Exploring James Borrego's Vision for the Hornets

James Borrego has been selected as the man to lead the Charlotte Hornets forward, and his interviews suggest he'll get them on the right path.

It’s a time of change for the Charlotte Hornets. 

The Steve Clifford era has come to an end, and San Antonio Spurs assistant James Borrego has been brought on to right the ship and lead the team forward. After back-to-back 36-win seasons for the Hornets and with a roster full of disappointing players and bloated contracts, Borrego and new GM Mitch Kupchak have their work cut out for them.

So far, Borrego has been saying all the right things in interviews. The 40-year-old says his vision for the team is a high-paced offense with an emphasis on ball movement and player development. That’s music to the ears of fans that had grown frustrated with watching Clifford’s brand of basketball that saw the Hornets miss the postseason more often than not.

In the Clifford era, Charlotte had two consistent playmakers on offense – Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker. Especially after Jefferson left the team in 2016, the team simply wasn’t designed for success in the half court. Despite that, each of Clifford’s first four teams ranked in the bottom half of the league in pace, according to NBA.com. And while that number climbed to ninth in the league last season, it wasn’t because of a suddenly-dangerous transition game. According to Cleaning the Glass’ advanced stats, only 14.5% of Charlotte’s possessions started in transition last season, the 13th-lowest rate in the league.

Without getting out in transition, the offense came down to Kemba Walker making something happen and Dwight Howard post-ups. That’s not exactly a winning formula. 

Especially with Howard gone, the roster is much more suited to the style Borrego says he wants to play. When healthy, Cody Zeller is a dangerous transition player, fast and agile for his size. And while Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s broken jump shot makes him a non-threat in the half court, his athleticism and speed make him effective on the fast break. Explosive scorers Jeremy Lamb, Malik Monk, and the rookie Miles Bridges should all enjoy getting out in transition and finding more open looks than they would waiting for Walker to break down the opposition’s defense. 

The high-speed offense isn’t ideal on paper for everyone on the roster, though. Nicolas Batum has struggled mightily in the past two seasons, and his best year in 2015-16 came with a team that got out in transition even less than last year’s squad. And at 29 years old, the aging Frenchman doesn’t seem likely to get much quicker or more athletic, either. Still, his passing ability should be helpful for a team that wants to get out and run. Besides, rumors continue to surface that the Hornets are exploring trade options. There’s a chance that Batum isn’t even on the roster long enough to make a significant impact.

Between getting out in transition and spreading the ball around more – last year, Charlotte was 25th in the league in assist percentage, according to NBA.com – the offense should at least be more fun to watch, even if it’s not any better than it was last season.

Ball movement is neither a requirement for or a guarantee of success – sure, the Golden State Warriors had the highest assist percentage in the league, but Atlanta was fifth. The Cavaliers and Rockets were both in the bottom third, finishing 20th and 22nd. Still, moving the ball creates opportunities for a number of players on offense, either as spot-up shooters or secondary creators. Whipping the ball from player to player can put a defense on its heels, allowing a Hornet without the playmaking ability of Walker – say, Monk or Lamb – to create offense without having to start entirely from scratch.

The new era in Charlotte ushered in by James Borrego has the chance to make a lot of fans happy. Success certainly isn’t guaranteed, especially not immediately. But if Borrego sticks to what he’s been saying, he’ll earn the goodwill of the fans by at least pointing the team in what appears to be the right direction.

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