A new general manager, a new coach and for all practical purposes, a new basketball operations staff for the Charlotte Hornets.
General manager Mitch Kupchak is the agent for change in an NBA franchise yet to win a playoff round since the NBA returned to Charlotte in 2004. He’s hiring James Borrego, a San Antonio Spurs assistant whose previous NBA head-coaching experience is 30 games as interim coach in Orlando, after the Magic fired Jacque Vaughn (he went 10-20, but drew praise particularly for improved defense).
I asked for your questions on Twitter. Some can’t yet be answered, since they relate to what Borrego will say once he’s formally installed in the job. But here’s a go at a mailbag column:
Q. Which Hornets players will benefit most from a change to a motion offense that is similar to how the Spurs run?
A. Nic Batum is the obvious candidate. I believe a significant factor in his poor season was circumstance. Batum is best making decisions with the ball and that happened a lot less as the offense ran last season (partially, but not entirely, due to all the post-ups for Dwight Howard, which started when Batum was injured).
No one – including point guard Kemba Walker – is better on this roster at sizing up a defense and creating an open shot for himself or someone else. Borrego needs to figure how to make Batum more of an offensive weapon again.
Q. What would you say are the Hornets’ biggest needs?
A. Undoubtedly, stability behind Walker at point guard. We saw some good games from rookie Malik Monk, operating in the pick-and-roll late in the season, but that’s far too small a sample to say we know Monk is going to be a point guard.
Particularly since All-Star Walker becomes an unrestricted point guard after next season, it’s essential that position has more reliable depth than it did last season.
Q Would the Hornets entertain trading Batum for Serge Ibaka to save a bit of money?
A Interesting idea, considering each makes more than $20 million a season and Batum’s contract is one season longer (a player option he will inevitably exercise for $27 million in the 2020-21 season).
I would argue that while Batum and Ibaka both are coming off shaky seasons, the Hornets don’t really need another power forward, but do need the passing/facilitating Batum has delivered in the past. But if the Raptors wanted that trade, without expecting the Hornets to take on something else they don’t particularly want, I’d listen.
Q Would you see Borrego hiring a former head coach for his staff?
A I think he should. Steve Clifford had longtime NBA coach Bob Weiss on his staff, and when Weiss left for the Denver Nugget, Clifford hired Eddie Jordan for the same role.
Having a former head coach on the staff isn’t just useful during games, he’s also a resource in quality control: You can ask him if practice is still productive or how to manage a certain player personality. Or if you’ve become predictable out of timeouts or in late-game situations.
I don’t know Borrego other than he’s been around the Spurs, where Popovich has always been receptive to other coaches’ input, regardless of his own resume.
Q With the new coach coming from a system that emphasizes ball movement, are Dwight Howard’s days numbered, and what teams would fit his style of play?
A It’s more complicated than that: The upcoming season is the last on Howard’s contract, paying him about $24 million. Allowing that contract to expire, rather than trading him, might be better long-term planning. What’s more of an open-ended question is Howard’s minutes next season, particularly if they are out of playoff contention by midseason.
Q. One would have to envision the Hornets trying to move at least one of their bigger contracts. Between MKG, Batum, Williams, Zeller and Howard, who is the most likely to go?
A. Of those five players, if I were the general manager of another team, I’d explore trading for Cody Zeller. He’s young at 25, and locked down to a long-term deal at an average of about $14 million the next three seasons.
To offer the Hornets anything for Zeller, you’d have to believe he’s a viable starter and be confident his past injuries are bad luck, rather than indicative of future problems. But 7-footers as athletic as him, who set great picks, are valuable.
Q. Was hiring Borrego, instead of (Boston Celtics assistant) Jay Larranaga, an indirect motive to try and lure Kawhi Leonard to Charlotte?
A I don’t believe you hire an NBA head coach on the possibility that a star from another team might be available in trade. This isn’t like college basketball, where you might be tempted to hire an assistant coach based on a relationship with a big-time recruiting prospect.
Q. Do you think the focus will be to get more two-way players? The current roster has too many players who are one-dimensional.
A. Yes, but I think that would be the focus if Clifford was still coach. That’s the way the league is headed, with the Golden State Warriors and Celtics as the best examples.
Q. How will Borrego tap into the youth talent (Monk, Bacon and Hernangomez) and bring them to full potential?
A. Count on all three to be closely monitored and supervised this summer. (That will be a bit different for Hernangomez, since much of his summer will be with the Spanish national team). Figuring out the best mix of Monk’s minutes (at point or shooting guard) is key. I’m a big believer in Bacon’s potential as one of those two-way players in the previous question. He has the frame and physical approach to be a quality wing defender.