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FILM STUDY: The Wonderful World of Vaughn ... Part I: The Defense

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

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Brooklyn Nets Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

You could make the argument that Brooklyn Nets head coach and Kenny Atkinson replacement, Jacque Vaughn, holds sole ownership of perhaps the most desirable (potential) vacancy in professional sports. With former Nets stars, retread coaches with ties to current players, hell, even play-by-play announcers circling like a flock of buzzards, the whole world is waiting to see how Jacque Vaughn performs under the hyper-focused microscope of the Orlando bubble.

The 45-year-old locker room leader is well aware of this. But Vaughn, being the lionheart he is, just doesn’t particularly care. The dude’s been cool as a cucumber since earning this prodigious opportunity to potentially lead the Brooklyn Nets staring Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant (hopefully coming to theatres, err, arenas near you), and sticking to his principles of team-building and positivity while handling the controls.

“My approach is the same every day: I try to be as consistent as possible. Anxiety can be extremely contagious, but so can calm, and so my relationship with guys, I’ll lean on that. Nothing for me to prove. I’ve grown as a coach, love the challenge of coaching, and want the challenge of coaching going forward here.”

Thus far, Brooklyn’s journey in the Orlando restart has been… oh boy… a little choppy with a roster stripped so close to the bones, its organs are showing (apologies to my squeamish readers). Brooklyn has played in four games so far, and honestly? It feels like thirty. Vaughn, who quickly made a flurry of adjustments (including a switch-heavy style of coverage against the Los Angeles Lakers) shortly after coming into power, has continued to show a willingness to flip the script on a dime and alter schematics to fit Brooklyn’s opponent. For Part I of this series, we’ll be taking a look at how Vaughn has tinkered with Brooklyn’s defense. Let us begin.

As mentioned before, Brooklyn concluded its suddenly abridged NBA season by running a trap-heavy fluid style of coverage that required a great deal of harmony between its players. Guys like Wilson Chandler and DeAndre Jordan were crucial while running such an advanced and switchy scheme against one of the best teams in the league, the LeBron James-led Lakers.

Even with a completely foreign and frankly inexperienced roster, in his first two bubble games, Vaughn maintained his use of basic man-to-man defense and encouraged 1-through-5 switching within all of Brooklyn’s bite-sized lineups.

Boy, the result weren’t particularly pretty.

It was clear almost immediately that guarding both the Orlando Magic and the Washington Wizards “straight up” was anything but a profitable solution. The Nets didn’t just look comfortable with the idea of switching on nearly every screen; you’d genuinely have a better time teaching the bubble Nets gene splicing than adequately navigating opposing picks. The clip below epitomizes the Nets’ early struggles on defense. To begin, Caris LeVert is knocked off his spot by a back-screen from Aaron Gordon (don’t start, Nets Twitter), giving Evan Fournier room to “deep cut” underneath the basket. LeVert, well behind the play already, attempts to “shoot the gap,” meaning he tries to cut underneath the Nikola Vucevic pin-down as a shortcut to meet Fournier on the other side.

As you can tell, that doesn’t go all that well; LeVert picks a really poor angle to take such a sizable risk. Jarrett Allen, meanwhile, fails to notice that his teammate is somewhere between 2,500-to-3,000 miles out of the play and doesn’t rotate over to LeVert’s man, Fournier, who calmly sinks the three.

Here, after the Wizards reset and swing the ball to heady playmaking wing Troy Brown Jr., the Nets are… a bit of a mess and refrain from rotating with a purpose, especially on the weak-side. Notice how both of Chris Chiozza and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot are straight chillin on the (low-) block while former Net Shabazz Napier is left alone, unattended, with all the time in the world to reminisce over his fondest childhood memories… the first time he rode a bike, the suit he wore to the senior prom, the time his Club Penguin character hit an absolutely spicy moonwalk in the waiting room lobby… or whatever the hell it is that NBA players do before picking their wide-open spots from three.

TLC quickly realizes that his Nets are in a perilous situation and attempts to shove the Cheeseman in Napier’s general vicinity. But it’s too late. Three points, Washington.

But perhaps the biggest downside of utilizing a switch-heavy D was that it took away what typically makes Jarrett Allen such an impactful player. As a reminder, every single Net, 1-through-5, was expected to rotate with one another and guard the perimeter after opposing screens. For guys like Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Tyler Johnson, that’s A-OK. But for Jarrett Allen, who has become somewhat of an analytics darling with his evergreen commitment to protecting the basket at all costs, this strategy isn’t so logical.

Though he hasn’t been “bad,” per say, while defending the arc, his Nets are without an escape valve should the opposition knife its way to the basket. Allen is their only source of weak-side help… and strong side staunchness, for that matter.

Below are two examples of how things look when Allen attempts to “switch” the ball-screen. The Nets previously deployed Allen in “drop coverage,” meaning that the 6’11” center would hang back in the painted-area during pick-and-rolls to disallow at-rim opportunities (i.e. layups from the pick-and-roll ball-handler or alley-oops to the rolling big).

In the first clip, Allen picks up D.J. Augustin on the switch and does a really nice job snatching the three-point opportunity from Augustin’s grips (a former teammate of Kevin Durant, might I add). But put your pompoms away; Allen loses track of the jitterbug guard on the give-and-go feed from Nikola Vucevic. In the second clip, Allen switches with Caris LeVert on the pick-and-roll and once again does a wonderful job defending the step-back three-point look from Evan Fournier. Unfortunately, this leaves Caris LeVert stuck on a giant Montenegrin-sized island in the crossmatch with Nikola Vucevic, who launches the spry Dream-like fade-away with ease.

