After firing Jacque Vaughn, the Brooklyn Nets face a familiar challenge

ByTim Bontemps ESPN logo
Monday, February 26, 2024

EXACTLY ONE YEAR after his tumultuous 3-year tenure with the Brooklyn Nets came to a close, Kyrie Irving returned to Barclays Center.

It was Feb. 6, and Irving was in town with the Dallas Mavericks, less than a week after his former Nets running mate, Kevin Durant, made his return to the city where the duo envisioned winning NBA titles. Instead, a team that failed to live up to championship aspirations had been replaced by one battling for Eastern Conference play-in position.

"When you trade some franchise players and things are mixed around, it's going to look different," Irving said after the Mavericks' 119-107 victory, the second leg of Dallas' active seven-game win streak. "It's going to feel different.

"You had some of the best players in the world playing on this court. ... But now, it's time to start fresh and it's no longer the same pressure."

Instead of an NBA superteam featuring Irving, Durant and James Harden, Brooklyn more resembles what Sean Marks inherited when he was introduced as the franchise's general manager in February 2016.

Then, Brooklyn was headed toward missing the playoffs and didn't have control of its next three first-round draft picks. This season's group appears destined for a similar fate.

The Nets are 11th in the conference at 21-34 with less than two months remaining in the regular season. And, despite the draft picks gained in the Irving and Durant deals, they don't control their next four first-round picks.

On Monday -- the eighth anniversary of his hiring -- Marks moved on from a coach for the third time in his tenure as GM, dismissing Jacque Vaughn after the team's collapse over the past two months culminated in a 50-point loss to the Boston Celtics just before the All-Star break.

"It's about the level of compete," Marks said earlier this week, discussing his decision to move on from Vaughn. "We're not going to be the most talented team in the league. I'm not an idiot. I totally understand that. But, at the same time, this is a talented group of young men.

"These are things that should be expected when you're in a place that we're at right now, where we're clawing and grappling for every single thing we can. That's what I would hope to see over these next 28 games. ...

"And that's probably, to be quite frank, some things I haven't seen."

Brooklyn hopes to see such changes under interim coach Kevin Ollie, though Thursday's blowout loss in his debut did little to slow the team's recent struggles.

Whether the Nets rally to secure the East's final play-in spot doesn't change the fact that, just as when Marks took over, Brooklyn finds itself banking on its future -- not its present -- for salvation.

BROOKLYN WAS 15-15 and battling for seeding in the bottom of the East bracket when it hosted the Milwaukee Bucks on Dec. 27, the second night of a back-to-back.

With a clogged schedule due in part to the team's impending trip to Paris to play the Cleveland Cavaliers, Brooklyn opted to sit five players for the entire game because of various injuries, and three more -- Mikal Bridges, Cam Thomas and Royce O'Neale -- for the final three quarters.

After the game, Bridges expressed his displeasure with the decision, while Vaughn pushed back on the idea that the Nets had treated the game like an exhibition.

"I have too much respect for the dudes who suit up and put their body on the line, and the competition level, to even mention the word [exhibition]," Vaughn told reporters after the 22-point defeat. The Nets were fined $100,000 for violating the league's new player participation policy.

For Brooklyn, things have been ugly ever since. The Nets are 6-18 since that loss, a slide that ultimately led to Vaughn's firing Monday.

Only the Washington Wizards have a worse record since Dec. 27 than the Nets, who have been 25th in offensive efficiency and 22nd in defensive efficiency over that stretch -- one of only five teams to rank in the bottom 10 at both ends, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Brooklyn followed up that game against Milwaukee by losing four more in a row. And bookending their trip to Paris, the Nets blew double-digit leads to lose in overtime at home against the Miami Heat and Portland Trail Blazers.

At home against the crosstown rival New York Knicks on Jan. 23, Brooklyn let a double-digit lead in the second half slip away. The loss was made worse by Knicks fans turning the arena into a de facto Madison Square Garden.

"You could hear the crowd," Bridges said after the game. "It felt like a frigging away game when they made their run." Bridges later went on the podcast of his former Villanova teammates, Knicks guards Jalen Brunson and Josh Hart, and they discussed how loud the Knicks fans were that night.

The point of no return for Vaughn, however, became the 50-point loss against the Celtics to wrap up the pre-All-Star break schedule, after which Bridges spoke at length about the team's stretch of offensive struggles.

"We got to know what we're doing," Bridges told reporters in Boston. "We got to come as a team, as coaches and figure out a game plan. It can't be the same with everybody."

That challenge now falls to Ollie. But the larger challenge continues to fall on Marks, who will have another chance to build a title contender in Brooklyn.

MARKS SPENT HIS first two-plus seasons in Brooklyn positioning the franchise to go star chasing in the 2019 offseason, building up enough cap space to pair Durant with Irving. Now, in the wake of trading both stars last February, Marks is in the middle of trying to replicate that type of pursuit.

The Nets have only Bridges, Cam Johnson and Dorian Finney-Smith signed beyond the 2024-25 season, potentially giving the franchise up to $70 million in salary cap space to chase free agents -- a summer 2025 class that could include starsDonovan Mitchell, Brandon Ingram, Rudy Gobert, Lauri Markkanen and Jimmy Butler.

The Nets also still have Bridges, an All-Star-caliber wing with a contract ($23.3 million next season and $24.9 million in 2025-26) that's universally viewed by opposing scouts and executives as one of the best in the league.

Brooklyn has resisted overtures to trade him, league sources told ESPN, and the franchise views him as a foundational player moving forward, both for his play and for his ability to serve as a recruiter in free agency. Bridges, for his part, made it clear he has no interest in seeking a trade.

"One hundred percent," Bridges said Tuesday, when asked how confident he is in the direction of the franchise. "Things ain't going good right now, and that's life. ... I know a lot of people might think about different situations and teams, and obviously I got my boys over there in New York and stuff, so obviously everybody goes with that.

"But I was never the type of guy to [want to leave when] things get tough and it's time to cry out and get out."

For all the buzz generated the past few seasons in Brooklyn -- in part by the Durant-Irving-Harden failed superteam -- it hasn't ultimately led to much winning.

In their first three years in Brooklyn, the Nets won a single playoff series and a total of 10 playoff games. Since Marks took over halfway through the franchise's fourth season in Brooklyn, its postseason win tally has been one series and a total of eight playoff games.

But after years of reshuffling, both on the court and on the sidelines, Marks -- who said his phone was "ringing for 48 hours" with coaches wanting to come to Brooklyn after Vaughn's firing -- is confident the Nets have the players to climb back to contender status.

"We've shown the ability to put this franchise at the top of the map," Marks said, "and that's the plan to do it again."

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