As the story goes, Jacque Vaughn was contemplating a break from basketball after his 2009 season with the Spurs when he asked Gregg Popovich for advice.
“I had young kids and the offseason was a little harder to work than it always had been,” Vaughn said Monday as the Nets prepared to take on Popovich and the rebuilding Spurs at Barclays Center. “Prided myself on being the most well-conditioned dude on the team and I was open and honest with him, saying I’m not sure I’m capable of doing that anymore. I’m going to take the year off with my family and see if I want to continue to play or transition to doing something else.
"He said, 'You can always come and shadow, follow, be around us and figure it out along the way.' And that’s kind of how it started.”
It took 13 years, but “how it started” is now “how it’s going,” and how it’s going is remarkably well.
Vaughn, a self-described “write-in candidate” for the Nets coaching job after Steve Nash was fired earlier in the season has spearheaded a turnaround that’s been nothing short of remarkable. The Nets came into Monday riding an 11-game winning streak, the longest in the NBA, after having one of the best months in team history. They’re 22-7 under Vaughn, who is being consistently praised by his star players.
And though Popovich doesn’t totally seem to remember how Vaughn became his assistant in 2010 — asked about the origin story Vaughn described, he seemed flummoxed — it’s clear he’s always believed his former player had the potential to lead.
“He’s just one of those guys who is a natural, high basketball IQ guy who knows what's going on,” Popovich said. “He wasn’t the most talented player in the world. Usually, those guys have to figure out how they're going to make a career for themselves and what they're going to do to become important to a team. And what is important to a team is what makes you a valuable teammate . . . “He intrinsically understood what was going on [with regards to] time, spacing, clock, scores, [and] engendered the respect of his teammates, because of the way he played, the example he set up, all sorts of things.”
Vaughn’s coaching style appears to be centered around communication. That means simplifying things so that they’re understood and talking to players on an individual level. He’s overseen Nic Claxton’s continued maturation, and the Ben Simmons renaissance. Kevin Durant, at 34, may be having one of the best seasons of his career. Kyrie Irving has continued to demonstrate that intuitive knowledge of the game that makes him so dangerous, especially late.
“I think it’s a great responsibility for a head coach to learn each individual as an individual,” Vaughn said after he was told that Irving had praised his leadership. “I do believe people take criticism, accountability, knowledge, thought, all in different ways. So, it’s up to me to garner that attention in how I use the time to talk to each individual guy. I take pride in that. I think it’s important. We all want to be heard, seen and celebrated. I think you do that individually and amongst a team.”
Vaughn’s success is also notable because he’s had to fail a good bit to get here. He was an assistant with the Spurs from 2010 until 2012, when he finally got a chance as head coach of the Magic — a role where he floundered, going 58-158. That’s when he joined the Nets and appeared to be perpetually mired in that assistant role, even though he served as interim coach after the organization parted ways with Kenny Atkinson. When the same fate befell Nash, the original assumption is that this interim role would be nothing but a stopgap. That is, until the write-in candidate became the candidate of choice.
“It’s worked out,” Popovich said. “You know, the thing about Jacque is he doesn't want the camera and he's not going to seek attention. He's a quiet dude. He's very contemplative. He thinks things through, and he'll have a sort of a peace that engenders respect. He doesn't do anything unnecessarily. He’ll have standards, he’ll hold them accountable. He knows he knows what he's doing. So I think with the experiences he's had taking over now, it's really a position.”
Popovich paused, then added, “I’m not sure about the beard though.”