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Without superstars but with a ton of depth, Nets offense needs time to gel

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Miami Heat v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images

With four new players in their rotation and without two of the game’s great players, the Nets offense will be called on to retool starting Friday when they return from the All-Star Break to face the Chicago Bulls Friday in the Windy City.

In the team’s final three games before the break, the Nets lost two games but in the third, against the Heat, Mikal Bridges exploded with his best game as a pro, a 45-8-5-2-2 line that shocked even him. But Jacque Vaughn doesn’t think the key return in the Kevin Duran trade needs to do that again. Rather, it’s up to him and his players to find a happy medium ... and as he has often said, keep things simple.

“I don’t anticipate Mikal having 45 every game, so that piece I’ll acknowledge, but to see his game grow, to play pick and roll, to be able to take someone off the bounce, to offensive rebound, to be able to push in transition, all those things, we’re definitely going to tap into, but at the same time, trying to win games while we’re doing that,” said Vaughn in his first comments on the team’s short-term future following his signing a four-year extension.

“So that’s where you find yourself where you want guys to be comfortable to take risks and be curious and be interested, but at the same time, we’ve gotta win games going forward.”

Vaughn left no doubt that the Nets are still all about winning despite the loss of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving and the need to integrate four new players. In doing so, JV is borrowing some terminology and even sets from the Suns and Mavericks playbooks to ease the transition and use Bridges in some of the roles KD played before being traded, particularly pin down screens to get Bridges free in the mid-range where he has proven most effective as he noted in an answer to our Matt Brooks question...

“When K was here, we had that similar pindown, Nic [Claxton] would go get Kevin, but we started at a different angle,” he said. “Just looking at some of the Phoenix stuff and to get Mikal a little bit more freedom, we moved it up to the elbow, and then kinda playing out of that. Actually that will be a part of us going forward and we’ll kinda grow from there a little bit.

“Really think Spencer, Mikal, and Nic can have some more synergy and grow together whether that ends up being double drag in the middle of the floor, whether there is some stack pick and roll, we’ll use [Cam Johnson] in that also because of his ability to shoot, so you’ll start seeing us flare a little bit.”

Vaughn would also like to see an increase in pace.

“The offensive piece is can we play with an extreme amount of pace and transition? That’s increasing our transition attempts and threes, that’s our kick-aheads, that’s our potential assists,” Vaughn said. “So a lot of bullet points underneath that, just because we don’t have the shot creators like we used to. So we’ve got to be smart in the way we play on the offensive end.”

Still, building a defensive identity remains the top priority and with two of the NBA’s top defenders on his roster in Bridges and Claxton, that would make sense. It should also be noted that defense was Vaughn’s responsibility during his six seasons as an assistant coach.

“You know me, I’m very curious and I don’t mind taking risks. And so is that going to be going into different games with different game plans in order to get us to have an identity of really stirring things up and being agitators on the defensive end of floor?”

One area where Vaughn would like to see improvement is forcing turnovers. While their rim protection has been a strength, getting opponents to give up the ball before getting to the rim is not. They ranks 20th in forcing turnovers for the season but 28th in the four games since the roster turnover, as Kristian Winfield reports.

Vaughn would also like to give Claxton some more rest, particularly in the team’s remaining back-to-backs. As he pointed out before the break, the Nets center has played as many minutes this year already as he played in all of his last two seasons.

“We’ll have some options going into those games,” Vaughn said. “So we’ll be strategic about what games he plays more minutes in than others, but still get a pulse of getting him some rest as we get going in these 24 games.”

That would seem to mean Day’Ron Sharpe as well as Yuta Watanabe and Dorian Finney-Smith will get some more minutes at the 5.

Still, Vaughn said the Nets are not prioritizing adding a big body to the roster. They still have an open roster spot and there are a number of big men who’ve been waived or bought out in recent days including veteran Serge Ibaka and youngsters in Moses Brown and Tony Bradley.

“We will continue to keep our eyes open to see if something makes sense, but what we don’t want is someone that’s gonna detract from the culture in the locker room. That’s the biggest piece of that thing,” he added. As long as a player isn’t on another team’s roster by March 1, he can join the post-season roster.

Vaughn spoke as well about how the Nets may use Ben Simmons going forward, noting that he paired the 6’11” Simmons and the 6’11” Claxton for a 2:57 stretch vs. the Heat. It may have hurt spacing, but Vaughn thinks it can work defensively for short periods.

“There’s some time when Ben might guard a perimeter guy or Nic can guard a perimeter guy, and then we still have another big to protect us at the rim,” Vaughn said. “So I’ll probably always lean into [spacing and pace], but have that in the back of my pocket, for sure.”

Simmons, now the highest paid Net by $14 million, has been the team’s big disappointment so far this season, but Vaughn hinted that the All-Star Break gave him a chance to do some brainstorming about his role coming up.

“We still got some mixing to do,” Vaughn said of the rotation. “But yeah, got a chance to script out some potential lineups over the break for sure.”

He also addressed how he will use Cam Thomas going forward, with an emphasis on efficiency. Thomas, it appears, has been disappointed by his playing time after he scored 134 points in three games.

“What I think Cam can be is a bonafide, efficient and productive scorer for us when asked upon. He’s a guy that can shot create, but we don’t anticipate him playing 40 minutes as he did in those games,” said Vaughn.

“So the big part of our whole group is we have depth and so why not lean into that? I’ll continue to love on Cam and you know, he was extremely efficient last game for us, and I think that’s an area that he can repeat over and over again and be asked upon to do that over and over again, without impacting and having a negative impact on the team overall, because at the end of the day, it’s about the entire group, and I’m gonna continue to push that culture more than anything else.”

Vaughn, of course, also discussed his own situation. His new contract announced on Tuesday is reportedly a four-year extension. That would take him through the 2026-27 season, which a year longer than any current player contract. It would also mark 10 years with the organization.

“I just kept doing my job,” Vaughn said when asked about the new deal. “For me, I’m excited about the challenge ahead of growing with this group, getting the most out of this group and pushing this group,”

He noted his longevity with the club gives him a unique perspective.

“I’ve seen it all here, whether it’s multiple coaches, it’s the bubble, whether it’s a toenail over the 3-point line, whether it’s trade requests, whether it’s all of the above, and so to still be a part of this organization means a lot to me,” Vaughn said. “That means the way I carry myself on a daily basis, people appreciate it. So there’s something to that, but at the end of the day I just kept doing my job and showing up every single day and ready to rumble every single day.”

That next “rumble” will take place Friday.