Coaching is the craft of organizing the talent on a roster to its best success, both short-term and long-term.
For instance, new Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego has to figure out how to get more from guard Malik Monk in Monk’s second NBA season. Monk is gifted offensively, but he’s not a strong defender and somewhat undersized at 6-foot-3 if Borrego chooses to play him at shooting guard alongside point guard Kemba Walker.
Hornets fans are understandably intrigued by how Borrego will use Monk, particularly whether he has a chance to start next season. That tops reader questions in this edition of the Hornets mailbag.
Q. Can Monk and Walker co-exist starting together? They’d be one of the smallest backcourts in the NBA and are both defensive liabilities.
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A. I don’t consider Walker a defensive “liability,” but I agree this would be a really small backcourt that could struggle at the defensive end of the court. Many NBA shooting guards are 6-7 or taller, and sometimes point guards are too (Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons, for instance).
Monk can improve defensively, just as he has already improved his quick decision-making at the offensive end. But playing the 6-foot-1 Walker and Monk together will always be a challenge in matching up size-wise. Sometimes talent trumps size — note the Portland Trail Blazers building their roster around guards Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, both 6-3 — but starting Walker and Monk together would be a definite tradeoff that would add to the frontcourt starters’ defensive burden.
Q. Should the Hornets try to extend Kemba Walker now to not run the risk of him bolting (in the summer of 2019)?
A. That’s not a realistic option. Because the Hornets’ player payroll is far above the salary cap for the 2018-19 season, the rules don’t provide the Hornets a way to offer Walker an extension that would be comparable to what he can get as a free agent next summer.
Q. What’s the biggest change in the team’s culture that (general manager) Mitch Kupchak’s hiring has had?
A. Probably a clearer, firmer chain of command. Other than the players, there aren’t a lot of people in the Hornets’ basketball operation who were in those jobs last season. From the coaches to the athletic trainers to the scouts, pretty much everyone there now was hired by Kupchak. That’s different from before, when Steve Clifford’s hiring as coach preceded Rich Cho ascending to the general manager’s title.
Q. How wide-open is the competition for starting center, or does Cody Zeller have it on lock?
A. Kupchack said following the trade of Timofey Mozgov for Bismack Biyombo that minutes at center are up for grabs and that match-ups could somewhat redistribute playing time game-to-game between Zeller, Willy Hernangomez and Biyombo.
I believe all that is true and that Hernangomez had a strong summer league that left an impression with the coaches. However, I also think Zeller is clearly the favorite to be the starter. The quicker pace Borrego wants to use plays to Zeller’s strengths.
Q. Any chance Tony Parker gives the Hornets the type of season Jeremy Lin gave them a few years ago?
A. It would be a pleasant surprise if Parker, 17 seasons into his NBA career, does all the things on the court that Lin did for the Hornets in the 2015-16 season. Borrego might play Walker and Parker together some in fourth-quarter situations when it becomes particularly difficult to score, but I don’t anticipate Parker (or Monk, for that matter) having the physical strength Lin had to match up against bigger guards.
Q. How much did team chemistry play a role in the Hornets’ underwhelming season?
A. That wasn’t the top reason the Hornets won only 36 games last season (injuries and a weak bench were bigger factors), but it was detrimental. When Clifford said the day after the season ended that his team lacked the “spirit” of his prior Hornets teams, I certainly took that as reflecting the difficulty some players, particularly Nic Batum, had figuring out how to blend with center Dwight Howard.
After Howard was traded to the Brooklyn Nets, Kupchack said Howard would have played a greatly diminished role had he remained a Hornet. Translation: There was no expectation Howard would have adapted to Borrego insisting on quick decisions and constant ball-movement.
Q. With (rookie) Miles Bridges’ impressive performance in summer league — showing elite athleticism, and ability to defend and grab rebounds — do you think if he gets more consistent with his jump shot he has the potential to be a fringe All-Star?
A. I liked what I saw from Bridges in Las Vegas, but it’s dangerous to make grand projections from what you see in summer-league games. It’s a step up from summer league to the preseason and a big step up from the preseason to the regular season. I’d say the indicators on Bridges are positive, but he hasn’t been tested yet on an NBA scale.
Q. Who do you anticipate getting more minutes, Bridges or Dwayne Bacon?
A. Probably Bridges, if just because he was the 12th overall pick, but that doesn’t mean Bacon is an afterthought. However, don’t forget about Jeremy Lamb, who is coming off his best NBA season and in a contract year.
The Hornets have a crowd at the wing positions and the minutes distribution is very much up for grabs. Barring a trade, someone good enough to be in an NBA rotation won’t play every game.
Q. What is Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s likely role next season?
A. It wouldn’t surprise me if he’s the opening-night starter, but I doubt he will be as featured by Borrego as he was by Clifford. Despite his offensive limitations, Kidd-Gilchrist is still this team’s best perimeter defender. It would be foolish for Borrego not to utilize that when a LeBron James or Russell Westbrook or Kyrie Irving is the opponent’s featured player. But Kidd-Gilchrist has started all but four of his previous 357 NBA games, and I suspect that pattern will change.