When Jacque Vaughn was at the tail end of his NBA career as a backup point guard for the San Antonio Spurs, Mike Budenholzer was an assistant on Gregg Popovich’s staff.
Budenholzer, now an NBA championship-winning head coach for the Milwaukee Bucks, remembers Vaughn vividly.
“As a player, his work ethic and his attention to detail was just off the charts,” he said on Friday. “He’s about as sharp as anybody I’ve ever been around as a player, and his thirst for game plans and little moments where he can make a difference and impact winning, it was high-level.
“And as a coach, it’s kind of the same thing.”
Vaughn was not the candidate the basketball world saw coming.
He amassed just a 58-158 record as a first-time head coach with the Orlando Magic. The Nets had passed on Vaughn after firing Kenny Atkinson, hiring Steve Nash despite Vaughn’s success in the Orlando Bubble. They were set to overlook him a second time after dismissing Nash seven games into the season.
Vaughn, himself, even joked he was the “write-in candidate” after the Nets chose not to hire Ime Udoka.
“But I’m OK with that,” Vaughn said. “I said to my wife, I might have not been her first choice and we’ve been together 20 years, so you know, it could all work out. So off we go.”
And off the Nets have gone.
The Nets are a league-best 20-7 since Vaughn replaced Nash. They enter Christmas on an eight-game winning streak coming off a signature victory over Budenholzer’s No. 1 seeded Bucks on Friday.
They are now the scariest team in all of basketball — because they’re winning at a high rate and haven’t yet fully put the pieces together.
Kevin Durant’s production (and his career-high shooting efficiency) has been the only constant.
Save for Royce O’Neale and Nic Claxton, important role players have all missed time due to injury, plus Kyrie Irving served an eight-game suspension as a result of a controversial social media post. Not to mention the many iterations of Ben Simmons, who is vital to the Nets’ success but continues to work back into form after offseason back surgery.
Under Vaughn, the Nets are proving they are not just the names on the back of their jerseys. They have finally become a cohesive team. Just when everyone began counting them out, Vaughn flipped the script.
“Jacque’s made it very clear,” Irving said. “If you’re not playing hard enough, he’s gonna let you know about it.”
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Irving’s initial reaction was to “call cap.”
About a month before Friday’s matchup against the Bucks, Vaughn gave his players a reality check.
The Nets are one of the smallest teams in basketball. It allows them to play fast and switch screens on defense, but it leaves the team susceptible to getting drilled on the glass.
So Vaughn used a practice day to call his players out. Securing a rebound starts with boxing out an opposing player, and the Nets just weren’t doing that enough.
Vaughn pulled each player’s individual box-out rate. Irving, for example, ranked second-to-last on the team.
“Who’s making these stats?” he jokingly recalled in an initial reaction. “You want to talk about holding people accountable?”
It went down the line.
Simmons, listed at 6-10, 240 pounds, declined to share his box-out rate but said “it wasn’t great.”
“It’s right in front of your eyes, it’s not a made-up thing,” Simmons said. “It’s a real stat.”
Claxton, the starting center, ranked in the team’s top percentile but said Vaughn’s message hit home for the players who were on the lower end of the spectrum.
“A lot of guys didn’t like where they were,” he said. “I think since then we’ve been making a conscious effort.”
The proof is in the pudding: from the beginning of the season through Nov. 25, the Nets gave up the fourth-most offensive rebounds per game. Since that point, entering Christmas, the Nets allow the fifth-fewest. They have not made any roster changes.
As for Irving, he is averaging 6.6 rebounds in the month of December alone, up from 4.1 through Dec. 1.
“When I’m able to hold myself accountable and Jacque’s able to hold me accountable and my teammates are able to hold me accountable, then it makes it easier for us to hold each other accountable by doing the little things,” he said. “These are things that we have to do every night to win.”
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Timeout, Jacque Vaughn.
It happens immediately after a blunder on defense — or sometimes a broken offensive play on a key possession.
One of the more glaring differences between Vaughn and Nash is the use of timeouts. Where Nash neglected to call a timeout, Vaughn nips a bad play in the bud immediately.
It happened minutes into the Nets’ blowout victory over the shorthanded Golden State Warriors on Wednesday. Draymond Green drove down the lane and the Nets shifted over to help, leaving Kevon Looney wide-open for a dump-off pass and an easy, uncontested dunk.
Vaughn had seen enough. The score was only 8-4, but he wanted to give his team a wake-up call. They came out after the timeout and finished the first quarter up, 46-17.
“We understand we made a mistake,” Durant said. “It’s always beneficial for us. So I love when he does that. It just keeps us on point.”
Vaughn likes to use a line he got from his coach at Kansas, Roy Williams: “The old eye in the sky don’t lie.”
It’s why he frequently uses the iPad to call out defensive miscues during timeouts. The tablet brings the team together and creates productive dialogue for how they can make adjustments on the fly.
“We didn’t have that previously,” said Vaughn. “So that communication part, whether it was a clip guys wanted to see at halftime that we talked through, I think that’s where the trust is growing: to be able to communicate, to be able to ask questions, have a little psychological safety where you can ask and not be reprimanded and we try to figure this thing out together.”
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It’s Dec. 15, one of few legitimate practice days in a wocky Nets season that has seen traditional game day shootarounds scrapped in favor of regular pregame walkthroughs. The team has clearly taken to their new coach. They have rallied around him in a way that makes him an unquestioned early season Coach of the Year candidate.
Vaughn says he owes “a lot of people” for his coaching style. He cited the late Jerry Sloan, who he played for on a perennial contending Utah Jazz team alongside Karl Malone and John Stockton.
Vaughn learned from Popovich, one of the greatest basketball coaches in the history of the sport. He learned playing for Doc Rivers, Terry Stotts, Lawrence Frank and Williams.
Vaughn’s vision for the Nets was never solely tethered to Durant, Irving or Simmons, though the three play integral roles on how deep of a playoff run this team can make.
Vaughn’s vision for Brooklyn was always about holding everyone accountable from Seven (Durant) and Eleven (Irving) to the 14th and 15th players on the bench. It’s why the only win more critical than Friday’s victory over the Bucks was their 136-133 win over the Indiana Pacers on Dec. 10.
Entering that night, Durant ranked No. 1 in total minutes and O’Neale ranked second. Vaughn rested every key rotation player except Yuta Watanabe and Edmond Sumner. Behind 33 points off the bench from Cam Thomas, the Nets’ second and third unit stole a victory from a rolling Pacers team on the road in Indiana.
“[The vision] was based on no excuses,” Vaughn said. “And so whoever is going to be out there on the floor will be able to adapt as long as you’re playing hard.”
It took the unlikely, write-in candidate for the Nets to find their identity on both ends of the floor.
The Nets are going to move the ball. They are going to compete on defense. They are going to box out because Vaughn demands it of them.
Above all, the Nets are going to win games because they aren’t relying solely on the names on the back of their jerseys. They are relying on each other, and Vaughn has been the catalyst.
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