LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Jacque Vaughn can name every player on the Nets roster.
I was only half-kidding when I asked him.
The Nets are in central Florida getting ready for the NBA re-start. A version of the Nets, anyway. Gone are Kyrie Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie and DeAndre Jordan. In are Donta Hall, Justin Anderson and Jeremiah Martin. Kevin Durant hasn’t played all season. Jamal Crawford, signed on July 9, hasn’t either.
There isn’t much to be gained here for Brooklyn. The Nets were pasted by Pelicans in the exhibition opener on Wednesday. And it won’t be the last time. The team has been badly depleted by injury and illness. They are, quite literally, signing players off the street. Brooklyn will still likely make the playoffs—only a complete collapse coupled with a stunning surge by the equally zombified Wizards could change that—but that team charter should be fueled up and ready to go after Game 4 of the first round.
For the Nets, it’s all about next season.
A season Vaughn hopes to be a part of.
It has been more than four months since the Nets fired Kenny Atkinson and elevated Vaughn to head coach. Vaughn got off to a good start, leading Brooklyn to wins over Chicago and the Lakers. They were en route to the Bay Area to face the woebegone Warriors when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the season.
“Disappointed that it ended that way,” Vaughn told SI. “I wanted to see what we could do as a full roster together. But then I had to completely pivot quickly and not think about my scenario and what was next for me. I was totally focused on the organization and players.”
Not too long ago, Vaughn was a rising star in the coaching ranks. He retired in 2009 after a solid 12-year playing career. In 2010, San Antonio, where Vaughn played his final three seasons, offered him a job on Gregg Popovich’s bench. Three years later, the Magic hired him as head coach.
Orlando … didn’t work out. The Magic were rebuilding. Dwight Howard was gone, and with him went any hope of contending. Remnants of Orlando’s 2009 Finals team didn’t mix well with the young players brought in to (eventually) replace them. The Magic won 20 games in Vaughn’s first year. They won 23 in his second. Vaughn was fired midway through his third. His .269 winning percentage ranks as the worst in franchise history.
“I was young and I think at that time I wanted to make sure that everyone knew that I was capable of doing the job, of being a head coach,” Vaughn said. “I might have at that time not opened up practice, maybe, because that's the way I learned things. I might've not wanted a guy to comment on social media. Maybe not wanted a guy to shoot his warmup in a do-rag. That's the way I was brought up. I've definitely transitioned and understand and have a better grasp of today's player, today surroundings It's just the maturation of being a young coach.”
Vaughn didn’t wallow in his sorrows long. He received plenty of positive reinforcement. Shortly after being fired, Jerry Sloan, who Vaughn played his first four seasons for in Utah, called to congratulate him. “He said, ‘You’re officially a coach,’” Vaughn said. Popovich told him this was just a speed bump. Said Vaughn, “He reinforced his belief in me.”
Vaughn spent the following season scouting for the Spurs. “I walked right back into that [Orlando] arena and scouted,” Vaughn said. In 2016, Brooklyn added Vaughn to Atkinson’s staff. He proved to be a valuable resource for Atkinson, a first year head coach. He forged a strong bond with players, having, what Jarrett Allen called, “that players mentality.”
There may be no more significant move this offseason than Brooklyn’s next head coach. The Nets are built to win next season. Durant will be back. Irving, too. Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen and Joe Harris are high level role players. Jordan is an experienced big. Brooklyn will be among the title favorites in 2021. The right coach could make the difference.
Vaughn won’t lobby for the job. But in a socially distanced interview outside the Nets make-shift practice floor in the Coronado Springs hotel, you can tell he wants it. Vaughn has a strong relationship with GM Sean Marks, a fellow Spurs alum. He worked closely with Irving this season. He checks in with Durant regularly. He wouldn’t be the most glamorous choice to fill the role, but Vaughn sees himself as the right one.
“It's interesting to go over the landscape of what that young [Orlando] team looked like and how my coaching style, I don't know, paired with it,” Vaughn said. “[Brooklyn] is a good pairing. I have been around veteran teams and understand what it feels like to be at a championship level and play in championship games. I understand how you still hold guys accountable, but also be able to have climate control. And it's not just dictatorship control. I've been able to see that, embrace it and I do think the pairing fits.”
For now, Vaughn is living in the moment. It’s unfair to evaluate Vaughn with a depleted Nets roster, but Vaughn hopes to surprise people. He talks to Marks daily and has told his coaching staff not to worry about the future. It’s telling that Brooklyn has shown little interest in the coaching market, but Vaughn doesn’t want to get caught up in it. “We'll operate in the now, in this moment and we'll keep it as simple as that,” Vaughn said. “I'm not going to complicate this thing.”
This year, Vaughn gets the zombie Nets.
Next year, perhaps the real ones.