NEW YORK – Jacque Vaughn knows he wasn’t the top choice to replace Steve Nash as the Brooklyn Nets head coach.
He also knows he wasn’t his wife’s first choice as a husband. And with a marriage that’s spanned decades, who’s to say the Nets’ partnership with Vaughn can’t go well despite that?
“I guess I was the write-in candidate,” Vaughn joked, referencing Tuesday’s Election Day, before the Nets-Knicks game. “But I’m OK with that. I said to my wife I might not have been her first choice and we’ve been together 20 years so it can all work out. So off we go.”
After Nash was dismissed a week ago, the Nets removed Vaughn’s interim tag on Wednesday and named him head coach before the team’s game against the Knicks. It’s a multi-year deal that goes through the 2023-24 season.
“He really just simplifies the game,” Joe Harris said. “He did that when we were in the bubble, same thing, but he makes sure that everyone is fully aware of what’s going on. He’s the type of coach (when) we go through a (scouting report), there’s going to be a lot of transparency and dialogue.
“It’s not just him speaking and hoping everybody understands. It’s this collective thing where he makes sure that everybody is fully aware of what’s going on and understands what’s happening for the evening.”
Kevin Durant echoed Harris in his postgame press conference shortly after Vaughn got his first win without the interim tag — a blowout 112-85 win over the Knicks. Durant said Vaughn has made things easier on the Nets and gave Vaughn his full endorsement shortly after presenting him with the game ball in the locker room.
A special moment for Coach JV 👏 pic.twitter.com/N1vuloWi3K
— Brooklyn Nets (@BrooklynNets) November 10, 2022
“I was excited for him,” Durant said. “I know the work that he puts in every day. I know how much he cares about the development of each player and his team as a whole. Looking forward to playing for him. All the guys have answered how he wants us to play. So I’m looking forward to how we progress after this.”
By hiring Vaughn over Udoka, whose name came up shortly after Nash’s departure, the Nets are choosing stability over more drama. Vaughn’s resume doesn’t have the NBA Finals trip that Udoka’s does, but for the Nets, stability has been in short supply in recent seasons. The organization is on its third head coach since March 2020, and Vaughn has been a constant throughout it.
“That’s JV, a very stable, poised under pressure gentleman,” Marks said. “That’s who he is. He’s seen it all. He knows all of us. There’s a relationship here that he already has, whether it’s front office and staff and also the players. At this particular time, to be honest, we were going to have to find somebody better than JV in order for it not to be JV.”
The Nets changed course from their initial plan to hire Udoka because of several factors, multiple sources with direct knowledge of the decision making have told The Athletic‘s Shams Charania. The organization’s background check on Udoka took longer than expected and the public backlash against the decision so shortly after Kyrie Irving’s promotion of an anti-Semitic documentary portrayed the Nets as a team looking to win at all costs. Irving was suspended for a minimum of five games without pay on Nov. 3 and raised questions about the team’s ability to contend in the short- and long-term, given the lack of clarity around his situation. That was another factor in the decision against hiring Udoka.
When asked Wednesday, Marks declined to address any specifics regarding the organization’s pursuit of Udoka.
But when hiring Udoka became untenable, the Nets pivoted to Vaughn. The team has bought in since the Los Angeles native took over for Nash and has created a positive atmosphere despite the drama surrounding the team. The team’s defense, which Vaughn ran under Nash, started the season in the league’s cellar, but has climbed to 11th amid their turnaround. Marks called Vaughn “the catalyst” to the Nets’ recent play.
Irving met with Adam Silver on Tuesday according to Charania, and the meeting seemed to go well, paving the way for Irving to start taking the appropriate steps to return to the team. With Vaughn’s situation clarified, the Nets can now turn their attention back to Irving. Both Marks and Vaughn said Wednesday that they have n’t talked to Irving since his suspension of him. Marks said he’s spoken to Irving’s representatives.
“I’ve been around this game a long time,” Vaughn said about navigating the drama on Nov. 1, when he was named interim coach. “I’m like, I’m young. But I’m old. I’m rich. But I’m poor. That’s some song right? I’ve been around this thing almost 25 years, as a player also, I’ve been a part of locker rooms where a coach was fired, I’ve been a part of being fired. I’ve been across the board and (that) doesn’t change the stress and strain that it puts on individuals, on families, on organizations, on human beings.
