Fans of an underachieving team want to fire the head coach. No matter the sport, no matter the era, if something is wrong with the squad beyond a badly underperforming star player or a litany of injuries, it’s time to put someone on the hot seat.
Jacque Vaughn was an obvious candidate for the backlash of a fandom as the Brooklyn Nets started their backslide into the NBA’s bottom-tier. He wasn’t playing the young-player-who-should-play-more, another timeless trope, enough, and the team was playing below the expectations they had created. A 13-10 record has become an ugly 17-26 mark in less than six weeks as we approach a pivotal edition of the trade deadline.
Yet, Vaughn is coaching a team with one NBA-level ball-handler who’s seemingly focused on his next destination:
Spencer Dinwiddie was asked if it bothers him to sit on the bench in crunch-time. His response is pretty, pretty telling.— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) January 24, 2024
"Oh, no. I mean, we have phenomenal players on this roster. We have guys who we're entrusting the team to going forward, phenomenal human beings, phenomenal…
And if you ranked every NBA team by their best player, or by their 2nd-best player or 3rd-best player, would the Nets rank much higher than 23rd, where their record currently has them?
This season, which has turned from pleasant (the hope) to miserable (the fear) is about the Brooklyn Nets lying in the bed they made. Ownership and management did not want to tear it down after sending their stars out of town, instead preferring to accumulate assets and players on reasonable contracts while waiting to make that next star move. The “waiting” was always going to stink, and asking fans to enjoy it is not a decision beyond reproach.
So, much of the ire directed Jacque Vaughn’s way has been misplaced. That’s just part of the NBA head coach job description. But with Brooklyn losing even more games than they should, in distressing fourth-quarter collapses no less, he looks to be part of the problem.
The first bright red flag, more than a late timeout or a curious substitution, came in Paris. Before the Nets faced the Cleveland Cavaliers, they had two full days of practice, a rarity in a jam-packed NBA calendar.
“We had two really good days of practice,” said Dennis Smith Jr. at the time. “Yesterday we came in, got up and down a little bit, got after it. Each day was super high energy everybody locked in. No reps were wasted today. So that’s major for us going forward.”
Cam Johnson agreed, saying the schedule “allows us some reflection time where we can really dig deep and take some time to iron some things out, which is exactly what we did the last few days.”
And after all that, Brooklyn came out against Cleveland and scored 34 points in the first half, facing a Cavs defense that opted to switch nearly every ball-screen. It’s been a common strategy for defenses to deploy against the Nets who simply don’t have a lot of true offensive mismatches. Here’s former Steve Jones (of the Dunker Spot) post from December 26:
The Nets vs. a defense switching, volume 28392— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) December 27, 2023
And yet, Cleveland plunged Brooklyn’s offense to G-League levels. Not only did the Nets lose the battle, but they didn’t look prepared. Cleveland was physical off the ball and plugged the gaps on drives, but Vaughn’s squad couldn’t even get a backdoor cut here or a slip-screen there. Just some Cam Thomas bailout buckets to massage the scoreboard.
After the game, Vaughn and Thomas each spoke about what the Nets have to do going forward, and the differences in their answers were stark. The head coach went for the realist approach, admitting that it’s hard to break a switching defense when guys can’t win 1-on-1 battles, and that his team doesn’t have a ton of those players. Vaughn wasn’t wrong, per sé, but chalking up a 34-point half on (inter)national television to roster construction did not land well, not when Thomas himself discussed slipping screens quicker and mixing in more movement off the ball:
I asked both Jacque Vaughn and Cam Thomas about what BKN's struggles vs. switching defenses. Do guys have to be better attacking 1-on-1, or do they need a more diverse plan of attack?— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) January 12, 2024
Listen to the differences in their answers: pic.twitter.com/1bTcAz6Yor
The offense and its blandness is the key culprit in Brooklyn’s dismal fourth-quarter performances of late. In their last two losses, the Nets have scored a total of six points in each of the game’s final five-minute stretches! That’s just unnerving.
To be clear, in ten total minutes of crunch-time over the last two games, your Brooklyn Nets are:
- 2-of-20 from the floor
- 1-of-2 on free-throws
- With three turnovers, and
- SIX total points
The first loss came at the hands of a historic 22-0 run courtesy of the Los Angeles Clippers. When Vaughn was asked about his team’s failure to produce down the stretch against the Clippers he took the moment to chastise his group.
