Charlotte Hornets

Charlotte Hornets’ bench comes together: How kids and a wise old man finding groove

There’s been so much chatter - and rightfully so - about all the early-season tinkering coach James Borrego did with the Charlotte Hornets’ rotation.

If the past 30 games of this regular season can at least somewhat mimic how the Hornets’ bench played Thursday, then all that experimentation had purpose.

The Hornets’ reserves outscored the Sacramento Kings’ non-starters 60-44. That pretty much was the difference in the Hornets’ 114-95 victory at Spectrum Center.

If there’s one thing that’s undeniable about Borrego’s first season as coach here, it’s that every player has gotten multiple chances to perform with games on the line. That’s one through 14 among players with guaranteed contracts, all the way from star Kemba Walker to second-round rookie Devonte Graham.

Borrego has a representative sample of everyone’s performance, and that will matter in February, March and April when the 21-23 Hornets chase their first playoff spot in three seasons.

Forwards Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Miles Bridges were the best of the second unit Thursday, but everything the bench does revolves around the point guard who started the vast majority of 17-plus NBA seasons.

“This young group - we’ll put Tony (Parker) in that young group, as well - they have to bring energy,” Borrego said of the second unit’s tasking and Parker’s veteran gravitas. “That’s how they have to play, with a defensive force, attacking the rim, playing in transition, and they did that tonight.”

The reserves turned this game around as the drivers of a 43-point second quarter that made up what had once been as much as a 13-point Kings lead.

Back-end payoff

There is no one else on this roster whose understanding of playoff basketball approaches Parker’s: He won four championships as part of the San Antonio Spurs. Parker said with conviction Thursday that playing so many guys early, including rookies Bridges and Graham, will have significant benefit in the coming months.

“It will definitely pay off in the long run,” said Parker, who had 14 points and six assists in 18 minutes Thursday. “Even through their ups and downs, it’s going to pay off big time in the second half of the season.”

This was how Gregg Popovich did things as Spurs coach when Parker was San Antonio’s point guard and Borrego was a Spurs assistant: Popovich would occasionally throw in a player off the bench in what looked like a hunch. That was in part to keep bench players engaged and part to test how they would react if circumstance, such as injury, forced them on the court later.

So Borrego’s rotations - he played more than 250 five-man combinations in the season’s first 40 games - is somewhat Spurs-East.

“It’s going to be nice to have guys who know what they are doing. They’re gaining confidence through this season,” Parker said. “It’s about that time now of the (season). We have to get a winning streak going. The teams behind us are playing well, and now it’s our turn to play better.”

Make a run

Thursday the Hornets won their second in a row after losing three in a row. They have a prime chance Saturday for a three-game winning streak with the 11-34 Phoenix Suns coming to Spectrum Center.

They have hovered slightly above or below .500 most of this season, a record that has them in contention for one of the last three playoff spots in the East. Borrego says there are side benefits to how many players he’s used: In addition to buying young guys experience, it’s reduced mileage for the starters.

Veteran power forward Marvin Williams said Borrego’s focus on keeping the starters fresh, including cutting back on heavy practices and occasionally skipping game-day shootarounds, will help in April and potentially the playoffs, too.

I said to Williams how beneficial I thought it was that Parker keeps the the reserves organized. Williams cheerfully corrected me.

“Keeps us all organized,” Williams said. “Kemba, me, Nic (Batum). Everyone in this locker room.”

With that in mind, give Parker the last word:

“We need to learn from all the mistakes,” Parker summed up. “We lost a lot of games we should have won. Now we have to get back on track and get a winning streak going.”

Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129, @rick_bonnell

Rick Bonnell is a sportswriter/columnist for the Charlotte Observer. He has been in Charlotte since 1988, when the NBA arrived, and has covered the Hornets continuously. A former president of the Pro Basketball Writers Association, Bonnell also writes occasionally on the NFL and college sports.
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