James Borrego is Making the Hornets Fun

In just a handful of games as a head coach, James Borrego has already begun to make the Charlotte Hornets a better and more entertaining team.

In recent years, it's been hard to be a fan of the Charlotte Hornets. The team has largely been mediocre-to-bad, sure, but it goes beyond that. More than anything, the later years of the Steve Clifford era were boring. It's hard enough to root for a non-playoff team; it's worse to root for one that plays a style that just isn't fun to watch.

Just a few games into his tenure as head coach, James Borrego has begun to turn that around and, if nothing else, make Charlotte games entertaining.

Of course, it hasn’t been entirely Borrego making the Hornets watchable. Through his quest to attack every rim he comes across, rookie forward Miles Bridges has become a subject of highlight reels every time he plays. The addition of Tony Parker has made the bench unit workable -- the team’s net rating only drops 3.7 points when Kemba Walker sits this season as opposed last year’s absurd 10.4-point swing. The Dwight Howard trade means not suffering through endless post-ups that go nowhere.

It goes beyond just the new personnel, though. Too often last season, Charlotte played like a team in denial of the league’s offensive evolution -- and math. Last year’s group was last in the league in corner threes taken and 24th in threes in general. This season, the team is in the top half of the league in both categories, with the frequency of long two-pointers dropping from 17.5% to 11% (per CleaningTheGlass.com.) Getting to and finishing at the rim are still presenting problems for the Hornets, but ditching long 2s and stepping behind the arc is a promising development. 

Perhaps the most exciting development, however, is the use of Walker. Already an All-Star guard, Walker has elevated his game yet again this season. Borrego has put his star in more situations that allow him to focus on scoring rather than setting up everyone else. With Parker and a revitalized Nic Batum taking on some of the playmaking duties, Walker has blossomed even more as a scorer; already the franchise’s all-time scoring leader, he’s third in the league on the season with 28.3 per game at the time of writing.

There’s also the matter of Malik Monk. After a season spent tethered to the bench, the former Kentucky Wildcat is finally playing consistently. It’s exciting enough that the promising sophomore is getting a chance; seeing him produce is just gravy.

Monk’s season hasn’t been perfect: his usage right is third-highest on the team, behind only Walker and Parker. That’s too high, especially considering his effective field goal percentage is hovering under 50%. Still, Monk is an effective catch-and-shoot player, and there’s something charming about his Kobe-esque mentality on offense. Of course, that charm won’t last forever. As Monk matures, he’ll need to become a smarter player. For now, though, it’s just nice to see him getting playing time.

Not everything has been perfect for Borrego, of course. Finding scoring outside of Walker has been difficult, and frontcourt play has left something to be desired. Those are primarily issues with the roster construction, though. There’s only so much that can be done on the court with the options available. Sure, Frank Kaminsky’s time has waned to nearly nothing, but his output in heavy minutes during the Clifford era doesn’t really make him look like the answer. There are roster upgrades begging to be made this summer.

The biggest issue so far? The team’s record. For as fun as the team has been, 7-6 isn’t exactly inspiring confidence for the team’s postseason chances. That said, the underlying numbers suggest a better team than the record. Charlotte is in the top half of the league in offensive and defensive rating, and fifth overall in net rating. The four teams ahead of them -- the Bucks, Warriors, Trail Blazers and Raptors -- are a combined 43-9 (.827).

Where the Hornets have shot themselves in the foot is in close games, with a 1-5 record in games decided by fewer than five points. Some of that can be blamed on a young, first-year coach; some of that is simply bad luck. It’s too early to tell definitively if the trend will continue over the rest of the season. Even a moderate improvement in close games would make Charlotte look like a much more intimidating team. As it stands, the team sits at seventh place in the conference. If that stands, Walker and company make their return to the postseason. 

Even if the Hornets miss out on the playoffs again, things are looking up for the franchise. At the very least, James Borrego is making the team worth watching again.

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