Welcome to the Charlotte Hornets, James Borrego, and congratulations on your first NBA head-coaching job. Can I give you a piece of advice – or eight pieces, actually? Here’s what I would do right away if I were you.
Meet privately with every player, but with Kemba Walker first.
Walker is the Hornets’ best player and the franchise’s all-time leading scorer. He isn’t going to be difficult for you to sell, because Walker is hard-wired to play 100 percent for anybody with a whistle and will be predisposed to like you. You will need to tread more carefully with players like Dwight Howard, who was a Steve Clifford guy and piled up a lot of stats in the past season that had absolutely no effect on the Hornets’ bottom line.
Walker deserves the respect of that first meeting. Getting him in your corner will go a long way in the locker room.
Play the kids.
You are walking into a difficult situation. You inherit a roster that has gone 36-46 for two years in a row but is mostly set in stone for 2018-19 because of a lot of bad contracts that will be hard to move. But the one good thing you do get is what should be a one-year coaching honeymoon next season, and during that time you should make it a point to see how good Malik Monk and Dwayne Bacon can be. They are on relatively cheap contracts by NBA standards and would be very cost-effective – or good trade bait - if either or both become decent rotation players.
Figure out Nic Batum.
Yeah, it’s a really bad deal – the Hornets owe Batum about $75 million for the next three years. That’s superstar money for a player who is never going to be a superstar.
But Batum can play when he wants to. The enigmatic Frenchman does nothing spectacularly well except pass, but he does almost everything somewhat well – again, when he wants to.
Batum is smart, opinionated and has a lot of ideas on what works and what doesn’t. Figure out the Batum puzzle – particularly as it relates to Howard, as those two had obvious chemistry problems all last season – and you’re making big progress.
Hold a 'Meet James Borrego' day over the summer at the Spectrum Center.
Why? Because, let’s face it, hardly anyone outside the NBA world knows who you are. Bring your family. Introduce them. Make part of the day exclusive to Hornets season ticket-holders – free food, drink and a group “Q and A” session – and throw the second half of it open to the general public. Get the fans excited.
You may say you don’t have time to do this; that you’re simply too busy. Yes, you do have time to do it, because part of your job is re-energizing a fan base that has been repeatedly burned.
OK, here’s where it gets difficult. No matter how good a coach you are, the Hornets' roster just isn’t good enough to advance deep into the playoffs. You’re going to have to get lucky – either in the draft lottery, or with an undrafted free agent or something.
Since the Hornets re-entered the NBA as the Charlotte Bobcats in 2004, they have employed six head coaches. All six said they wanted to make Charlotte a consistent winner. All six failed (Clifford came the closest, although it still wasn’t very close). For you not to become No. 7 on that T-shirt, you will have to be the beneficiary of some flat-out good luck.
Light some fires.
New general manager Mitch Kupchak is already scorching the earth in various places in the Hornets' organization, firing whomever he sees fit in a quest to build a winner. You don’t need to concern yourself with firing a lot of players – the Hornets would have to pay them anyway - but you do need to kick some tires and light some fires.
Cody Zeller, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams all will make more money than Kemba Walker next season. Could you get them to play like it, please? Player development is supposed to be your strength. You have no shortage of projects.
Navigate the front office.
This can be thorny, because everyone answers to Hornets owner Michael Jordan and a lot of those “everyones” are FOROMs (Friends Or Relatives Of Michael). Jordan isn’t in Charlotte all the time, and sometimes this is an issue because he’s sort of here but he’s really not, issuing opinions from afar.
So sometimes, somebody besides Kupchak will have a suggestion for you. That doesn’t mean you have to follow it, but you have to listen to it. You have to keep the front office at a pleasant distance without making enemies. Clifford didn’t always do that.
Play the Gregg Popovich card only when necessary.
Hey, I love your San Antonio pedigree and obviously you’re going to adopt a lot of things from the Spurs. Maybe “Pop” can help you occasionally on the phone in the first few months of the job.
But too much “We did it this way in San Antonio” will wear on anybody. I’m not saying you don’t already realize this, but take a deep breath and really think about it: This is your first-ever job as an honest-to-goodness NBA head coach, with no “interim” qualifier weakening the soup.
The Charlotte Hornets are really your team now. Put your own stamp on them.