This is an in-depth review that features: expectations, philosophies, rotations, sets and plays, offensive breakdowns, defensive breakdowns, clutch performances, player development, and game prep. If you’re looking for something specific scroll ahead.
In May of last year, the Charlotte Hornets reached a four year deal with San Antonio Spurs assistant coach, James Borrego. Borrego, had been tenured with the Spurs twice and had stops in New Orleans as well as Orlando where he was the interim head coach for thirty games in 2015. Borrego stems from the Gregg Popovich coaching tree like many others such as Milwaukee Bucks head coach, Mike Buddenholtzer, Philadelphia head coach, Brett Brown, and Warriors associate head coach Mike Brown which made the hire of Borrego look great, even if the overall coaches pool was shallow.
The Charlotte Hornets’ expectations this year were a fringe playoff team in the Eastern Conference after their two previous seasons resulted in a 36-46 record. The Borrego hire was meant to be a huge part in a franchise reset that also included new President of basketball operations in former Lakers GM, Mitch Kupchak. Borrego’s arrival was met with the classic Spurs organization halo effect. Borrego’s primary goal in year one was to instill some of the Spurs stable culture into the dysfunctional Hornets.
Coming from San Antonio, JB brought some of their philosophies over as well as his own. From day one Borrego preached about getting after it on the defensive end. Borrego also said he wants to see a lot of ball movement, but understood that Kemba Walker would be the team’s leader. Lastly, he put an emphasis on player development and built a staff around that by hiring Joe Wolf to coach the G-League affiliate Greensboro Swarm and Jay Hernandez, who specializes in player training.
Rotations were easily the biggest frustration in Borrego’s first year in Charlotte. Outside of moving Jeremy Lamb to the bench in favor of rookie Miles Bridges to create a scoring attack with the second unit, Borrego found himself scrambling for lineups. The Hornets had eleven players start at least once, while really only facing one key injury in Cody Zeller, who was replaced by Bismack Biyombo.
Additionally, coach Borrego had at least ten players who had multiple “DNP-coach’s decisions” or fell out of the rotation entirely at some point in the season. That is almost unheard of. The biggest offence to this was fourth-year player Frank Kaminsky who only appeared in 47 games. Thirty-five times this season Kaminsky was a DNP and sixteen times Kaminsky played less than ten minutes. When Kaminsky finally saw heavy minutes in the final twenty games, the Hornets went 10-10. Which sure is .500, but is better than the below .500 record they finished the year with. Kaminsky looked pretty damn good when he was on the floor.
Going along with this trend, the Hornets looked their best when Borrego finally let the young guys see consistent minutes during the final twenty game stretch. It only took them sixty games to try it. The young Hornets damn near willed this team to the postseason beating Boston, Toronto (twice), San Antonio, and Detroit in the process. What makes this worse is the fact that I, along with many others, pleaded all year to make this change. Borrego’s lack of ability to identify talent on his own roster is definitely the biggest cause of concern for year one.
Sets and plays
Borrego brought some of that San Antonio flavor over with his offense which focuses on ball movement, dribble handoffs, and screening. This was especially important for the Hornets this season because if they wanted to win games they would need contributions from everyone on the court.
Frank screen, dive, and pop
- Frank screens for Kemba to start then rolls to basket
- Marvin moves up to create a passing angle for Kemba on the reverse
- Marvin gets ball back from MKG in corner
- Marvin DHO to MKG in corner while Frank slides back up top
- Marvin penetrates then kicks to the open Frank for three
Hornets short corner exchange
- Marvin resets by kicking to Devonte
- Devonte drives and kicks back to Marvin
- Marvin drives inside and passes to Batum in the short corner
- Lamb drives and hits Batum on the replacement for three
Kemba dual option handoff
- Kemba is given two passing options with Frank or MKG
- Kemba passes to MKG then gets it back via handoff
- Kemba drives, Frank slips, and MKG pops
- As Kemba draws attention while driving it forces Bacon’s defender to leave Bacon open in the corner
- Kemba fires to Bacon who drives and finishes
Jeremy Lamb game winning three
- Kemba pushes up court and is met with a ball screen by Frank
- Frank then slips and trails
- Because Kemba is moving downhill quickly, he draws four defenders
- Kemba kicks to Lamb for three on the open wing… buckets
Hornets post up off switch
- Miles fakes a screen for Kemba then slips to the hoop because of the switch the Lakers do
- Kemba then ball swings to Willy at the top of the key
- Willy then throws a lob to Miles who is posting up Rondo for an easy two
Hornets weak side three
- Devonte initially passes to Willy
- Devonte and Jeremy exchange spots on the floor
- Jeremy gets a handoff from Willy
- While Jeremy gets the ball Devonte cuts cross court to the opposite corner
- Jeremy swings to Frank on the other wing
- Malik screens the nearest defender of Devonte so that he [Devonte] can get an open corner three.
Hornets three across
- The Hornets start this set with Kemba up top, Devonte, Marv, and Frank alined, and Miles in the ballside corner.
