If you’re a Charlotte Hornets fan, what you will see in Friday’s first preseason exhibition against the Boston Celtics is bound to look bad.
Don’t panic: The offense will likely appear clunky throughout the preseason and perhaps into the regular season. New coach James Borrego is shaking up how the Hornets do this in terms of the pace this team plays and a greater emphasis on quick, decisive ball movement and 3-point shots.
The Hornets didn’t play slow under Borrego’s predecessor, Steve Clifford, but in studying last season’s games, Borrego saw few easy baskets. The best opportunity to address that is by emphasizing attacking defenses immediately in a possession, rather than setting up more deliberately.
“That’s when the defense is most vulnerable,” Borrego said of the first six to eight seconds of a possession. “I think we found some guys who can do that, who can present a problem in transition. Everybody who can has got to rebound and move the ball up the floor.”
It’s difficult to try to run if you aren’t a good rebounding team; in-bounding the ball after an opponent basket gives the other team more time to get back and set up defensively. Trading away center Dwight Howard eliminates a ball-stopper on offense, but Howard averaged 12.5 rebounds last season. The Hornets will have to make up for that rebounding loss collectively to make transition basketball work.
Second-year guard Malik Monk is ecstatic about the opportunity to play at this pace. It’s more like what he is used to from high school and his one season at Kentucky. Monk noted on media day that in pickup games leading up to training camp, he and Kemba Walker were told either should start the break off any miss or turnover, rather than concern themselves with who is the designated “point guard.”
This also should play to the strengths of Cody Zeller, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Dwayne Bacon as finishers in transition. It’s a greater adjustment to some of the older players, who are used to more half-court offense.
“It’s going to be a work-in-progress, we’re going to have to work at it, but I think we’ll be fine with it,” 14th-season veteran Marvin Williams said after Tuesday’s first practice.
“We’re trying to practice playing with pace - driving, kicking, continuing to move, just trying to play a little bit faster. The more and more we practice it, the easier it will become for us.”
The other element in this shift is the quicker decision-making and fluid flow Borrego expects. He saw how beautifully that can work as an assistant coach with the San Antonio Spurs.
During summer league in Las Vegas, Hornets coaches constantly reminded players of the “half-second rule,” as in choose an action - drive, shoot or pass - within a half second of the ball hitting your hands. That’s adjustment as far as expecting a broad spectrum of players to immediately size up what the defense is showing in any given possession.
“The European game – the international game – is much more fluid,” Borrego said.
“The players who we had in San Antonio, we didn’t even have to teach that to them, they already had it. They just came in with more of a team perspective, they trusted their teammates more. They moved the ball more freely, and that’s what I expect this team to do.”
To that end, the Hornets signed Frenchman Tony Parker, who spent 17 seasons with the Spurs, to be Walker’s backup at point guard. And, obviously, to be a conduit to what Borrego is installing.
“J.B. wants to play fast; he wants (to look for a shot) in less than 10 seconds, and a lot of 3s,” Parker said. “That came naturally (with the Spurs) because we moved the ball. Last year, this team was in the bottom in moving the ball (24th among 30 teams in assists). I think I can definitely help with that.
“We have to play together. We have to trust each other. Teams are too good defensively, particularly the top teams, if you want to play (isolation plays) or not pass the ball.”
Borrego is a convert to the underlying math that making more 3-point shots can at least somewhat mitigate a talent deficit in basketball. The Hornets’ problem isn’t their ability to make 3s; it’s how many they take.
Last season, the Hornets were eighth among 30 teams in 3-point percentage at 36.9 percent, but only 21st in 3-pointers attempted (27.2 per game).
Players are being told to take more 3s and Borrego plans to surround Walker with as many shooters as practical.
Examples: Williams and Jeremy Lamb have both been reminded not to pass up any open 3s. Also, 7-footer Frank Kaminsky (a 38 percent 3-point shooter last season) playing more center, rather than power forward, gives Borrego more options of having four perimeter shooters on the floor around a point guard.
Borrego knows this is a lot to assimilate. He didn’t expect this to come together in three days of practice before Friday’s exhibition, televised on Fox Sports Southeast. But he will enforce change.
“That’s going to be a little uncomfortable for them. But I think once they start to feel the pace we want to play at, the ball movement we want to have, it will become a little more comfortable. That takes some time,” Borrego said.
“By Milwaukee (the season opener Oct. 17 at home against the Bucks) we’ll have a better feel for what that looks like.”