Tom Sorensen

Hornets have a new coach, James Borrego. The situation he inherits is complicated

Former San Antonio Spurs assistant James Borrego is the Hornets’ choice to replace Steve Clifford, but what comes next isn’t clear.
Former San Antonio Spurs assistant James Borrego is the Hornets’ choice to replace Steve Clifford, but what comes next isn’t clear. AP

When a team hires a head coach who has never been a head coach, it gambles. In every sport there are assistants who should never be promoted. The safer route is to hire a head coach who has been run off his previous job. This is the reason former head coaches continually cycle through their leagues.

But if the man who makes the hire, presumably the general manager, doesn’t trust his instincts, he shouldn’t be the general manager. The idea is to identify the next big-time coach and go after him.

The Charlotte Hornets have hired James Borrego as their head coach. What do you know about Borrego? I’ll answer that. Unless you’re an NBA junkie, you know as little about him as you did Steve Clifford when in 2013 the Hornets made him their head coach.

Everybody was an assistant. Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs, the NBA’s most successful coach, was an assistant with Air Force, Kansas, San Antonio and Golden State before he became the Spurs’ head coach in 1996.

Borrego was an assistant with his alma mater, San Diego, and an NBA assistant with San Antonio, New Orleans, Orlando (and for 30 games the Magic’s interim head coach), and again with San Antonio before the Hornets hired him.

Borrego has a rough assignment. Is he supposed to win enough games to try to claim the seventh or eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and, the Hornets undoubtedly hope, a first-round matchup with the highly seeded Toronto Raptors? Or is he supposed to tank?

Nobody wants to lose, and if the Hornets tank next season they’ll lose far more fans than they do games. But with the exception of point guard Kemba Walker, big man Dwight Howard and occasionally guard Nic Batum, Charlotte’s players range in ability from mediocre to decent.

Walker, who turned 28 Tuesday, has one season left on his contract. He does all he can to win. Yet the Hornets are mired in a rebuilding decade. Will he tolerate another sub-.500 season?

If the Hornets don’t tank, how do they improve? They can trade some of their mediocre to decent players. But to whom do they trade the players and their contracts?

The other option is to win with what they have. Guard Malik Monk, a rookie last season, finished well. The Hornets also have to draft well. Next month’s draft will be the first for general manager Mitch Kupchak, who was hired in April. The Hornets are most likely to pick 11th.

San Antonio repeatedly discovers talent in the draft. Borrego had a great view. He worked 10 seasons in his two stints there. You don’t make it as a San Antonio assistant unless you understand your craft.

Clifford understood his. His opponents invariably had more talent. He counteracted this by playing superior defense. But last season, his players played as if they had stopped listening.

You can make a case that the younger the coach, the more likely a team is to rebuild. Clifford is 56. Borrego is 40.

It will be interesting to see what the new GM and coach can do, and how much time they’ll require to do it.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Sign up for his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen

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