- Marv screens for Devonte who cuts across to the opposite wing, free throw line extended
- While that is taking place, Miles cuts to the opposite corner
- Kemba passes to Devonte on the wing
- Frank then screens for Devonte
- Frank peels away to screen for Kemba
- Kemba moves towards the ball and receives a short pass
- Kemba drives and Marv crashes in from the opposite side and seals DeRozan for a dump-off bunny
Tony Parker 2v2 jumper
- Batum and Zeller set a double screen to open up Tony on the left wing
- Batum clears opposite
- Tony receives a pass from Kemba then resets for a 2 vs 2 with Zeller
- Zeller sets a ball screen for Parker then rolls
- Parker drives left and can either take it himself or hit Zeller on the roll.
Tony Parker drive and dish
- Tony has the ball left side while Kemba sets a rub screen for Zeller so that the defense is a step late
- Zeller then screens right for Tony
- Kemba clears opposite corner
- Tony drives and unfortunately Zeller gets tripped up
- Tony would normally be able to A) Take it himself B) drop off for the trailing Zeller C) Kick to the corner.
- He hits Kemba in the corner for three.
Under Borrego, the Hornets finished 12thin offensive rating (111.4). Offensively, the Hornets were a force to be reckoned with. They finished 12thin field goals attempted, 10th in three pointers attempted, 11th in three pointers made, 9thin free throws made, and 2ndin turnovers. Charlotte saw improvements in the following offensive categories this season: FGM, FGA, 3PM, 3PA, 3P%, 2P%, FT%, Assists, PPG, and turnovers. There were many times throughout the year where the Hornets were able to explode and put on a stellar offensive performance. Borrego did a great job at implementing an offense that fits today’s NBA during his first year.
Defense was the problem all year for the Hornets, which is ironic considering the emphasis Borrego put on that side of the ball and the recent past of Charlotte being a respectable defensive team. The Hornets lacked a perimeter lockdown defender and rim protector, and honestly anybody who could remotely defend in general. Naturally, this dug the team in a hole a number of times throughout the season. To further elaborate on this, the Hornets opponents’ stats increased in every single category besides two-pointers made, two-pointers attempted, and turnovers. Hint: These numbers should decrease, not increase.
Going into this season, clutch wins were one of the main things I wanted to see an upward trend in (games decided by five points or less). I knew the Hornets struggled in clutch games last year and felt like if they could improve that this year they would be in line to win more games. Unfortunately, no cigar. In 2017-2018, the Hornets went 8-13 in games decided by five points. This season, Charlotte finished 7-15 in those games. Considering how close the Hornets were to making the playoffs this stat in particular hurts. They had opportunities to win games and couldn’t. Is all of that on the coaching staff? Of course not. However, winning those games are what helps change the culture in the organization. Losing by twenty is never fun, but losing by two is as deflating as it gets for a middle of the road team.
As mentioned previously, one of Borrego’s key objectives for this season was to develop the young talent on this team. Jay Hernandez was a player development coach who worked with a variety of players during the pre-draft process. Additionally, he worked with and had a relationship with Kemba. Joe Wolf was hired to coach the Swarm in Greensboro, which the Hornets utilized frequently this season by sending Bacon and Graham back and forth until they were ready to be fully implemented into the regular lineup.
You already know the list of young players on the team: Malik Monk, Miles Bridges, Devonte Graham, Dwayne Bacon, Wily Hernangomez, and Frank Kaminsky. Specifically, I want to focus on Bridges, Bacon, and Graham. Miles Bridges made tremendous strides as the season progressed. It took him a while to find his footing, but he developed into a better defender as well as a shooter during this season. A great first step for the rookie.
As previously mentioned, Devonte Graham and Dwayne Bacon spent the year back and forth with the Hornets and their G-League affiliates. Graham, the second round pick out of Kansas, is a well-rounded point guard. He didn’t shoot the ball particularly well, but he showed a great understanding of the offense during his rookie campaign. With the Swarm, he and Bacon dominated the G-League demonstrating they were above the G-League talent. Dwayne Bacon played exceptional for the Hornets. The traditional slasher, further developed his jump shot, and was able to extend his offensive game which makes him a much more lethal scoring threat. The Swarm proved to be beneficial for both players.
The Hornets found themselves on multiple occasions lackadaisical in the first half. They started off down big then found themselves clawing back into the game in the second half. This alone takes so much energy where if they just started off the game ok then they wouldn’t need to rely on Kemba’s second half heroics. There were also a variety of times where an average role player would shoot the lights out against Charlotte this season. These things simply come down to game planning by the coaching staff. Knowing the opponent and knowing your own personnel.
The poor ways the Hornets would open up games was inexcusable for a team fighting for a playoff spot. One game prep item I did enjoy from Borrego and his staff was the opponent point per quarter rule they put in earlier in the season. The rule was they would try to limit their opponent to 27 points per quarter and if they did that they felt like they had a good chance to win due to their offense. I really liked this acknowledgement from the staff, especially due to their defensive struggles. This small adjustment gives the players a tangible goal for them to reach multiple times a game. Overall this is the area where I want to see improvement from most next season. Know your opponent, yourself, play all four quarters, all forty-eight minutes.
James Borrego’s first year as the head coach of the Charlotte Hornets went as most first year head coach’s seasons go. There was a mixed bag between the good and the bad. The positives stemmed from player development with some of their young talent and the offense. The negatives arrived via rotations, team defense, and close games. All of that to say the Hornets increased their win total by three games last season which is a great sign and put together a competent NBA offense. To me, this was a solid foundational year for the Borrego-era and I’m looking forward to his continued improvements for year two.
Final Grade: B-. solid 80/100