By his own admission, Jacque Vaughn isn’t the same coach who lost almost three-quarters of his games with the Magic. He’s older, wiser. Better.
Now back in Orlando — but this time for the NBA restart, as interim of the Nets — he’s showing the league how much better.
Since stepping in for the departed Kenny Atkinson — and being robbed of much of his roster by either injury or the coronavirus — Vaughn has held the Nets together and shepherded a threadbare squad into the playoffs.
“He’s done a great job,” Jarrett Allen said. “It’d be hard for me to be able to task somebody with keeping a team, let alone having to bring a bunch of news guys in, having to get a lot of people accustomed to the team and to how we play, bringing us into a bubble.
“Just all the factors going against him — he’s been able to rally us together, rally us under his system, help us believe in him and believe in the things he’s doing for us — he’s just done an unbelievable job.”
Since succeeding Atkinson, Vaughn is 5-2 as interim. And despite missing Kyrie Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie, DeAndre Jordan and Taurean Prince, he’s still 3-2 in the restart, already exceeding Vegas’ win projection with three games left on the schedule.
Clearly no decisions have been made yet, and once Brooklyn’s season eventually ends Vaughn will face stiff competition for what will be a plum position. But expected Nets candidates Ty Lue and Jason Kidd could both be pursued by New Orleans, according to ESPN. And everything Vaughn has done in the restart will only strengthen his résumé.
“He’s done an amazing job,” Caris LeVert said. “Everybody trusts Jacque in the organization, everyone trusts his decision-making. He’s made several switches with the lineup, how we’re playing offensively, defensively. He’s been great with adjustment and things like that.
“It’s definitely been tough with the lineup we had, with the roster we had, and he’s done a great job of adjusting and being adaptable. The guards really feed off of what he brings to the table. He’s a competitive guard, a competitive coach. He’s played in the league for a while and everyone follows his lead.”
Vaughn has seemed completely comfortable in his skin as a coach, showing both tactical sense and leadership ability. Both had been in question when he went 58-158 with the rebuilding Magic.
“You’re always introspective in your approach to the game to make sure that you’re doing your part, my part as a coach,” Vaughn said. “So, the challenge is getting this group ready to play.
“We have some guys that’ve been with us for a long time, but we have a new group that we’re counting on to play minutes. So, we’re going to maximize the talent and maximize this group. That’s the challenge for me, and that’s the challenge I look forward to every single day with this group.”
He has maximized the talent by fostering a midrange game, stressing ball movement (second in assist-to-turnover ratio in the restart) and putting LeVert in spots to excel — be it at point Friday or operating more in the post. And the Nets have responded to his social justice messaging, like Thursday’s slideshow on voter suppression and the Voting Rights Act.
“We’ve made a commitment to continue to educate our group, and [that] was an opportunity,” Vaughn said. “We’ll keep putting opportunities in front of our guys to grab onto.”
The Nets will get an opportunity at the playoffs, heading into Sunday’s tilt versus the Clippers seventh in the East, 1 ½ games clear of Orlando. They’ll face Vaughn’s old team Tuesday, with a good chance to avoid a first-round date versus Milwaukee.
Yes, they just upset the Bucks this past week, and dropped the season series to Toronto. But nobody wants any part of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s league leaders, and the Raptors’ blowout loss to Boston on Friday showed signs of vulnerability. Are the Nets good enough to take advantage?
“They’re a really good team. They’re really good in that team stuff,” Bogdan Bogdanovic said. “Whatever they do, they do it as a team, offensively, defensively and it’s really hard to beat them.”