He noted the team watched the fourth quarter in L.A. at shootaround on Tuesday, an NBA rarity, because, “I don’t think players watch film like they used to. They watch highlights. And so you get this impression of what happened in the game. And so I think you just need to be honest with guys and watch the film with them so they could see what actually happened.”
Vaughn then cited a Russell Westbrook 3-pointer at the end of the third quarter as a an example of a possession that Brooklyn gave away. (He did eventually cite the Nets’ offense as being too plain in their mismatch-hunting as another fatal flaw.)
Still, the messaging felt off. Why did a team that played so well for three-and-a-half quarters fall apart so instantaneously? What’s the plan to avoid such stark offensive stagnation late in games?
Then, déjà vu struck against the New York Knicks, who won the fourth quarter 32-18, and thus, the game. After which, Mikal Bridges had the following to say: “When teams make a run, make a push, we’ve just got to handle adversity a little bit better. We had it earlier in the year, won some games towards end, but kind of lost that. It’s tough when you keep losing at the end, you know?”
Nets fans certainly know, and it’s even more frustrating because, as Bridges said, the team has proved they can close games. They were 13-10 after all. Yet, you wouldn’t know it listening to Vaughn, who continues to discuss the late losses as learning experiences. Again, here he is after the Clippers L “So, that corporate knowledge, the IQ of building that up with this group and giving them a bit of a comfort, a pillow, a blanket to sleep and lay on is important for our group. Watching the fourth quarter was important for our group today.”
There’s a disconnect, and it’s only growing as the Nets’ losing ways do the same.
I’m not talking about the infamous punt game against the Milwaukee Bucks, a decision that likely didn’t come from Jacque Vaughn but one that cost the franchise $100,000, a decision that Mikal Bridges did not enjoy:
Mikal Bridges: “Didn’t like the choice and whatever that was. But it’s whatever. Definitely was not a fan.”— Zach Braziller (@NYPost_Brazille) December 28, 2023
Did you need a rest:
"No, never do." #nets
What the Brooklyn Nets have done since then — go 2-11 — is entirely independent of a rest tactic that every team deploys once or twice during a season. The Nets have had a month to correct course, even a pitstop in Paris where they only played one game in eight days. And still, the problems remain.
It’s impossible to look at a 22-0 run from the opposition in the fourth quarter, particularly when it’s part of a larger trend, and not side-eye the coaching staff. Brian Lewis of the New York Post did just that, when he wrote that Vaughn “didn’t seem to have them prepared for the tactical changes the Clippers made.”
Right now, the Nets are taking on the attitude of their head coach, but that attitude is one of inconsistency. Outside of the on-court results, the most recent example has been Lonnie Walker IV. Now eight games into his return from a left hamstring injury. Vaughn said the high-flying guard didn’t play much on the West Coast thanks to a minutes restriction, but prior to the Knicks contest on Tuesday, changed course on why Walker can’t crack the 15-minute threshold:
“My conversation with Lonnie is on both ends of the floor. And so, usually if I have a conversation with you guys, I’ve already said this to the player,” said Vaughn. “So for example, ‘I love what you did offensively in the game, but you can’t foul James Harden on the three. That was just a no-no, you can’t do those things.’ So, in order to get extended minutes, you can’t do those things. You got to help us rebound because we’re small. You got to do those things to warrant extra minutes.
Jacque Vaughn does not have the NBA’s best gig. The Brooklyn Nets have, in many ways intentionally, not built a playoff-worthy roster for the 2023-’24 season, and their record reflects that. Help may eventually come, but not anytime soon, and not from the inside.
Yet, Brooklyn is 4-16 in their last 20 games, an unacceptable mark even in a transition year. As you may expect with such a slide, something feels off. It wasn’t always this way, even at the beginning of Brooklyn’s troubles.
But as the team continues to choke away games in the fourth quarter, to look confused against switching defenses, Vaughn looks to be part of the problem. His answers aren’t meshing with those of his players, often discussing the deficiencies of the roster and individual play when faced with questions about troubling trends.
There is no shortage of worries with the Brooklyn Nets. It’s time to add another one to the list.