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PLAYER’S COACH: Jacque Vaughn has made Nets the ‘type of team you want to be on’

Matt Brooks and Chris Milholen take a look at two sides of Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn: both x’s and o’s and leadership

Brooklyn Nets v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

It’s no longer hyperbolic to say that Jacque Vaughn has saved the Brooklyn Nets’ season ... and made a lot of people, from fans to Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, happy.

The Nets are 15-7 since Vaughn took over for Steve Nash, the second-best record in the league behind only the world-beating Boston Celtics in that time span. Brooklyn’s 4.4 net rating ranks fourth in the association; its offense sits at slot #7 and the defense ranks 6th. The sample size is there. In the preseason, I wrote that the Nets could compete for a championship if its defense and offense rank within the top 10. Right now, Vaughn’s even-keeled hand is directing his squad directly into that territory.

Perhaps the most shocking part is Brooklyn’s defensive turnaround ... and it may be the most rewarding for the players. The Nets have not been a top-10 defense since the days of Kenny Atkinson, and they were bottom-3 league-wide in this metric before the team and Nash mutually parted ways. Vaughn, however, has put his stamp on the game without completely overhauling Brooklyn’s schemes. The Nets still switch on and off the ball quite frequently, as they have for the larger part of the last three seasons. However, there’s been a sense of refinement holistically as a switching defense.

“Some of the times throughout the game, you want to stay with your own man, sometimes you don’t have to switch the action. You want to continue to keep those matchups the way you want to keep them,” said Kevin Durant after the win against the Washington Wizards. “So in order for us to be a good team, we can’t just lazy switch, point-switch, and have a small and a big when we don’t have to. And I think we’re figuring that out as well. And we want to be a team that can switch out and guard multiple players.”

“We got versatile defenders but we don’t want to put a smaller matchup on a bigger matchup or vice versa. Cause, we call it ‘blender,’ with guys driving and swinging and kicking and now we’re in scramble mode. So we want to keep the ball in front, and I think that’s what we’re working on now.”

Vaughn’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. Some of the biggest names on the team, including the aforementioned Durant, have given him major praise. In response to a NetsDaily question about the shorthanded victory against the Indiana Pacers, Durant was highly complimentary of his new coach.

“Jacque is doing a great job of making adjustments throughout the game. That game was just incredible. Indiana made a lot of shots, but we weathered the storm and we stayed poised, and that’s the type of team you want to be on regardless of what’s going on around you, everybody staying focused to stand to the mission, and I think the game was able to turn for us last game. So that was key,” said Durant. “Give guys confidence coming off the bench, guys that don’t play as much but they still got confidence. Playing in games like that, it was huge for us.”

A reminder: This is the very same Durant that put in a trade request to the Nets this summer asking to be dealt to another team, then demanded that his head coach and GM be fired. (Spoiler Alert: one was.) Now, he’s calling the Nets “the type of team you want to be on.” Credit must be doled out to Durant for buying back into this franchise and playing some truly incredible MVP-caliber basketball, of course. But Vaughn, too, deserves a lion’s share of praise for righting the ship en route to the Nets winning 8 of their 9 most recent games.

On Wednesday’s Zoom call with reporters, NetsDaily asked Vaughn about Durant’s quote and what it means to hear the franchise player speak so gleefully about the job he’s done.

“Yeah, it just hopefully signifies that we’re doing the right things, we’ve made the right adjustments, and we’re heading in the right direction in our approach. And if you can think back to when I first got this job, I said I was going to keep things extremely simple and it was going to be about basketball,” said Vaughn. “And I know for Kevin, those are two things that are extremely important. The things that are going on outside of basketball, we try not to even touch on, and when we come to the gym, it’s about this group getting better and this group working and figuring things out. So hopefully, it’s a signal that we’re doing the right things. We got some adjustments still to make, but it’s great to get feedback like that, for sure.”

Even just by watching the games, you can tell Durant is in a different place. He’s repeatedly off the bench cheering for his teammates. He snarls after blocking opponents who dare challenge him at the rim. KD’s got a handshake with seemingly every player on the roster. He’s having fun while playing maybe the best basketball of his Nets tenure. His teammates notice it, too, and recognize how essential it is that their leader is enjoying his time in Brooklyn after such a tumultuous summer.

“KD has a grin on his face and is just playing hard,” said Irving on Monday. “Our leader is happy.”

So, if schematic changes haven’t fueled Brooklyn’s turnaround, what has? Well, simply put, it appears one thing has made the wholesale difference: accountability.

“Jacque has made it very clear if you are not playing hard enough, he is going to let you know about it,” said Irving. “We have guys on the bench who are willing to go out and do those things. So, it makes you take advantage of the time you’re out there and the minutes you are out there and hold everyone else accountable.”

With that accountability comes a balance between giving players freedom while ensuring professionalism, said Ben Simmons during Thursday’s practice.

“He trusts us a lot,” said Simmons. “I think he gives us that freedom. But with that comes responsibility in terms of being a professional, locking in, focusing on the floor, so he gives us a lot of leeway, but at the same time, it’s a lot of responsibility.”

“Next Man Up” suddenly has a new meaning. No longer does it only refer to when the Nets are in need of production while shorthanded. Now, the catchy moniker calibrates the healthy amount of inter-roster competition that can drive Brooklyn to the promised land.

Not long ago, the Nets were on the brink of disaster once more, a team seemingly doomed to explode into a billion pieces after a shaky 2-6 start. Now, Brooklyn has the outlines of a championship contender with still more room to grow.

“You got to give a lot of credit to JV honestly,” said Nic Claxton after Thursday’s practice. “He’s done a phenomenal job changing our mentality. So you give a lot of credit to him. And also, everybody who’s out there, no matter who’s been out due to injuries and everybody, we have just been locked down and we’re having a lot of fun.”

Jacque Vaughn deserves his flowers for commandeering that change. If his squad keeps it up, you could be looking at the first Coach of the Year in Nets franchise history.