Anyone accomplished enough to coach a major-league team typically has a non-negotiable: an imperative that coach’s players either abide by or risk not playing.
For instance, if you didn’t get back on defense for former Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford, you were in deep trouble. Loafing in the initial seconds after the opponent rebounded the ball got you benched, if not traded.
The non-negotiable for Clifford’s successor, James Borrego, is ball movement. If you hold the ball inordinately long before driving, shooting or passing, you’re in trouble when the Hornets open training camp in Chapel Hill Sept. 25.
The most emphatic sign of this was trading eight-time All-Star Dwight Howard in June after a single season as a Hornet. Superficially, Howard’s statistics were good (16.6 point and 12.5 rebounds), but his post-ups were inefficient and he slowed/impeded overall ball movement. The day in July Howard was dealt to the Brooklyn Nets, Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak said Howard’s minutes would have plummeted had he stayed in Charlotte.
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Before and during summer league in Las Vegas, Borrego and his staff constantly reinforced the theme of quick, decisive ball movement. Assistant Jay Hernandez, who coached the Hornets’ summer roster, referred to it as the half-second rule, for the expectation choices with the ball would be made at split-second pace.
The Hornets weren’t typically a selfish team in Clifford’s five seasons, but they finished last season 24th among 30 NBA teams in assists (21.6 per game, 2.1 better than the last-place Portland Trail Blazers). Part of that can be attributed to the Hornets finishing tied for 21st in field-goal percentage (45.0 percent), but it was also a marker this team needs to search harder for high-quality shots and also be decisive in real time.
It says, ‘We’re unselfish’
Most of Borrego’s coaching career in the NBA has been working for Gregg Popovich in the San Antonio Spurs organization. The Spurs have been about winning (five NBA championships since 1999) and also about sharing the ball. Some Spurs offenses relied heavily on the 3-point shot, while others were post-up/mid-range shot heavy. Each of those offenses shared an expectation the group would search for great shots.
“It’s the spirit of your team because it says, ‘We’re unselfish,’” Borrego told the Observer of his non-negotiable. “That we make the right play and we trust the next guy to make the right play if that is what’s asked.
“It’s at the core of our organization, like if I ask a guy to play a (different) position or come off the bench. I expect you to do that job and do it well. Likewise, when the ball is in your hands, I expect you to make the right decision.: So pass it, drive or or shoot it quickly because that makes us hard to guard.”
The Hornets were not a particularly “hard to guard” team last season. While they were in the top third of the league in points per game (108.2 for 10th place), they tended to break down offensively in the fourth quarter of close games. They were heavily dependent on two-time All-Star point guard Kemba Walker in pick-and-rolls to the extent they were highly predictable in end-of-game situations.
Some of the issue was addressed when Howard was moved.
“When the ball is just being pounded and one guy has it in his hands for five or six seconds - when we’re just seeing him dance with the ball - the rest of the defense just gets to relax and load up,” Borrego said, speaking generically. “You’re not going to be perfect all the time, but let’s put pressure on the defense constantly. ...
“We demanded it in San Antonio. My job is to sell that to the players to do what’s best for the team.”
Agent of change
This is Borrego’s first true NBA head-coaching job (he served as interim coach with the Orlando Magic in 2015 after Jacque Vaughn was fired, but wasn’t retained beyond that season). Kupchak hired him to come with a fresh approach to what is for the most part a pre-existing roster.
Borrego has said he’d like to play at a slightly faster pace. He needs to get more from Nic Batum, who the Hornets still owe about $75 million over the next three seasons in guaranteed salary. Batum, who will likely shift from primarily shooting guard to small forward next season, is a strong passer/decision-maker. Howard dominating the ball so much on post-ups limited Batum’s value as a facilitator last season.
Beyond that, Borrego needs to get more from guard Malik Monk, the 11th overall pick in the 2017 draft. Monk showed a gift for scoring in his one season at Kentucky before turning pro, but his impact as a rookie was limited. Part of Monk growth curve was about decisions that would also create high-quality shots for teammates. Monk looked like a willing and creative passer in his one game in summer league before he was sidelined with a thumb injury.
The Hornets didn’t have the payroll flexibility to make big changes over the summer. Their one high-profile acquisition was signing former Spurs All-Star point guard Tony Parker. He will be Walker’s backup and be an on-court conduit for the values and priorities Borrego is bringing from San Antonio.
Will change take? Borrego has seen nothing so far suggesting the veteran group he inherited is unreceptive.
“I think at its core this is a very unselfish group. Why they were 24th in assists last (season), I don’t quite know. That’s in the past,” Borrego said.
“But we don’t want to be a bottom-five assist team. I’m going to demand it, our point guards will demand it and our best players will demand it.”