“So I always lean on that and understand that. But anyone who knows me knows that I approach my job very seriously. And I’m here to do a job.”
A former point guard at Kansas, Vaughn has been in Brooklyn for seven years after arriving as former coach Kenny Atkinson’s lead assistant coach. His time with Atkinson could come in handy, should the Nets head for a rebuild. He came in with a staff that had no draft picks to work with and found a way to bring the team back to relevance because of the development of Harris, Spencer Dinwiddie, D’Angelo Russell and Jarrett Allen. If the organization pushes the reset button, Vaughn has a blueprint for how to handle it.
Vaughn took over after Atkinson left the Nets, days before the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily shut down the NBA. Vaughn coached the team in the NBA bubble to a 5-3 record despite having a short-handed team led by Caris LeVert, Allen and Harris. Aside from those three and Garrett Temple, most of that team is now out of the NBA. Amid the nationwide racial tension during the summer of 2020, Vaughn emulated by his former coach, Gregg Popovich, and spent a practice discussing the late Congressman John Lewis and his impact on the country, days after Lewis’ passing. Vaughn stayed on when Nash was hired and was a finalist for the New Orleans Pelicans head coaching job in 2021 before withdrawing because of personal reasons.
“No doubt the opportunity always felt (it) would come around if it was meant to be,” Vaughn said. “I really do believe in that. I teach my kids that. And I was okay if it didn’t come around. And my ability to still be around this group was something special to me and ended up coming around.”
In the summer of 2007, after Vaughn had completed his first season with the Spurs, Popovich met with his front office to discuss the impending free agency period. On the board was a list of players with their contract statuses and salaries. Popovich walked to the board, circled Vaughn’s name and turned to his staff.
“Get that guy signed for another year,” Popovich said. “I don’t care what happens. He is going to be great for our team no matter how much he plays.”
After a 12-year playing career, Vaughn landed with the Spurs as an assistant coach in 2010 before getting hired to be the Magic’s head coach two years later. He was just 37.
“One can always tell people who really understands the game from people who play for them,” Popovich said of Vaughn to The Athletic in August 2020. “He was always one of those. He was interested in the nuances of the game, always wondered about how we did things, he was always a part of what we wanted to get done as a group as a team, not just individuals but as a player and as a coach. His work ethic is fantastic, and he just has a natural affinity for understanding what wins and loses. He’s got the whole package, and I’m thrilled they’re doing so well.”
Evaluating Vaughn’s tenure in Orlando is difficult. Two weeks after he was hired, the organization traded Dwight Howard, the franchise player, signaling a teardown. Despite having young players to develop such as Tobias Harris, Victor Oladipo, Nikola Vučević and Aaron Gordon, Vaughn was fired two and half seasons in after the organization quickly pivoted toward wanting to contend. The Magic have made the playoffs just twice in the 10 years since Vaughn was hired, with a pair of first-round exits under Steve Clifford in 2019 and 2020.
“I definitely am glad I took that job,” Vaughn said of his time in Orlando. “It made me a better assistant coach, (know) what my head coach needs along the way. So that part was powerful. I’ve just grown as an individual. Much more secure in myself as you see with this beard right here. And so I just felt you can grow and be a better person, be a better coach and I’m fortunate to be in this situation. But I would have taken that job again. I learned from it. Still have friends, players that I coached that still come up to me so I’d do it again.”
In Brooklyn, Vaughn has been able to get the players to buy in since Nash’s departure and has pressed the right buttons on the floor. Despite Irving’s suspension and Simmons’ knee soreness, he’s helped the Nets win with some super small-ball lineups, including forward Yuta Watanabe playing center for the first time since high school. And while the Nets’ defense has improved, the team still lacks lockdown defenders
Vaughn got hired in part because of the stability he brings, but his tenure will be defined by his ability to turn the Nets’ season around and potentially bring them into contention. As interim coach, Vaughn has twice navigated the Nets’ through drama and uncertainty. Now that he’s been elevated to the top job, he’ll still have to do that — while finding ways to win.
(Photo of Jacque Vaughn and Royce O’Neale: Brad Penner / USA Today)