For two seasons in a row, the Charlotte Hornets have finished with a record of 36-46 and missed the playoffs. With the franchise in decline and looking unlikely to turn things around, owner Michael Jordan decided to hit the reset button on his senior staff. He brought in former Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak, who won five rings with the Los Angeles franchise from 2000-2014.
In turn, Kupchak decided to bring in a new head coach to replace Steve Clifford. After interviewing multiple candidates, Kupchak settled on long-time Spurs assistant coach, James Borrego.
Borrego is the first full-time Hispanic head coach in the league and a fourth generation Mexican. He played college basketball for four years at the University of San Diego and immediately joined his alma mater’s coaching staff as an assistant following his graduation in 2001.
After two years on a college staff, he joined the San Antonio Spurs staff as an assistant video coordinator in 2003. (Erik Spoelstra, the league’s first Asian-American head coach, started in the Miami Heat’s video department as well. Not really any correlation here, but a fun fact.)
Borrego was quickly promoted to assistant coach and spent seven years with the Spurs franchise, winning two rings in 2005 and 2007. In 2012, he joined Monty Williams coaching staff with the New Orleans Hornets. He was in New Orleans for two seasons before moving to Jacque Vaughn’s Orlando Magic squad in 2012. After Vaughn was fired in February of 2015, Borrego took over as the interim head coach for the remainder of the season. He returned to his roots after that, spending another two seasons in San Antonio before finally getting his first full-time head coaching job this summer.
It’s hard to clearly define expectations for Borrego this season. While many former Spurs assistant coaches have found success — Mike Budenholzer with the Hawks (and probably the Bucks) and Brett Brown with the Sixers — it’d be unfair to heap high expectations on Borrego just because of the two of them.
The Hornets have been a cesspool of subpar play these past two seasons. Kemba Walker has been the one consistently productive and entertaining player, but he’s in a contract year and is a safe bet for the first quality player to be traded for assets this season. Malik Monk was uninspiring as a rookie (especially for a guy nicknamed God of Dunk). Nic Batum is coming off an injury-riddled season, where he played poorly and is getting very close to the wrong side of 30. And Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are coming off mediocre seasons themselves.
So what does that leave Borrego with? Incoming rookie Miles Bridges who the Hornets acquired via draft day trade with the Clippers. Bridges had a solid showing at summer league, averaging 15 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. He flashed elite athleticism, especially on defense and when finishing at the rim, as well as an assortment of hook shots in the low post.
There are also some returning players who Borrego will be looking to breathe new life into. Batum, Williams, and Kidd-Gilchrist fall into this category but so does Willy Hernangomez who the Hornets acquired at the trade deadline last season. Hernangomez had a strong rookie season with the Knicks, averaging 8.2 points and 7 rebounds per game, and then he just stopped playing as a sophomore. Hernangomez moves the ball well for a big man, just like most international centers do, and that will be a welcome change for many Hornets players who had to deal with Dwight Howard — a black hole in the low post — last season.
Frank Kaminsky and Cody Zeller are two more bigs returning to the team who will fit into what Borrego brings to the table. They both move the ball, set good screens, and Kaminsky can space the floor while Zeller can support the team better defensively. This will offer him lineup flexibility and let him go offense/defense at the end of close games.
Borrego has been an assistant for so long that we don’t have much of an idea of what his playbook will entail, but we do know the effect the Spurs culture can have on the offensive side of the ball. The Spurs were ninth in the league last season in passes per game with 314, the Hornets were fifth-worst at 281.5. Increased ball movement and touches for players who looked uninterested last season could help them turn over a new leaf and start playing to the level they’re capable of.
The real test for what Borrego will be capable of with the Hornets in his first season is what he can get out of Jeremy Lamb. Lamb is coming off a career year, averaging career highs in points (12.9), assists (2.3), and 3-point percentage (37). Now, was that because Lamb was the only guy on the team outside of Walker who could create off-the-dribble, which lead to him getting more opportunities than usual? Or was that a sign of progress from Lamb, with more progress to come under a new coach in a new system?
At the end of the day, Borrego will be trying to squeeze as much juice as he can out of a roster that many feel has dried up. He’ll either get enough out of them for a playoff push, or the Hornets will become one of the first teams to hit the reset button midseason as they start to trade some of their aging/expiring pieces for whatever assets they can acquire. Regardless of what path they take, Borrego probably won’t get to show off a decent amount of his coaching talent this season. He’s a long-term hire by Kupchak, just like Brown was for the Sixers. And Brown and the Sixers are an example that patience can pay off, hopefully, it works out the same way for Borrego and the Hornets.