Nets: Gregg Popovich’s enduring legacy lives on with Jacque Vaughn

Jacque Vaughn, Brooklyn Nets
Jan 2, 2023; Brooklyn, New York, USA; Brooklyn Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn signals during the first half against the San Antonio Spurs at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Jacque Vaughn hugged Gregg Popovich in a tight embrace after his surging Brooklyn Nets rolled to their 12th straight win at the expense of his mentor’s San Antonio Spurs, 139-106, Monday night.

It was a bittersweet moment for Vaughn, who branched out of Popovich’s coaching tree.

Before facing his mentor, Vaughn told reporters how the NBA’s winningest coach influenced him to get into coaching when he was winding up his playing career.

After his tenure with the Nets, Vaughn finished his playing career with the Spurs in 2009. He won an NBA championship under Popovich in 2007. Upon Popovich’s invitation, Vaughn transitioned into coaching, serving as a Spurs assistant from 2010 to 2012.

“I’m in this position because of him. He saw something in me as a player, saw something in me when I was done playing, to have me a part of that organization, to share an office with him to see how he prepared for regular season games, for playoff games, for shootarounds. To see how he cared for my family, to see how he’s still a mentor to me — I can call and talk to him about my kids, my wife, my job, all of the above. So [he is a] very important person in my life, and I wouldn’t be here without him.”

Jacque Vaughn pregame via NY Daily News

Vaughn had his first head coaching break with the Orlando Magic, but he only lasted for two-and-half seasons after failing to guide the team to the playoffs. He returned briefly to the Spurs in 2015 as a scout before the Nets made him Kenny Atkinson’s top assistant prior to the 2016-17 season.

Vaughn assumed his first interim role when Atkinson left the Nets midway through Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving’s first season in Brooklyn. Even after an impressive 7-3 record as an interim coach, guiding the Nets in the first round of the playoffs in the Orlando Bubble, Vaughn finished as bridesmaid to Steve Nash in the head coaching search.

But Nash was fired as the Nets unraveled at the start of this season. Vaughn almost became a bridesmaid again to his fellow Popovich disciple and the suspended former Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka.

After some trepidations because of Udoka’s messy exit in Boston and Kyrie Irving’s anti-semitism controversy, the Nets went with Vaughn for continuity and stability.

Vaughn wasn’t the first choice. But 30 games later, he proves to be the right choice.

“The thing about Jacque is he’s very contemplative. He thinks things through. He’ll have a sort of peace about him, and it engenders respect. He doesn’t do anything unnecessarily. He’ll have standards, he’ll hold them accountable. He knows what he’s doing.”

Gregg Popovich via Nets Twitter

Unlike his predecessor Nash, Vaughn has commanded the whole team’s respect, especially Durant and Irving.

Vaughn’s 23-7 record is the best 30-game start of any Nets coach in franchise history. Their current 12-game winning streak is the third-longest in franchise history. So it didn’t come as a surprise when Vaughn was named the Eastern Conference Coach of the Month for December.

“It’s always special, tough to coach against [Popovich] just because of the respect that I have for him. I love him. He has meant the world to me and still does. My family has been changed because of him, and my kids were able to grow up differently because of him. The hug is genuine. The words are genuine.
So [he’s] a really, really special person in my life.”

Jacque Vaughn postgame via Yes Network

Popovich and Vaughn are on the opposite totem pole of the NBA.

Popovich would be watching for ping-pong balls next summer, hoping to land another David Robinson and Tim Duncan in Victor Wembanyama. At the same time, Vaughn is expected to forge the Nets’ path to title contention in June.

Popovich may be in the twilight of his coaching career. But his enduring legacy will continue to live on with Vaughn.

Follow this writer on Twitter: @alderalmo