Nets Cut the Drama and Rekindle Championship Hopes

The Nets were a complicated franchise when Jacque Vaughn met with his players at a morning shootaround in Washington on Nov. 4.

Before their game against the Wizards that night, the Nets had filled the early weeks of their season with substandard basketball. But it was their off-court issues that were worthy of a telenovela. The Nets had indefinitely suspended Kyrie Irving for refusing to disavow antisemitism. They had fired Steve Nash as their coach. And Ben Simmons was scuffling through his delayed debut with the Nets.

Vaughn, a longtime assistant, was in a tenuous spot as the team’s interim coach at a particularly fraught moment for an organization that had already experienced its share of fraught moments in recent seasons. But Vaughn was hoping to act as an agent of change.

“Our shootaround was the precipice of that,” he recalled, “me getting up in front of the group and being as vulnerable as I can be in explaining the situation and telling them that ‘I’m going to be as consistent as I can be with you every day, and as honest as I can be — and I’m always going to do what’s best for the group.’”

As a self-described “simple person,” Vaughn wanted his team to rid itself of unnecessary clutter. So he stripped down the playbook. He began to stress just three defensive concepts — “I won’t say what those are,” he said — so that his players could focus on them rather than make huge adjustments from game to game. And he emphasized the purity of their pursuit: Why make life in the N.B.A. more difficult than it needed to be?

“We kind of pledged to each other that it was going to be about basketball,” Vaughn said, “and hopefully not let any outside noise interfere with that. And our guys have done an unbelievable job protecting each other.”

The Nets won that game against the Wizards, which was the start of a trend — a trend that has them climbing the Eastern Conference standings and back in the conversation as, yes, a championship contender.

The Nets, who extended their winning streak to nine games on Monday night with a 125-117 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, have won 20 of their last 26 games under Vaughn, who was named the head coach on Nov. 9. The Nets’ resurgence has been notably drama-free, no small feat given their early challenges.

Kevin Durant is assembling one of his finest seasons, averaging 30 points, 6.6 rebounds and 5.3 assists a game while shooting a career-best 56.3 percent from the field. Simmons, after missing all of last season, has rebooted and found his footing as a pass-first facilitator and disruptive defender. And Irving, whose suspension lasted eight games, had 32 points and 5 assists in the Nets’ win over the Cavaliers.

“I think we’re finding our identity off the court in terms of how we treat each other, and that’s looking good on the floor,” Irving said after the game. “It’s looking great on the floor, honestly. We just want to keep it up.”

There is no denying the Nets’ talent, but everyone has already heard this story. They were talented last season, too, until their grand experiment blew up in spectacular fashion. Remember last season? Irving refused to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. James Harden asked to be traded. And the Nets crashed out of the playoffs when the Boston Celtics swept them in the first round. During the off-season, Durant asked to be traded, and Irving seemed to be on his way out, too.

Both stars stuck around, but the Nets seemed bound for more dysfunction anyway in the wake of the early coaching change and Irving’s high-profile suspension. For his part, Durant blamed the news media, rather than Irving’s behavior, for creating a lot of the “outside noise” that had the team flailing. But Vaughn has operated as a calming influence.

“Coach shored up our roles, pretty much letting us know each day what he needs from us,” Durant said. “I think that’s been our focus. It’s not like, ‘Man, finally we got the noise out of our locker room, and now we can play.’ I think we always been locked in on basketball to try to get this thing back on track.”

The question now, of course, is whether the Nets can sustain their strong play. The answer will hinge in large part on Irving, a gifted player who is not known for being the most reliable teammate.

“Any external negativity or praise, I really don’t care about it,” Irving said. “I think I’m just focused on being the best version of me and letting the results play out based on how well we trust one another as a group.”

After Monday’s win, Irving reflected on the six seasons he spent with the Cavaliers at the start of his career. He recalled the pressure he put on himself when they made him the No. 1 overall pick of the 2011 draft and how he felt like a “lone superhero” for several lean seasons before LeBron James returned to the Cavaliers after four seasons away in Miami. Together, they delivered an N.B.A. championship to Cleveland in 2016.

“I think the greatest lesson I learned throughout that process is that it’s not a lonely road that you’re supposed to take on your own,” Irving said. “It takes a lot of help.”

In Brooklyn, Irving has help. He has help from Durant, who has outsize goals of his own. He has help from teammates like Simmons and Nic Claxton, a promising young center. And he has help from a coach who has urged the Nets to get back to basics.

“And we’re not going to change that anytime soon,” Vaughn said.

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