The Charlotte Hornets would have been a playoff team last season had they been average defensively. Instead, they were bad.
The playoffs aren’t a realistic goal this season, but coach James Borrego says he will demand better defense, and playing time will be his leverage.
“I control the minutes. Our guys are going to be committed to the defensive end from day one,” Borrego said Tuesday. “If not, they’re just not going to play. That’s the bottom line.”
That was the most important thing I heard from Borrego as he addressed about 50 media members before training camp starts next week in Chapel Hill. The defense was poor last season for various reasons. Borrego is changing his approach, and he went out of his way Tuesday to say the players would be held accountable.
Some important context from the 2018-19 season: The Hornets were 11th among 30 NBA teams in offensive efficiency (112.1 points per 100 possessions), but were 23rd in defensive efficiency (113.16 points per 100 opponent possessions). The Hornets finished two games out of a playoff spot, so it wouldn’t have taken much to have replaced the Detroit Pistons in the post-season.
This year is different. Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb, the top two scorers, are gone, so being highly dependent on offense is self-defeating. Borrego also is committed to playing youth in a rebuild.
This season will be more about changing habits than counting victories. And the imperative is defense.
Telling on himself
Borrego admits he contributed to the defensive problem last season by over-reaching in his scheme: The former San Antonio assistant used the Spurs system, which doesn’t compromise between guarding the lane and the 3-point line. That demands great experience and communication, and the Hornets weren’t up to that.
“What could I have done better to help that group last year?” Borrego said. “This year I’m going to keep it simple, aggressive and very clear. We’re not going to change our coverages, and try to protect (both) the 3 and the rim, to be this perfect defense we had in San Antonio. We’re not built that way.”
Borrego confessed that by not compromising, “I left us in No Man’s Land.”
Clarity to accountability
Borrego must have used the words “clear” and “clarity” 20 times in a 40-minute question-and-answer session Tuesday. In self-evaluating his rookie season as an NBA head coach, he concluded he needs to be even more fundamental and assertive in communicating to the players.
“It’s all about accountability, but you bring that with clarity,” Borrego said. “To hold people accountable, people need to know what’s expected of them.
“Absolutely, I think I’m more clear (in season two) with our group on what I believe in.”
Borrego wasn’t meek as a rookie coach, but he had two new bosses to please in general manager Mitch Kupchak and owner Michael Jordan. Those two didn’t tell him who to play last season, but it was clear Borrego staked out his territory recently when he told the Observer he didn’t consider it his job to worry about which players had the longest contracts or the biggest salaries.
His goal, he says, is to change culture and habits, and develop young players. Obviously, shooting guard Malik Monk must improve defensively (Monk added a much-needed 20 pounds this off-season), but Dwayne Bacon and Miles Bridges also must improve defensively to reach expectations.
Borrego might not make more money than his first-round players, or in some cases have more job security. But he does have great power in controlling minutes — to the extent he’s willing to wield it.
“If you want to get somebody’s attention, if you’re going to say you’re about defense,” the coach said, “then that should be tied to playing time.”