Why the Nets felt the need to move on from Jacque Vaughn

To understand why Jacque Vaughn was fired as the Brooklyn Nets’ head coach Monday morning, start by recalling how and why Vaughn rose to the first chair on Brooklyn’s bench back in November 2022.

Barring strokes of fortune, in a business that offers little luck to precious few, Vaughn’s path always seemed to represent a stop-gap solution for Brooklyn’s front office. After dismissing Steve Nash two weeks into last season with Kevin Durant’s summer trade request still echoing off the Barclays Center rafters, the Nets ultimately pivoted to Vaughn instead of their prioritized candidate, then-embattled Ime Udoka, as Nash’s replacement — all while the franchise managed Kyrie Irving’s prolonged controversy stemming from his promotion of an antisemitic film. Vaughn dutifully served as Brooklyn's interim coach when the Nets parted ways with Kenny Atkinson in May 2020, and he did so again in the aftermath of Nash’s ouster, helping the Nets rebound from a slow start until the trade deadline that finally dispatched Durant and Irving elsewhere.

It wasn’t until late February that a contract extension lifted the interim tag from Vaughn’s title, backing him with a four-year agreement, league sources told Yahoo Sports, in the ballpark of $5 million per season that will be on the Nets’ books through 2026-27. Brooklyn staffers have long spoken highly of Vaughn, as the 49-year-old’s positive charisma and thoughtfulness he displayed regularly during press availability was said to mirror his genuine approach working with players behind the scenes in practice.

Brooklyn Nets coach Jacque Vaughn watches during the first half of the team's NBA basketball game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2024, in New York. (AP Photo/John Munson)
The Nets dismissed coach Jacque Vaughn on Monday morning. (AP Photo/John Munson)

The Nets’ goal has been to bounce back toward contention, perhaps even quicker than the three years it took Sean Marks’ regime to attract Durant and Irving in 2019 free agency after he took the reins in 2016. The Nets have emphatically rejected massive offers loaded with first-round draft capital for Mikal Bridges, sources said, and seemed more than optimistic Vaughn could pilot a roster to the playoffs this season headlined by Brooklyn’s crown jewel of the combined returns for Durant and Irving. That would have marked a sixth straight postseason appearance for the franchise and certainly would have aided efforts to lure another All-Star talent to join Bridges at Barclays. Damian Lillard’s interest in teaming with the 27-year-old swingman, sources said, after his preferred path to Miami became blocked, marked a clear endorsement that the Nets rostered a burgeoning two-way force who will continue drawing eyes of starrier counterparts to this particular borough of New York.

There was too much at stake as the team kept dwindling under Vaughn, who went 64-65 in this latest stint with Brooklyn. Instead of chasing the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference, one rung above the play-in tournament, the Nets have fallen to 11th and out of that picture altogether. Brooklyn remains just 2.5 games back of the play-in, but will resume play after All-Star Weekend at just 21-33, having gone 6-18 since the team was 15-15. A 50-point loss in Boston before the break surely didn’t help matters.

To be fair, Ben Simmons advertised as a central hub of the Nets’ offense otherwise devoid of true table-setters, and he has been available for all of 12 games this season. Yet Nets players had grown quite frustrated at Brooklyn’s unstructured offense, sources said, without Simmons present to lead runaway opportunities in transition. As Brooklyn’s losses piled, the team's stagnation in the half-court became quite apparent. There was little pop to the Nets taking turns trying to attack off the dribble. Rival pro personnel scouts remarked they saw several players side-eying Vaughn as they made their way back to Brooklyn huddles, sources said. A smiley, up-beat approach can wear thin throughout a roster when it’s not producing results.

Kevin Ollie is expected to be named Brooklyn’s interim coach, league sources told Yahoo Sports. The former NBA veteran was recently a finalist for the Pistons’ head coaching job this past summer after leading Overtime Elite following his championship stint coaching UConn. Maybe Ollie will turn things around just like Vaughn before him and extend his stay manning the Nets’ sideline.

The long-term outcome of this position will be quite telling about the overall state of Brooklyn’s organization. Vaughn now counts as the third coach general manager Sean Marks has hired and fired during his eight-year stewardship of basketball operations. Few lead executives get the chance to handpick a fourth after only one playoff series victory to show for their past decisions. Yes, there is mounting speculation among league personnel about whether Marks could follow suit out the door. And one of his leading lieutenants, assistant general manager Jeff Peterson, continues to be mentioned by industry sources as a leading candidate to help lead the Charlotte Hornets’ front office. But among NBA figures with knowledge of the situation, there’s been little doubt, sources said, of Marks’ ongoing strong standing with Nets governors Joe Tsai and Clara Wu Tsai.

Even still, there would seem all the importance for Marks’ group to ultimately fill their coaching position with the biggest fish available, not a first-time play-caller, and not make this staffing choice its last. In that vein, Brooklyn will need someone who boasts the postseason experience necessary to guide these Nets much closer in that exact direction. Mike Budenholzer currently bills as the most decorated coach on the market and shares obvious Spurs roots with Marks. There will be other names to emerge after this postseason shakes out, like Budenholzer before, and Pelicans assistant James Borrego, who has past experience leading Charlotte, was a candidate to join Vaughn’s bench this past summer, sources said.

Vaughn hired much of his new staff this offseason, according to league sources, a luxury that’s become afforded less and less often to head coaches. Front offices have played a stronger hand in those choices than ever before, and so Vaughn’s agency surely indicates how confident Brooklyn was in him steering these Nets through this next nadir of the franchise’s life cycle.

The modern NBA, though, spins fast. The calendar flips, and expectations shift. And Brooklyn’s next coach will be tasked with turning this team back on track as suddenly as Vaughn’s group derailed.