’s by design.

Don’t believe me? Fine. I’ll let the man tell you himself.

“He put me in the position to have the ball more at the elbow, top of the key area, and I’m able to see more of the things that are going on.”

So there!

We saw the fruits of Allen’s high-post labor against the Sacramento Kings. Brooklyn’s center of the future with the retro hairstyle (the afro has grown to truly tremendous lengths and looks fantastic, might I add) received 9 total elbow touches –– about three more than his bubble average. Here’s a look at three of them. In the first clip, Allen executes some “throw and chase” with Chris Chiozza, kicking out to the perimeter and following his pass with a sturdy ball-screen. In the second, he flips an absolutely ferocious rocket of a bounce pass that –– rumor has it –– may have singed the ESPN Sports Complex floorboards beyond repair. The third is a simple handoff into an on-ball pick, a longtime staple of Allen’s offense.

Again, while playing out of the high-post, Allen’s been afforded added time to fully learn the intricacies of playmaking –– the way certain teammates cut, the timing and velocity required to lace crisp “skip” passes (AKA a cross-court pass) to off-ball threats right on the screws, a knowledge of the angles when dealing with passing lanes. Allen’s a quick learner and he’s always had some genes of passing ingenuity held deep in his self-conscious. Like a brain surgeon, Vaughn’s engendered those altruistic instincts with his trusty medical utensil of post-play… My goodness has it already paid dividends, in the form of newfound passing machismo.

In the very next game against the LA Clippers, Allen’s sudden influx of self-confidence bled into his –– drum roll please –– short roll playmaking. See? Things in life really do come full circle.

I mean, dude (or dudette!), just look at my man’s reads out of the roll… against the league’s fifth-best defense, might I add! Pump in all the chants of “de-fense! de-fense!” you want, but you can’t stop the rolling “Fro!” (Brief tangent, “The Rolling Fro” is an incredible grunge band name. To the reader with rockstar dreams, you’re welcome.)

Allen isn’t the only one who has benefited from altered usage in Vaughn’s offense. Caris LeVert has transformed –– almost overnight –­­– from an empty calories guard to a potential third-star (depending upon who you ask) with new responsibilities aplenty. Pre-COVID, LeVert received just three total post touches in 64 games. In the bubble, that number has been outsized to 19 in his five games of participation. Vaughn has nudged Caris –– ever so softly ­­–– into attacking with his lethal face-up game, taking full control of his idiosyncratic herky-jerkiness and explosive foot speed.

“As a team we have worked on the ability for him to get to a sweet spot and be one bounce away from the rim,” Vaughn told the Daily’s Kristian Winfield. “But also once bounce from getting to a midrange shot that he’s very comfortable in.”

The results have been… shoot, just watch the film. It’s thirty seconds of head-faking, jab-stepping, fadeaway shot-making pornography, conjuring up 61st-percentile overall two-point scoring precession according to Cleaning the Glass.

Scoring a very impressive 1.33 points per post-up possession according to Synergy has earned LeVert a hefty load of traps and double teams, greatly opening up the floor for his kinetic teammates. In the pair of possessions below, LeVert receives an entry pass from the Nets’ ball-handler (Chris Chiozza and Tyler Johnson, respectively). As Caris clutches onto the rock like a valuable set of pearls, a sharpshooting Brooklyn teammate (Garrett Temple and Joe Harris in these clips) curls around a triple screen (oh yeah, those exist!) from the weakside block to the top of the key. Two snappy feeds from Caris in the post gives Brooklyn a pair of open threes.

Again, attacking from the post provides Vaughn’s offense with different formulaic equations to find friendly angles for buckets in bunches. For LeVert, it’s a big reason his facilitation has shot up to 6.2 assists per game –– 14th-best in the bubble.

And in LeVert’s words, it accentuates Brooklyn’s spacing.

“We’re trying to find easy ways to kind of get the ball in space where they can’t really double as easily.”

The philosophy behind what Vaughn is doing is simple: He’s playing to the strengths of his best players. The post play, the midrange shots… all of that stuff is enticing to watch. But in reality, the ethos of Vaughn’s restart schematics is to place his “bubble” troika ­­–– Allen, LeVert, and Joe Harris –– in the most advantageous positions possible to succeed.

