You could have a spirited debate over whether coach James Borrego’s rotation Wednesday was best for the Charlotte Hornets’ development agenda.
But this is absolute: The way to maximize this team’s playoff chances is what Borrego did in a 110-99 home victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Borrego tightened his rotation, playing just eight deep in the second half when the Hornets outscored the Cavs 69-53. He leaned heavily toward experience and defense in the second half after the Hornets trailed by as much as 13 in the first half.
Borrego didn’t commit post-game to this being a template for future games. I’m not surprised by that; he has been as fluid with player minutes as any coach in 30 years of Hornets history. But when he described his incentive for going with the players he did Wednesday, it sounded weighty.
“We’ve got to get back to defending. We gave up 128 and 126 points the last two games. That’s an issue for me,” Borrego said.
“For the most part this season our offense has been generating a good number of points for us. At times, we rely on that too much. We score and then you’re just OK with giving up a 30-point quarter. Like it’s nothing.
“That’s not acceptable.”
No, it’s not and that’s what has had this team bobbing along all season a game or two above or below .500. Their ability to score — they have been top-10 in offensive efficiency — sucked them into a false sense of security they could shoot and drive their way out of predicaments.
After those two home losses last weekend to the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers, the Hornets’ rating in defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) dipped to 17th in a 30-team league. Something had to change and the shock value of the Lakers scoring 30 or more in three of four quarters Saturday became catalyst of change.
The rotation, which has shifted often over the first 30 games of Borrego’s tenure, did not include second-year guard Malik Monk Wednesday. The only Hornet with fewer than two seasons of NBA experience who played was rookie Miles Bridges (14 minutes) and he was constantly surrounded with veterans.
Every Hornet who played 20 or more minutes Wednesday — seven of them — had six or more NBA seasons of prior experience. The two most senior players on this squad, power forward Marvin Williams (14th season) and reserve guard Tony Parker (18th season), combined for 61 minutes.
Also, it was no coincidence that the Hornets’ top two defensive players — Williams and forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist — had big roles in the second half. If you could guard, you played. If you’re shaky defensively, you sat.
“He tried something new. Besides Miles, he played some old vets who are used to playing together, especially on defense,” said forward Nic Batum. “In the third quarter, the difference was great.”
That’s the quarter in which the Hornets outscored the Cavaliers by 12. Granted, a lot of that was point guard Kemba Walker scoring 17 of his 30 points. But this game was about so much beyond Walker breaking out of a two-game shooting slump.
It was telling that even though the Hornets scored a season-low 41 first-half points, they trailed by only five at halftime.
“We weren’t shooting very well,” Batum said. “But we kept on defending.”
A path found?
Do I think Borrego will review the video of this game, scream “Eureka!” and coach the last 50 regular-season games by playing only veterans and defenders? Of course not. But there is something to be gleaned from this.
Wednesday he firmly held players accountable for their defense, via minutes distribution. That won a game when they desperately needed to change up the pattern. Presumably, that sent a message to some of the second unit — Monk, but also Willy Hernangomez and Frank Kaminsky — that they will play only so much as they guard.
Chasing a playoff spot is important to this team. Borrego said before training camp started that his job is to prioritize winning every game that he can.
Should that mean turning his back on player development? No, and I can’t imagine him doing so. But developing young players isn’t necessarily about force-feeding them minutes and hoping that improves performance. Sometimes it is about depriving them of playing time as a teaching tool.
However the rest of December goes, Borrego made a statement of sorts Wednesday that talent for scoring alone won’t keep you on the court. If they are serious about breaking this streak of back-to-back seasons missing the playoffs, that statement has to be imperative.
Wednesday it was.