Just two weeks into the NBA season, the Brooklyn Nets were left for dead. Fresh off a trade request from their franchise cornerstone in Kevin Durant, a 2-6 start had already seen head coach Steve Nash fired and All-Star guard Kyrie Irving suspended indefinitely.
Despite a roster stacked with talent, the conversation had quickly shifted back to “blow it up” status for the Nets. And the vultures had already begun circling in anticipation of a Durant trade and potential fire sale.
If you’ve watched the Nets over the last month, you would not have known any of that happened.
One day away from the new year, Brooklyn holds the NBA’s second-best record amid a league-best 10-game win streak. The Nets surprised many when they backed out of their reported hiring of suspended Celtics head coach Ime Udoka in favor of longtime assistant Jacque Vaughn. Since that decision, the team has posted a 19-5 record.
The Nets have won 14 of their last 15 games while posting the league’s best net rating during that span. And Durant alluded to the team’s belief in Vaughn’s philosophy when speaking on Brooklyn’s success Wednesday.
“When you follow the game plan and it works, you start believing more and more in what we’re doing every day,” Kevin Durant said. “I felt like we didn’t have an identity to start the season, and then we started to figure it out as these last few weeks.”
“You walk into every game believing that if we stick to this template and this structure that we have we’ll be fine regardless of what goes on in the game,” he continued. “Ups and downs, get down big, get up big and lose the lead. Just knowing what we want to do every time we step on the floor keeps our mind at ease and we have a belief in whatever Jacque tells us.”
Kevin Durant talks about the focus and the belief of the Nets as the season has progressed:
"Start believing more and more in what we're doing every day. I felt like we didn't have an identity to start the season. We have that belief in whatever Jacque tells us" pic.twitter.com/B0VYpWdcPA
— Nets Videos (@SNYNets) December 29, 2022
Vaughn echoed a similar message when asked about what he’s seen from his team during the dramatic turnaround.
“It is belief, and that’s a huge part of the NBA,” Vaughn said. “Is the confidence and belief, no matter what situation you can come out on the other side… It really boils down to the individuals understanding what our goal was when we set out on this together.”
The large improvement during Vaughn’s time at the helm has come in Brooklyn’s weakest areas: defense and rebounding. In the eight games before Nash’s firing, the Nets ranked 29th in the league in defensive rating. Over their last 15 games, they rank 10th while allowing the sixth-fewest points per game in the Association.
Last season under Nash, while often out of necessity due to injury or other circumstances, the Nets frequently leaned into guard-heavy lineups to maximize shooting. Over their recent hot stretch, Vaughn has shortened Brooklyn’s rotation and shifted towards increased length and defensive versatility.
Outside of Irving, the Nets have not heavily used their undersized guards, all of whom struggle defensively. Patty Mills (6’0″) and Cam Thomas (6’3″) have been cut out of the rotation while Seth Curry (6’2″) has played sparingly, primarily in first halves. Vaughn has instead expanded the roles of T.J. Warren (6’8″), Yuta Watanabe (6’8″), and Edmond Sumner (6’4″). The trio of minimum signings from general manager Sean Marks has been among the top value pickups in the league.
That added length, along with the addition of Ben Simmons and the breakout of Nic Claxton, has suddenly transformed the Nets’ defense into a versatile unit. Brooklyn’s top-10 rotation players post an average height of 6’7″ with an average wingspan of 6’10”.
As for rebounding, the Nets ranked dead last in opponent offensive rebounding percentage under Nash. Over their last 15 games, Brooklyn ranks 16th. While the added length from rotation decisions has played a factor, Vaughn’s squad has shown a clear uptick in effort on the glass during their recent hot stretch.
The Nets have tied or out-rebounded their opponent in six of their last nine games. Following Brooklyn’s 118-100 win over Milwaukee last week, Kevin Durant revealed Vaughn’s direct approach to calling out his team for lack of effort on the boards.
“I want to say almost a month ago Jacque put up the box-out stats for us. A lot of guys didn’t like where they were as far as percentage of boxing out, not even grabbing rebounds, just putting a body on somebody,” Durant said. “I think since then we’ve been making a conscious effort to touch somebody up when they’re running to the glass and all of us trying to gang rebound.”
“The last few games have been solid for us,” he continued. “I think everybody’s locked in on that side of the game and that’s something we can’t have slippage on. We have to be there every possession.”
One of the players at the bottom of that list was Irving, who acknowledged the message’s effect on his mindset. The fourth-year Net said Vaughn’s emphasis on holding his players accountable has permeated through the entire team.
Bucks head coach Mike Budenzholzer served as an assistant with San Antonio during Vaughn’s final two years as a player and first two as a coach with the Spurs. Similar to Irving, Budenholzer spoke highly of the Nets coach’s ability to get the most out of his players prior to the two teams’ matchup last week.
“I think there’s a level of attention to detail with Jacque,” Budenholzer said. “He’s demanding, but he can connect with people and still demand from them. I think that’s what he did as a player, and I think you see it now as a head coach too.”
Brooklyn’s 10-game winning streak is the franchise’s longest since January 2006. The team’s 17-3 record over their last 20 games matches the best 20-game stretch in franchise history. After a 2-6 start, the Nets stand alone in second place in the Eastern Conference.
Kevin Durant and the Nets will look to continue their historic stretch when they travel to Charlotte Saturday before returning home for a matchup with San Antonio Monday.