First-year Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego didn’t choose strategy based on what would be most popular for players or fans.
But if the changes Borrego is installing — particularly on offense — are appealing for the players to execute and entertaining to watch, all the better.
Those changes can be summed up as pace-and-space: More emphasis on attacking defenses in the first eight seconds of a possession and more 3-point shooting on the floor to surround point guard Kemba Walker.
The Hornets have 10 days left until their first regular-season game with Borrego as coach (Oct. 17 at home against the Milwaukee Bucks). They have two exhibitions remaining, Monday at home against the Chicago Bulls and Friday against the Mavericks in Dallas.
So far, so good, as far as the players buying into Borrego’s priorities.
“Way faster,” guard Malik Monk said of upping the pace. “It’s crazy that we’re learning that fast. In practice, we’ve been playing with 12- and 14-second shot clocks just to speed it up.”
And the emphasis on utilizing more perimeter shooting?
“(The driving lanes) are way wider,” Monk said. “And you’ve got a shooter here, a shooter there and a shooter in the corner. So if you help (on the ball-handler) it’s (an open) 3. It’s super spaced-out and a love that.”
Based on NBA-wide rankings so far this preseason, the Hornets are 12th among 30 NBA teams in pace. That isn’t particularly different from last season, but this isn’t as simple as a pace rating: What Borrego hopes for is some easy early-offense baskets before defenses are set. That’s why point guards aren’t the only Hornets with the green light to start the offense off a rebound or turnover.
The emphasis on 3-point attempts is more easily documented so far: In those three exhibitions, the Hornets have averaged 33 3s taken, about five more than they did last season, with a heavy emphasis on corner 3s, where the distance is shorter than above the lane.
It’s telling that centers such as Cody Zeller and Willy Hernangomez are encouraged to take 3s and are making some so far, at least enough to affect how defenses must view them. Tellingly, Bismack Biyombo — the center with the least shooting range — hasn’t played much.
Four other areas to watch before the games count:
By far, the most interesting development so far this Hornets preseason has been how well rookie forward Miles Bridges is developing. That begs the question how he’ll be used in the regular season.
Barring a slew of injuries, I don’t see Bridges starting this season or being a 20-points-a-game scorer. How much he plays is partially dependent on how well Borrego can plug him into multiple positions. Switching between small forward and power forward (and occasionally even small-ball center) isn’t much adjustment on defense; that’s just matching up with whoever he’s asked to guard. But learning the offensive sets and plays is more complicated when fitting into multiple positions.
Bridges will play — he’s too talented to sit — but how much is contingent on how well he keeps digesting the system.
What of MKG?
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist missing nearly a week with a concussion (he’s back at practice after being cleared Saturday) further complicated his transition to a new role. After six seasons of mostly starting as a small forward, the 6-7 Kidd-Gilchrist is now a backup to Marvin Williams at power forward. Bridges’ quick development is now a factor in the minutes mix at power forward.
Whatever Kidd-Gilchrist lacks offensively, he’s still this team’s best mid-sized defender, and I think there will be nights when stars such as Russell Westbrook or Kawhi Leonard will just be blowing up and Borrego will sic MKG on that that guy. But it will be a more surgical use than what Steve Clifford did, particularly in fourth quarters of close games.
I’d pay less attention to how much 17-season veteran Tony Parker plays, and more to when and in what situations. If Parker can stay healthy enough at 36 to average 15 minutes and play in 60 or more games, this signing was a success. Borrego needs him in tight-game, fourth-quarter situations, often when he and Walker will be in the game together.
It’s understandable Parker doesn’t want to be viewed as a “player-coach.” If that were the case, he wouldn’t have uprooted from San Antonio. But it is important he continues to convey what Borrego wants and mentors rookie point guard Devonte Graham.
Who plays, who doesn’t
Borrego has to start firming up a rotation over the next week. I’d say the two areas to watch most closely are at forward and center:
For instance, how will Borrego’s use of Kidd-Gilchrist affect his use of Dwayne Bacon (assuming it’s a given Bridges gets some minutes). And if Hernangomez continues his solid preseason as the backup center, where does that leave Frank Kaminsky?
With the starters pretty much settled, those are the decisions left in the next 10 days.