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For the Brooklyn Nets, it’s all about next year

Swept out of playoffs, Nets in play for title run in 2020-21

August 27, 2020 John Torenli
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The Brooklyn Nets have not yet begun to fight.

At least not at full strength, they haven’t.

While Brooklyn was bounced from the NBA playoffs in four games by the defending champion Toronto Raptors at the NBA’s bubble site in Orlando, Florida last weekend, the franchise can now officially begin preparing for a season of great expectations in 2020-21.

“I very much hope to be here next year when we have our full cast of guys so we can make a nice push,” said veteran guard Garrett Temple following the Nets’ season-ending 150-122 thumping at the hands of the Raptors on Sunday at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.

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“So it’s gonna be interesting. I’m excited for the challenge.”

So is every Nets fan from Downtown Brooklyn to East Rutherford, N.J.

While the makeshift roster the Nets sent to Orlando fought tooth and nail to hold on to the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, going a surprising 5-3 during the eight-game run-up to the playoffs before receiving a grim reality check from Toronto, it’s always been about next year for these Nets.

The superstar tandem of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving both opted out of Season 2.0 while recovering from injuries, and leading scorer and assists man Spencer Dinwiddie missed the restart due to a postitive test for COVID-19, as did veteran center DeAndre Jordan and power forward Taurean Prince.

The Nets also lost sharpshooter Joe Harris following a narrow Game 2 loss to the Raptors last week as he left the bubble to tend to “undisclosed personal matters,” according to the team.

That left interim head coach Jacque Vaughn, who went 7-7 overall at the helm after replacing Kenny Atkinson just ahead of the NBA’s pause due to the coronavirus pandemic, with very few options at his disposal to fend off a Toronto team that was clearly playing on another level.

“We had an extreme resilience as a group, a competitive nature about us as a group, and a sacrifice as a group for the men who came,” noted Vaughn, who has been described as a “significant candidate” for what is now an open head coaching position in Brooklyn.

“And extremely grateful for this group and the time we spent together,” Vaughn added. “Like I said, we’re forever linked, and appreciate everyone who stepped on that floor and everyone who helped the men who stepped on that floor.”

The men stepping on the hardwood at Downtown’s Barclays Center next season, however, will likely have the most to say about the Nets’ next head coach.

Durant, a two-time NBA Finals MVP, and Irving, who won an NBA title alongside LeBron James in Cleveland four years ago, didn’t come here last summer to chase the seventh seed.

The two were signed to lucrative four-year deals to lead the Nets to their first-ever NBA title.

And that quest began in earnest the moment the final seconds ticked off the clock on Brooklyn’s season Sunday.

While Vaughn remains in play to keep his job, Durant and Irving may use their influence to guide general manager Sean Marks toward more notable candidates and championship-winning coaches like Gregg Popovich, currently under contract to the San Antonio Spurs, and Tyronn Lue.

Former Knicks head coach Jeff Van Gundy and Nets icon Jason Kidd have also been mentioned as potential candidates for the post, which will doubtlessly be the league’s most coveted open position.

Vaughn sounded more like a departing head coach than one about to be hired to his post full-time following Brooklyn’s Game 4 loss Sunday.

“I told them in times like these, me as an individual I lean into gratitude, and that I was extremely thankful for opportunity to coach them,” he said. “Thankful to our performance group for getting those guys ready to play, thankful for each and every person in that locker room.

“That we don’t know what’s going to exist in the future, and so I hope that they’ve learned one thing is that you take advantage of the now.”

Jacque Vaughn did a great job in Orlando, but the Nets’ interim head coach will have trouble holding on to his job as the franchise begins its coaching search. Photo: Kim Klement/AP

Regardless of who leads the Nets onto the floor for their 2020-21 season opener, the key to the team’s success will still rely most heavily on Durant, Irving, Dinwiddie, Jordan and possibly Caris LeVert, who poured in a game-high 35 points in Sunday’s swan song performance.

“I think it’s going to pay huge dividends down the stretch,” LeVert said of Brooklyn’s bubble experience. “Guys were playing out of role, guys were playing extended minutes like you said, playing in big roles in big games despite not having a crowd. These are still big games for us.

“A lot of people watching so I think that’s going to pay huge dividends next year and individually for guys down the road in their careers for sure. I think a lot of guys got a lot of confidence down here.”

That confidence will doubtlessly carry over into next season, when the Nets will no longer be a feel-good story defying the odds in Orlando, but an NBA juggernaut expected to seriously challenge for the Eastern Conference crown.

And if they are finally at full strength, there will be no excuses accepted if they don’t.

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