Jacque Vaughn is leading through unique times. Vaughn was named the Nets head coach less than a week before the NBA suspended its season in March, and while the league has been on hiatus, the country has seen an explosive wave of support for social justice and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Now, with the league’s return to play format in place and the Nets scheduled to travel to Orlando on July 7 to prepare for their first game of the restart on July 31, Vaughn is working to get his team ready under unprecedented circumstances.
“Definitely makes it challenging, and I think that’s the part that you have to embrace,” said Vaughn during a media session on Wednesday morning. “There’s no playbook, no handbook for this scenario. So a lot of it is gonna be coaching from the cortex and looking at all the options and exhausting all those options.”
The Nets were in California when play stopped, and feeling pretty good about things coming off a 104-102 win against the conference-leading Lakers, their third straight win and fourth in five games. Vaughn had taken over three days earlier, making his debut in a win over the Bulls at Barclays Center.
Vaughn was laying out to-dos and priorities for the transition and the rest of the season, and then it all just stopped. For months, like the rest of the league, he was in limbo. But over the course of June, the NBA formalized its plan to return to play, and with players returning to HSS Training Center for workouts, Vaughn and the Nets have been pivoting back toward an in-season mentality.
“From a strategic standpoint, as coaches we had time to look at film, see the things that we’re doing well, see the things that we wanted to improve on, any changes,” said Vaughn. “But at the same time, challenging yourself to do simple better, and that’s really going to be a goal for us in this reset of games. The last game we played together as a team: extreme amount of unselfishness, extreme amount of pride for the Brooklyn Nets, extreme amount of joy playing in a Laker game. So trying to get back to that position and replicate that won’t be easy, but I think overall that’s gonna be the challenge for us is to be in a position to galvanize the group.”
The group is going to look different as the Nets reassemble. Veteran Wilson Chandler has opted out of participating in Orlando, as has center DeAndre Jordan following his positive coronavirus test. Guard Spencer Dinwiddie, Brooklyn’s leading scorer and playmaker this season with 20.6 points and 6.8 assists per game, has also tested positive and experienced symptoms. Dinwiddie has not determined yet that he won’t play, and GM Sean Marks said Wednesday he is included in the team’s travel party for Orlando.
The Nets added guard Tyler Johnson, waiving Theo Pinson to clear room on the roster, and signed Justin Anderson to fill Chandler’s roster spot. Anderson was with Brooklyn on a 10-day contract earlier this season and completed the year in the G League with the Long Island Nets.
As of yet, Vaughn has not been able to lead the team in 5-on-5 workouts, with individual work only. Vaughn said it all leaves a great deal up in the air in terms of minutes and rotations. The one certainty is that things will look different.
“The team has been around each other in the protocol that the NBA has allowed us to do so,” said Vaughn. “A certain amount of guys have been in the facility only at the same time; one guy to a court with one coach, one basketball. That challenge of when you talk about a team sport, it’s already individualizing your preparation. So we’re missing that aspect until we get to Orlando.
“We don’t know what the starting five will look like. In my eyes, I still have to wait and see how guys are looking once we get to Orlando and make that adjustment, and that’s the challenge. Whether it’s adjusting the way we play offensively and defensively, that could happen in two weeks leading up to our first game. That’s not your normal preparation, but we might bend a little bit, but we’re not going to break.”
Through it all, the future of the Nets coaching position is in the balance. Vaughn was previously the head coach in Orlando for two-plus seasons, taking over a rebuilding club when he was just 37 years old and two years removed from the end of his own 12-year playing career. He came to Brooklyn as the lead assistant beginning with the 2016-17 season.
“I think the biggest part is showing up and being able to have intimate relationships with guys who are joining our team and who have been with me here in Brooklyn for four years,” said Vaughn. “I think overall when I look at this challenge as a coach you’re always trying to galvanize a group and prepare them to win basketball games. That will be the objective in the eyes of the coaching staff because you have to get guys to want to risk this opportunity, continue to be in a position of sacrificing themselves, their families, and sacrificing for the organization.
“So I have to be totally in in all aspects. That is coaching them to make them better, coaching them to win basketball games, but at the same time, I will consistently be concerned about their thought process, their mental health, their growth as human beings as we go into this situation together.”
Vaughn has remained in Brooklyn for the past four months, while his family, including two teenage sons, is in Phoenix. They are at the forefront of how Vaughn views where he fits into the social justice conversations that have taken on greater urgency since the death of George Floyd in Minnesota in May.
“There’s a Hebrew term, ‘tikkun olam,’ and it talks about repairing the world and doing your part,” said Vaughn. “I have to do my part. A big part of it is, me as an African American man, a male raising two African American teenagers, so it starts in my home and my conversations. The challenge I have for this organization is the conversations that we’re having aren’t one-off, and it’s great that this is a continuing conversation. That’s where the change and the elevation will happen overall.
“The coaches association will be doing different things throughout the course of the time in Orlando whether it is unison with some of the things we say together, presentation of thoughts and quotes from each team, it’s my duty to continue this conversation in our locker room. I think our group is open to conversation and the challenge of growing, and it fits into our whole concept of, we really do care about you not only on the floor. This is an opportunity where, I do it in my home with my two boys, I’m proud of that. It’s a heck of a challenge. And then I’ve got other guys I’ve got to do it with in the locker room.”
And he’s looking forward to being back in that locker room, with his players and his team.
“The amount of work that’s gone in to putting players and staff and the organizations in the position to compete and the work that’s gone behind it is at an all-time collaboration amongst organizations to get this done,” said Vaughn. “I think you look at the leadership from Adam (Silver) and the pulse of the other GMs and coaches around the league, the ability to get back on the floor and compete, at the end of the day, you strip things down, that’s why we’re in this basketball game, to do those things.
“The opportunity is in front of ourselves to play the game of basketball. I don’t know what’s going to happen at the end of the week, but this organization, we’re going to give all effort into trying to get this completed and represent Brooklyn the best way we can.”