After giving up a combined 246 points in their first two games, something needed to change. Simplification was a necessity for this young group and a contingency plan was of paramount importance with the (*shudders*) league-best Milwaukee Bucks next on the schedule. Egad.

However, malleability is the name of the game when it comes to Jacque Vaughn. Here’s what he had to say about the Nets defensive theology prior to their first scrimmage.

“Nothing wrong with being flexible. Innovation is at the premium right now, so embrace this thing and let’s get this accomplished.”

Well then. Mission accomplished.

Outside of conspiring pool-side with the Houston Rockets on how exactly to take down Giannis Antetokounmpo and the boys, the Nets changed things up on D and ran (wait for it…)

Zone coverage. Kenny Atkinson, this is your swan song.

Vaughn’s 3-2 zone allowed the young Nets to focus on a couple of things. For starters, it constricted each player’s focal point to just one small area of the floor, rather than the entirety of the half-court. Configuring rotations on the fly were, by design, set in stone by positional allocation; should an opponent move from one “quadrant” to another, the rotation between these bubble Nets should (and mostly did) happen almost automatically.

Moreover, it also allowed the Nets to clog the paint and double Giannis should he try and do the very mean things he’s done to basketball rims across America. This is, of course, what happens in the first clip from the video below. Giannis Antetokounmpo kickstarts the swing-swing action for the Bucks before diving into the paint. Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, playing a bit of a free safety role in this possession, tags the Greek Freak until he meets Lance Thomas hanging out on the weak-side block, thereby removing “The Alphabet” from the action. A skip pass from George Hill lands in the hands of Marvin Williams, who elevates for the three-point miss.

Here’s the thing about these Bucks: While they attempt a whole heaping lot of three-pointers each game (13.7 3PA, fifth in the association), they aren’t particularly adept at knocking down the easy ones. Per NBA stats, the Bucks averaged the most “wide-open” (defender is 6+ feet away) three-point shots in the entire league, but shot just 36.5 percent on them –– good for 27th in percentage amongst all 30 teams. The game plan was simple: Make the guys around Giannis beat us. That includes Marvin Williams. (Or, in the case of the second clip from the video above, coerce shots from guys who just aren’t very good in the first place. Apologies to D.J. Wilson.)

The clip below is hands down the best instance of Nets team defense we’ve seen thus far in the bubble.

Milwaukee initiates their set with post entry to Robin Lopez, taking a nice break from riding down Big Thunder Mountain for hours on end. Take note of Chris Chiozza, who helps inside to front Ersan Ilyasova on the weak-side low-block. Pretty stuff. Unable to gain any separation from Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Lopez kicks out to Donte DiVincenzo at the left wing, who blasts out of the gates with a quick drive the second his fingers touch the basketball. In doing so, he leaves Tyler Johnson’s region of the 3-2 zone and enters the area guarded by TLC, who shades DiVincenzo toward the baseline. Suddenly, without much real estate to work with, DiVincenzo is forced to cough up the rock to his teammate Sterling Brown. Chris Chiozza, by this point, has relocated to his original spot in the zone and picks up Brown with a tangible sense of confidence. The always-moving Donte DiVincenzo sneaks into the strong-side corner, only for Rodions Kurucs to rotate over perfectly and smother his once-open spot-up look with a pristine closeout. Once again, the Nets (Rodi, really) shades DiVincenzo toward the baseline, where he panics and launches a prayer of a pass to George Hill only for the shot clock to expire. Brooklyn ball.

It wasn’t all sunshine and roses for Brooklyn’s zone D. Here, a D.J. Wilson flare screen gives Frank Mason III the room he requires to drive deep into the teeth of Brooklyn’s defense. The Nets converge to stop the at-rim shot, giving Mason the choice of two desirable skip-pass options. Unfortunately for Chris Chiozza, the only remaining Net guarding the weak-side perimeter, he’s left with a truly unpleasant decision. Stuck on an island with both of Kyle Korver and Sterling Brown sitting ready to launch missiles worth three points on the scoreboard, you’re looking at the basketball version of the Joker’s diabolical Harvey Dent and Rachel Dawes switcheroo. No matter Chiozza’s selection, a Bucks player will be left alone to load up and pop the trey… which is exactly what happens. (You can’t really fault “Cheese” for choosing the historically great marksman Kyle Korver in this situation, though.)

Vaughn’s Nets did elect to run the more traditionalist man-to-man style of defense on Wednesday versus the Celtics. And honestly? I didn’t hate it. Against a Celtics team that’s fairly analogous in regards to stature, the risk of unsavory cross-matches is lessened due to, again, their homogeneity (unlike, say, the Magic). Plus, if Jayson Tatum is going to be hitting shots like THIS…

…and if his Celtics are going to post a combined 51.3% accuracy from three, then it doesn’t matter what style of coverage Vaughn throws at the opponent. The Celtics were built to take and make tough shots; they’re second in pull-up three-point attempts per game (14.9) and first overall in pull-up three-point percentage (36.3%). Boston is living and dying with the uber-difficult off-the-dribble three, for better or worse. In Brooklyn’s case, they learned first-hand what a hot shooting night can look like from Boston. Sucks to suck, I guess.

As the restart rages on, I’ll be curious to see if Vaughn continues to stick to his principles and adjust accordingly in response to his opponent. He’s a far cry away from his predecessor, Kenny Atkinson, who in general was fairly stuck in his ways. Vaughn’s biggest attribute right now is exactly that; he’s damn near the polar opposite from what the Nets chose to move on from back in the beginning of March. Thus far, I’ve personally enjoyed what Jacque Vaughn has thrown out on the defensive side of the ball.

We’ll see if that changes on Friday against the lowly Sacramento Kings.

Stay tuned for Part II of this series, analyzing Vaughn’s changes on offense.