Here’s how new Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego summarized his agenda heading into training camp:
“We’re establishing a new identity.”
That’s not just appropriate, it’s required. A franchise with a veteran roster and a payroll in the top third of the NBA shouldn’t be going 36-46 in consecutive seasons.
This preseason should be about scrutiny: Test the status quo, enforce daily competition, make players fight for their minutes.
Just don’t do that to such an extreme that they start literally fighting each other. Because whatever has been wrong about the Hornets of late, there is still something very right.
I’m glad Borrego recognizes this: These guys authentically like and respect each other. No matter how much you might hear that universally regarding major-league teams, it’s not always true.
This is my 30th year covering the NBA. I’ve seen the spectrum of locker room personalities: Too silly, too complacent, too selfish, too combative. Players don’t have to particularly like each other to collaborate effectively; Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson certainly had issues with each other, but they thrived as Hornets.
But you must respect and value each other as teammates. This Hornets group is exemplary in that regard, and it would be sad if that is marginalized in any new identity.
Borrego is new to being a full-time NBA head coach, but he grasps that balance.
“Healthy competition is good,” Borrego said after the team’s first practice Tuesday at the Dean Smith Center. “There are minutes up for grab and spots up for grab — that’s healthy and that’s good.
“But I expect this team to still rally around each other; whatever direction we go they pull for each other. Through wins and through losses, we still battle for each other. I think this group at its core has that character.”
Any athlete must be at least a little selfish to get all the way to the top of his or her sport. But there’s a key difference between a little selfish and disruptively so.
The Hornets haven’t had a lot of personality problems the past few seasons. The two quirkiest characters to pass through the roster — Dwight Howard and Lance Stephenson — each lasted one season. That’s not a coincidence.
This team’s collective personality has been defined of late by three players: Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams. I describe each of those guys as someone you’d want as your neighbor: Courteous, fair and accountable.
Their personalities have rubbed off on others in a way I call fortuitously viral. And that has made for a most professional atmosphere.
That isn’t a given. Thirteen-season veteran Williams, who has played for the Atlanta Hawks, Utah Jazz and Hornets, explains:
“The guys I’ve been here with, we’ve been as tight as brothers. We get with each other away from the gym, we check on each other constantly. It’s more than basketball for us.
“Now, obviously that doesn’t always translate to wins and losses, and I think that’s where people sometimes get it confused. But we definitely enjoy every day lacing it up with each other, and that is a big thing.”
How different is that from the norm in pro sports?
“It’s different!” Williams asserted. “In my career I’ve become close to guys individually, but I don’t know that I’ve been closer to teams collectively.
“I think guys on this team are very, very close and it is definitely a blessing, especially this late in my career.”
Some Darwinism — making these guys reprove themselves to a new front office and coaching staff — is essential to improvement. Turn up the heat, sure, just so long as Borrego understands where that red zone is on the temperature gauge.
He has numerous problems to solve; the last thing he needs is to create any new ones.