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REPORT CARD: How Different Are Jacque Vaughn’s Nets?

In his day job, ProfessorB is an award-winning social scientist. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, and other major media outlets. But he also dabbles in NetsWorld and this is the latest of his contributions to ND.

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Sacramento Kings Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Jacque Vaughn has ten games under his belt as the Nets’ head coach. While it is still far too early to draw any definitive conclusions, fans are beginning to assess how—and to speculate about why—the team has changed.

Broadly, things are looking up. Vaughn’s Nets have a 6-4 record heading into Philadelphia, a heartening improvement over the 2-5 start to the season under Steve Nash. But how much has really changed?

The difference in records is partly due to an easier schedule. After Sunday night’s games, the opponents in the Nets’ seven games under Nash had a combined record of 66-45 (and an average net rating of +2.6 points per 100 possessions), while Vaughn’s ten opponents were a combined 81-83 (with an average net rating of −0.4). That difference in the quality of opponents probably accounts for about one-third of the overall improvement in the team’s record.

Taking account of the specific strengths and weaknesses of the Nets’ opponents helps to clarify the ways in which the team has changed, so far, under Vaughn’s leadership. Here is a comparison of some key offensive and defensive statistics under Nash and Vaughn, with and without adjustments for the average performance of opposing teams against the entire league.

The offensive changes under Vaughn have been a mixed bag. Ball movement has been better, producing a substantial increase in the percentage of Nets field goals that are assisted. Three-point shooting is also improved, due in part to the gradual return to form of Joe Harris and Seth Curry (a combined 29% from three under Nash, 39% under Vaughn).

On the other hand, the Nets’ fast break points are down significantly, and their points in the paint have also declined. The shortage of high percentage inside scoring has essentially cancelled out the improvement in shooting from beyond the arc, leaving the Nets’ offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) down half a point under Vaughn, and even more after allowing for the defensive prowess of opponents.

The Nets’ defensive rating, on the other hand, has been much better, going from 29th in the NBA under Nash to 5th best in the league under Vaughn. Part of that difference (2.5 points per 100 possessions) is attributable to playing worse offensive teams since the coaching change. But the substantial decline in opponents’ effective field goal percentage, from almost 56% in the Nets’ first seven games to just under 50% since, is not accounted for by weaker-shooting opposition.

Opposing teams averaged 41% from beyond the arc against Nash’s Nets, but only 36% under Vaughn. That difference partly reflects a difference in opponents’ 3-point shooting prowess. It probably also reflects a simple reversion to form after a brief unlucky stretch. Three-point defense can vary erratically from game to game, but it tends to even out over the course of a season. Nash’s Nets ranked 13th in the league in 3-point defense in 2020-21 and 7th in 2021-22, so there is good reason to think they would have improved significantly in that department even without a coaching change.

Perhaps a more meaningful source of defensive improvement is that the Nets have given up many fewer points in the paint under Vaughn (42 per 100 possessions) than they did under Nash (49 per 100 possessions). That change mostly seems to reflect an improvement in half-court defensive sets, since opponents’ fast break points are unchanged despite the weaker competition. Vaughn’s Nets have given up more than six percent fewer offensive rebounds, but that difference is mostly due to playing weaker rebounding teams, and it has not produced any real reduction in opponents’ second-chance points.

Aside from the quality of opponents, there are (at least) three distinct explanations for these various specific differences in performance under Vaughn. The most obvious, but not necessarily the most important, is coaching ability. Many fans who were unimpressed by Nash’s coaching interpreted the team’s almost-immediate improvement under Vaughn as proof of his predecessor’s incompetence. But that narrative is strained by the specific nature of the improvements in defensive performance. How did Vaughn, who was Nash’s defensive coordinator, improve so quickly and substantially on his own defensive schemes?

Of course, the two coaches have had somewhat different personnel. Ben Simmons, Joe Harris, Seth Curry, and Nic Claxton have all been in and out of the lineup at different times. The most dramatic difference is that Kyrie Irving played 276 minutes in seven games under Nash but only 59 minutes since, due to what turned out to be an eight-game suspension. Kyrie’s detractors view the team’s improvement on the defensive end under Vaughn as an instance of addition by subtraction. However, the difference is far too large to be plausibly attributable to any one player’s defensive shortcomings. (Also, for what it’s worth at this very early point in the season, Irving’s defensive real plus-minus rating is exactly average, whereas most of his teammates have negative ratings.) If Irving manages to stay in the lineup—never a sure thing—we’ll see how much difference he makes to the team’s success on both sides of the ball.

A third possibility is that the team responded favorably to the coaching change itself, regardless of the merits of Nash or Vaughn or the parallel Kyrie drama. It is not uncommon for coaching changes to produce short-term boosts in performance. Longtime Nets fans will recall the team’s record-setting 13-game winning streak when Lawrence Frank took over from Byron Scott in 2004. (The team went 12-15 the rest of that season and 200-226 in six subsequent seasons under Frank.)

Only time will tell whether Vaughn’s success is durable ... or as ephemeral as Frank’s. My own guess is that his fortunes will depend more on his players than on his coaching. Will Simmons get back to all-star form—and how quickly? Will Irving focus on basketball? Will Kevin Durant be a happy camper?

A coach can only do so much. At some point, it’s up to the players to play.