Ben Simmons at centre of Brooklyn Nets coach Jacque Vaughn’s sacking fallout after 50-point Celtics thrashing

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Ben Simmons lost his star teammates Kevin Durant and Kyrie Erving last season, now he has lost his coach after the Brooklyn Nets sacked Jacque Vaughn.

And the Australian’s role in how Vaughn ran the Net’s offence is understood to be at the centre of the friction within the team that led to Vaughn’s exit after a 50-point loss to Boston in his final game before the All-Star break, their worst defeat since moving to Brooklyn.

Vaughn’s strong work guiding the Nets to last season’s playoffs - minus Durant and Irving - earned him a contract extension at last season’s All-Star break.

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Centring the offence around the problem-plagued Simmons - who is on a minutes restriction as he returns from injury - was not supported by the team, The Athletic’s NBA reporter Shams Charania said on FanDuel’s Run It Back podcast.

“They felt like a lot of what Vaughn was running was being run improperly, without structure,” he said.

“Vaughn came into the year and said, ‘We’re gonna run a free-for-all offence.’ And the team, from what I gather, has been pretty bonded on the fact that developing a hierarchy was important.

“When they went into training camp, a lot of their offence was built around Ben Simmons, and him playing at the 1, and him playing at a high level for them.”

FILE - Brooklyn Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn instructs his players against the Detroit Pistons during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Saturday, Dec. 23, 2023, in New York. The Brooklyn Nets fired Jacque Vaughn on Monday, Feb. 19, 2024, after ending a disappointing first half of the season with a 50-point loss in Boston in their final game before the All-Star break. About a year after giving Vaughn a contract extension, the Nets changed course and said an interim coach would be named soon.(AP Photo/Noah K. Murray, File)
Brooklyn Nets head coach Jacque Vaughn has been fired. (AP Photo/Noah K. Murray, File) Credit: Noah K. Murray/AP

Without the shot-making that Durant and Irving provided, the Nets struggled at times when games were close in fourth quarters. Vaughn also faced a nearly season-long challenge to figure out his best lineup, with Simmons missing 38 games at one point because of a pinched nerve in his lower back and then was forced to miss some games or play limited minutes when he returned.

That meant the Nets played one way on the nights they had Simmons and another way when they didn’t, a problem Bridges pointed to after the loss in Boston. But a night earlier, Vaughn had looked at a team that was getting healthier and still believed a turnaround was possible.

“I’m just going to be simple and thankful that we’re getting guys back and hopefully we’ll get to a position where we are whole and we come out of the break ready to make a push,” Vaughn said.

Simmons, who is earning $40 million a season but has only played a quarter of the possible games he could over the past three seasons, has played just 12 games this season and is averaging 6.8 points and 8.4 rebounds per game.

The Nets said an interim coach would be named soon.

“This was an incredibly difficult decision, but one we feel is in the best interest of the team going forward,” general manager Sean Marks said in a statement.

“Jacque has represented this organisation with exemplary character and class for the past eight years. The consistent positivity and passion he poured into our team daily will remain with the players and staff he interacted with throughout his tenure.”

The Nets dropped five of their last six games before the break to fall to 21-33, putting them in 11th place in the Eastern Conference. Their 136-86 loss to the Celtics on Wednesday was their worst defeat since leaving New Jersey in 2012 and the second-worst in franchise history, and leading scorer Mikal Bridges seemed particularly frustrated in his postgame comments.

Vaughn finished 71-68 with the Nets, guiding them into the playoffs on two separate stints.

Vaughn replaced the fired Steve Nash on November 1, 2022, and quickly led the Nets from a poor start toward the top of the East. Brooklyn went 12-1 that December and 43-32 the rest of the season, making the playoffs despite trading Durant and Irving during the season.

But Brooklyn’s lack of star power this season has been apparent, and Vaughn lamented last week the minutes restrictions that have kept Simmons and some of his other top players from staying on the floor long enough to give the Nets a better chance to be competitive.

Brooklyn Nets guard Ben Simmons (10) defends as Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown (7) shoots a 3-pointer during the first half of an NBA basketball game in New York, Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024. (AP Photo/Peter K. Afriyie)
Brooklyn Nets guard Ben Simmons (10) defends as Boston Celtics guard Jaylen Brown (7) shoots a 3-pointer in the Celtics 136-86 win last week. Credit: Peter K. Afriyie/AP

The Nets got off to a 15-15 start this season, but things began to turn when Vaughn made a curious decision to barely play or entirely rest all his top players during a 144-122 home loss to Milwaukee on December 27.

The NBA fined the Nets $100,000, the first time a team was sanctioned for violating the league’s player participation policy that went into effect this season.

Vaughn got his first chance to coach the Nets in March 2020 after Kenny Atkinson was fired just before the season was suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

He led the Nets to a 7-3 record and into the playoffs in the restart “bubble” at Walt Disney World, but the Nets then opted to give the head coaching job to Nash, despite having no experience. Vaughn stayed on as an assistant.

It wasn’t long before he got another chance to run the team after Nash was fired during a turbulent start to the 2022-23 season. The Nets got as high as second in the East before Durant was injured and the Nets gave Vaughn a multiyear contract extension on February 21, 2023, with Marks saying he looked forward to Vaughn leading the team “for years to come.”

Not quite one year, it turned out.

Vaughn is 129-226 as an NBA coach, having gone 58-158 in his first opportunity with Orlando.

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