Speaking of Joe, this means utilizing him as what I like to call a “point-role player.” In a flurry of gorgeous movement and tons of touches –– plus some screens, curls, and kick-out passes –– notice how many total dribbles Harris takes in the first clip from the video below… just two. This isn’t an anomaly. Harris ranks sixth on the “bubble” Nets in total touches (267 in total) but takes an average of just 0.9 dribbles per touch –– behind the likes of Dzanan Musa, Garrett Temple, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, and five other Brooklyn players. Rather than overexerting the marksman-turned-playmaker with excess ball-handling responsibilities that can and will decease his overall efficiency, like we saw in January, Vaughn is allowing Harris to create for teammates through the use of his ever-purring motor, beefy frame, and basketball IQ, all to the tune of 20.2 points per game on ridiculous 74.7% true shooting. If you didn’t already know, the man is the pinnacle of efficiency. Goodness gracious, he’s more than just a shooter!

Even for a guy like Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, who shot just 3-for-18 from deep in Brooklyn’s scrimmages, Vaughn has looked to build TLC’s confidence anew with plays specifically drawn up for the Frenchman.

“We’ll continue to put him in positions where he can take advantage of his speed and shooting ability,” Vaughn said after the Clippers victory. This sideline out-of-bounds play has been deployed on numerous occasions, with Luwawu-Cabarrot setting a quick pindown (a screen that faces the baseline) as falsified “dummy” action, only to veer out into the open corner where, per Cleaning the Glass, he’s an 88th percentile three-point shooter!

So, 18 of 42 made threes later (42.9 percent!) and 14.1 points on average in the “bubble,” I’d say Vaughn’s strategy with TLC has paid off handsomely, all without chasing waterfalls (that was corny, I apologize).

Roughly, 2,200 words later and you may be wondering: What does all of this matter? Do the stars want to play for him? Is Jacque Vaughn a championship-caliber coach?

Let me leave you with this: What Jacque Vaughn has deployed on offense is, effectively, a formal audition tape to Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan. I mean, shoot, doesn’t an offense stuffed to the brim with post-ups, midrangers, and elbow touches sound like the perfect utopian offense in the collective eye of the “clean sweep” trio? For a second, imagine Brooklyn’s holy trinity standing in place of the Nets players in any of the videos above… Durant and Jordan comprising that twin towers alignment in the “horns” set… Jordan standing at the elbow and flipping handoffs to Irving, who then detonates 15-foot daggers off a couple of lightning-quick dribbles… Durant positioned in the post, finding Irving curling around that trio of screens for an above-the-break three.

Doesn’t Jacque Vaughn’s tendency to play to the strengths of his best players, regardless of what the analytics say, kind of seem like a seamless fit with Brooklyn’s starry crew?


IN THE BONUS

Full disclaimer: Both of these sets are magnificent and deserve mention, though neither of them fit in with the full context of the article. So… I’m going off script and dropping them below with some brief explanation. For those you sick of reading my silly words, go ahead and close this window out and enjoy your day. For the rest of youse, revel in the magic of Jacque Vaughn’s 9th-ranked “bubble” offense.

The first clip is a “corner split.” To begin, Dzanan Musa drops the rock to Donta Hall in the high-post and cuts toward the strong side corner to set a quick pindown (remember, that’s a screen that faces the baseline) for Chris Chiozza. With the option to receive the handoff from Hall or curl baseline around Musa, Chiozza elects for the latter and veers around his Bosnian buddy to the rack. Where it really gets funky is when Musa curls around Hall, receives the dribble-handoff, pierces into the paint, and sails the cross-court skipper to Jeremiah Martin with Amazon Prime delivery speeds. Now picture this set with Kyrie Irving in Chris Chiozza’s place, Kevin Durant filling Dzanan Musa’s vibrant crimson shoes, DeAndre Jordan replacing Donta Hall, and Joe Harris sitting in the “slot” (AKA wing) instead of Jeremiah Martin. Pretty enticing, eh?

Here’s another –– a play known to some teams in the NBA as “Thumb.”

To begin, with Caris LeVert handling up top, Joe Harris sheds Jarrett Allen of his man, Khem Birch, with a thunderous pindown. From there, Allen sprints toward the ball for what the Magic expect to be a ball-screen on LeVert’s defender (Evan Fournier). BUT, “The Fro” has other plans; he flips his footwork, veers the other direction like a drifting speedboat, and avoids making any sort of contact with the on-ball defender (Fournier), performing what is known as a “slip.”

With Allen now rolling to rim, Joe Harris “replaces” him at the top of the key with a prompt cut from the painted-area…. And unfortunately, LeVert misses the easy pass to Harris for what could’ve been an unguarded three. Now again, picture Kyrie Irving in Caris LeVert’s place, Kevin Durant as Joe Harris (minus the headband and flowing locks), and DeAndre Jordan replacing Jarrett Allen. You see where I’m going with this?

Give the man his due. Jacque Vaughn’s done some lovely work with this Brooklyn offense.

All statistics current through August 13, 2020.