Jacque Vaughn took over for a Nets team with title aspirations when he stepped in as head coach early this season. Less than three months later he finds himself navigating a rebuild in Brooklyn. A pair of blockbuster trades sending Kevin Durant to Phoenix and Kyrie Irving to Dallas one year after James Harden’s departure completed the collapse of the Nets’ once-promising big three.
While Brooklyn no longer has a star on the roster, the team boasts a deep group of high-level rotation players, as well as a bevy of draft picks. This has led general manager Sean Marks to describe the shakeup as a “retool” compared to a rebuild. Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra had a similar experience when LeBron James returned to Cleveland in 2014, breaking up Miami’s big three of James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh.
Spoelstra’s team missed the playoffs the year after James departed. Since then, Miami has qualified for the postseason five of the last seven years, including a trip to the finals in 2020 and a game-seven loss in the conference finals last season. With Brooklyn also entering a post-big three era, the Heat coach spoke about leading Miami’s resurgence ahead of the teams’ matchup Wednesday:
“It’s a fruitful coaching experience,” Spoelstra said. “In this league, you get better trying to find a solution with expectations that don’t change when the reality does change a little bit. I know when we went through that, we got a lot better as a coaching staff.
That’s one of my biggest disappointments was the year after the big three. We were in playoff contention that next year. I thought we were going to have a really good chance to play Cleveland in the first round, but we had crippling injured hits. If, and, or buts don’t matter, but crazy head coaches still think about that. I think we should have made the playoffs that year… But we definitely got a lot better.”
Brooklyn boasts a newfound defensive identity following the acquisitions of Mikal Bridges, Spencer Dinwiddie, Cam Johnson and Dorian Finney-Smith. All four immediately slid into the Nets’ starting lineup alongside Nic Claxton. With an average height of 6’8″ and an average wingspan of 7’0″, the lineup has the potential to be one of the top defensive units in the league.
That's a tough loss for the Nets, but I'll say, I'm pretty excited about this group's defensive ceiling
Finney-Smith, Bridges, Johnson, Claxton in the starting lineup. Not bad. Not bad at all. pic.twitter.com/HVD6V5klGu
— Erik Slater (@erikslater_) February 12, 2023
Spoelstra touched on that potential Wednesday:
“I’ve watched them. They have hard-competing guys, and they have two-way players,” Spoelstra said. “They have a lot of length at the wing positions. They can do some unique things defensively. I think they’re set up to be a really good defensive team. You cannot sleepwalk on this group at all.
We’ve been in that situation before. Real hard competing teams, they’re tough teams to play against. I hope we’re viewed as one of those as well.”
Vaughn has admitted to a learning curve while attempting to settle Brooklyn’s rotation with several new faces entering the mix. But the coach did point to the group’s defensive capabilities when asked about the team’s identity moving forward.
“I think you just lean into the personnel. I think we have a group of guys who really enjoy playing defense, so there’s nothing wrong with that,” Vaughn said. “We’ll lean into that and let that be the staple on a nightly basis that gives you a chance to win. Then we’ll just improve on the offensive end of the floor.”
Unlike the situation before Durant and Irving arrived, Marks is now armed with 11 first-round picks as he transitions the team to a new era. With an excess of rotation-caliber wings, the general manager also has the option to flip some of his recent acquisitions should he choose to accumulate more draft capital. Reports have said the Memphis Grizzlies offered Brooklyn four first-round picks for Bridges with another team offering two for Finney-Smith.
The Nets turned down both deals with their sights set on the playoffs. Brooklyn sits 1.5 games ahead of Miami for the sixth seed in the East heading into the team’s final game before the All-Star break.