The last time we were inspired to write about the Brooklyn Nets, they were in an utter state of chaos. They began the year 2-7, losing by wide margins and plagued by scandal and outrage when Kyrie Irving once again chose perceived freedom of personal expression over all else, leading to a suspension and contributing to the ouster of coach Steve Nash.
At the time, it was widely speculated that Irving’s days in Brooklyn were over–indeed, both its outraged fan base (especially those who were personally offended by Irving’s “endorsement” of a controversial film) and most of the mainstream press clamored for it. And star Kevin Durant, while still performing at a quality level, was growing increasingly frustrated with the circus that his chosen outlet for proving he could deliver a championship as a leader and not a co-star to the likes of Steph Curry had become. And when the initial solution to the Nash problem , Ime Udoka, proved to be unhirable given the baggage still associated with his ouster as Celtics coach, the Nets had become a punch line as well as a bottom-tier team.
Enter Jacque Vaughn, Nash’s assistant and initially picked as an interim head coach as the Udoka situation played out. Vaughn had a previous stint as Nets’ interim head coach, having been named to replace Kenny Atkinson just before the pandemic shut down the league and went an impressive 7-3 in mostly bubble games, though bowing in the first round of the single-site summer playoffs. Vaughn is well-liked and respected by the players, including both Durant and Irving, and cooler minds actually thought he was exactly the adult in the room the circus needed.
They couldn’t have been more correct.
Since Vaughn was named head coach, the Nets have won three-quarters of their games and are now an NBA best 21-7 during that stretch, the latest exclamation point being last night’s 125-117 road conquest of the Cleveland Cavaliers that extended their Brooklyn-best, and current season high, winning streak to nine games. And Irving and Durant are playing at the levels that many predicted–and some feared–that they would be capable of. They each dropped 32 points on the Cavs, who fell behind Brooklyn in the Eastern Conference standings as the Nets ascended to third place. And having just beaten Milwaukee just before Christmas in Brooklyn, and with Boston now showing signs of mortality after a tough West Coast road trip, the conference dynamics are now putting the Nets squarely in the mix of contenders for a suddenly wide-open championship chase, especially since the defending champion Warriors are now looking like also-rans with Curry out of action for several weeks to come.
We’re a long way to the finish line, and as Brooklyn has demonstrated, they are a highly volatile collection of talents. But Vaughn himself knows he has a role in keeping things real–despite Brooklyn’s continued reluctance for him to have that chance. As he told Tribune Media Services last week:
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.
And, at least for now, they’re not slowing down. Because finally they have a driver who can handle the machine. And they’re finally fun to watch, and it’s a lot less embarrassing to like them.
For that alone, Vaughn’s candidacy for Coach of the Year is already pretty solid. At the very least, you could say his hiring has been a Net gain for the franchise.