In 30 years of covering the NBA, I have never seen as fluid a rotation as the one Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego runs.
That doesn’t make what Borrego is doing wrong, but it sure is different. Sunday’s 119-109 home loss to the New Orleans Pelicans was illustrative.
All 13 players active for this game logged at least five minutes, and only one of those, Dwayne Bacon, entered the game after it was decided. Borrego wouldn’t normally play that many guys — he was dealing with injuries to starters Cody Zeller and Marvin Williams — but the wide variety of players and combinations are what have marked Borrego’s first quarter-season in Charlotte.
We’ve seen him play small guards Kemba Walker and Tony Parker extensively together and use 6-foot-9 Williams a lot at center. I don’t think you would have seen those moves nearly to the same extent under Borrego’s predecessor, Steve Clifford. I asked Borrego about some of his combinations recently and the word he used — “reactionary” — particularly caught my attention.
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Borrego said he doesn’t want to default to constantly reacting to the opposing team’s personnel and tactics in preparation for games. That doesn’t mean scouting matchups is unimportant to Borrego, but he doesn’t want to just surrender to letting what the other team does best dictate all his choices.
“I’d rather dictate. Sometimes it’s going to work and sometimes not,” Borrego said. “I just don’t operate on the mindset I’m going to follow your lead: Let you dictate tempo to us and matchups to us.”
Two thoughts on what Borrego said: What he described is something he’d come by naturally working for San Antonio Spurs coach Greg Popovich for many years. Also, that approach was applauded by one of Borrego’s peers, Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry.
Popovich often will shake up a game he doesn’t think is going as he’d like by throwing in a player deep on the bench who wouldn’t necessarily show up much on the opposing team’s scouting report.
Borrego did that a couple of times in the course of Sunday’s game: He started Bismack Biyombo at center in the second half (Biyombo hadn’t played in the previous seven games) after Willy Hernangomez struggled in the first half. Also, he played rookie point guard Devonte Graham 18 minutes off the bench.
Those constant little shifts in the rotation have become Borrego’s signature so far: He’d prefer a more set rotation, but he’s not going to force one. It’s up to the players to hash out minutes via performance.
When I asked Gentry about Borrego’s rotations, particularly not becoming reactionary to what opposing coaches do, Gentry strongly endorsed.
“I think that’s a good way to approach it,” Gentry said. “The strength of your team may not match up against their team, but you want to feel like our best team is on the floor and it doesn’t matter if it’s a small team or a large team.”
How Borrego roster-manages probably becomes more complicated now. The Hornets have been relatively lucky injury-wise early; only sixth man Michael Kidd-Gilchrist suffered anything significant (a sprained ankle that cost him six games) prior to the last couple of games.
Williams left Sunday’s game in what looked like serious pain from what was diagnosed as a sprained right shoulder. He’ll have tests Monday, but it would be no surprise if he misses several games. Zeller has a rib contusion; Borrego said in the preseason that keeping Zeller healthy is major for this team because he has such impact on both offense and defense.
The injuries will certainly factor into minutes distribution, but that isn’t the only thing Borrego is facing:
How to get Malik Monk going? Monk played only 10 minutes Sunday, making one of five shots. Borrego said in order for Monk to get more minutes he has to demonstrate more consistency, particularly in his defense.
How to get more from Nic Batum? Batum played 14 minutes, making 1-of-7 form the field. “We’ll keep calling plays for him, but I think he’s got to find his spots,” Borrego said of Batum. “One-for-seven isn’t ideal, but that’s my job. I’ve got to keep helping him.”
These fixes need to come relatively soon; December is a big month for the Hornets’ playoff chances, with nine of 14 games at home. If they aren’t performing relatively smoothly the rest of this month, they’re not going to have enough home games left later to qualify for the playoffs.