With no clear way to make the players younger, the Charlotte Hornets did the next best thing and made the coaching staff younger.
The Charlotte Hornets, as a team, somewhat stuck in the mud with no clear path forward on the current core, knew that they had to get younger this offseason.
The Charlotte Hornets, as a team with a small market, the best player in their franchise history on an expiring deal and a bunch of contracts that weren’t drawing the eyes of opposing general managers, couldn’t afford to just ship out players for pennies on the dollar and take back long shot prospects without franchise-changing value.
Effectively, the Hornets had to somehow get younger without getting worse, and in the modern NBA, where tanking has been so thoroughly weaponized and the title for Golden State is all but a foregone conclusion, that’s not exactly something other teams will generally allow you to do. They want to keep their own youth, and if they are willing to part with a young player, it usually has to be for a much better player on a much better contract.
And of course, with the Hornets’ need to not get worse, only receiving a draft pick, which provides no immediate value, in return for a currently contributing player was out. Dwight Howard is the obvious exception here, having been used to turn two years of dead money into one, on top of receiving two second round picks, but his actual value to the Hornets was extremely questionable. With no easy way to clear the older players off of the roster, and no strong incentive to do it at an asset loss anyway, the Hornets weren’t likely to want to actually get younger even if it felt like a good idea.
As a result, last year, the Hornets’ minute-weighted average age was 26.6. This upcoming year, their projected minute-weighted average age, based on Kevin Pelton’s minutes projections, is 26.8. This in spite of turning 32 year-old Dwight Howard into replacements six years younger — Bismack Biyombo takes the roster spot, and Cody Zeller gets the rest of the minutes.
Instead, the Hornets decided to take a different path to getting younger and assembled a coaching staff with some of the youngest coaches in the league. As much as player development has been a theme of Mitch Kupchak’s press conferences this offseason, coach development is just as much a hidden-in-plain-sight theme.
It started with the head coach hire. James Borrego, age 40, is currently the third-youngest head coach in the NBA, trailing only J.B. Bickerstaff and Luke Walton. During the hiring process, Borrego was one of several candidates interviewed, ranging from David Vanterpool to Ettore Messina to Ime Udoka. But when the process was narrowed down, the last two candidate standing were Borrego and Jay Larrañaga, who, to no coincidence, were the two youngest candidates in the pool of interviewed candidates, with Larrañaga narrowly younger than Jerry Stackhouse. Which isn’t to say Borrego, or any of the subsequent names wasn’t also highly qualified for the job, but that his age, which is in this context a positive, was viewed as such.
Then, in building the assistant coaching staff, the team proceeded similarly. The first name hired on was Jay Triano. Triano, though 59, has a reputation for working with youth and developing talent. That was a major part of the reasoning behind his last stop, as the interim after Earl Watson was fired in Phoenix, and he also held before that a position with the Raptors as Vice President of Pro Scouting. Triano was the older guy brought in to kind of shepherd the younger coaches along, so to speak.
The second hire was former Washington Wizards’ assistant Chad Iske. While Iske will be above median age for this coaching staff, he’s still on the younger side for NBA. Having begun his education at Kansas in 1994, if you assume that he was 18 years old at that point, he would currently be either 41 or 42.
The third hire was Jay Hernandez. Hernandez had personally trained Kemba Walker before joining the staff of the Magic, but he also carried along the youth theme. He started his college career at the University of New Hampshire in 1996 before transferring to Hofstra, and would be either 39 or 40 under the same assumption we used for Iske. The 41 referred to in this tweet could be his age, but it could also just be the number of road games in an NBA season. But regardless of which of those three he ends up at, Hernandez is also on the young side for an NBA assistant coach.
The fourth hire was Ronald Nored — a definite 28 year-old who played under Brad Stevens at Butler and is widely regarded as one of the fastest climbing coaching prospects. He’s jumped, in the span of three years, from D-League assistant, to college assistant, to G-League head coach, to full-fledged NBA assistant, which is an extremely rapid ascent in coaching. If you had a choice of guys to hire on account of their age relative to their qualifications, Nored might be first on the list.
The fifth hire was Dutch Gaitley. Gaitley, age 31, has been hidden in the Spurs’ film room, but considering that’s where James Borrego started, it’s not a problem at all. He comes from a very basketball oriented family, with his mother the women’s coach at Fordham, and two siblings that played collegiately.
The final hire was Nathaniel Mitchell, most recently on Jerry Stackhouse’s staff with the G-League’s Raptors 905. He began at University of the Cumberlands in 2008, which makes him currently 28, if we assume that he was 18 when he started college.
Assistant coach ages are extremely difficult to track — you’ve already seen a linkedin page and a nebulous tweet as references here, While I was compiling the data for this I reached out to a guy that has a source or two in the organization, only to find out that even his sources don’t know how old the coach in question is. Sometimes it’s even difficult to even determine who is and is not an assistant coach. The NBA’s website was less than useful, so instead I just went through RealGM’s Staff Member database and looked for information on anyone with the title of Assistant Coach or Associate Head Coach.
Under the assumption that no one entered college earlier than 18, graduated before 21, or had a professional basketball job before the age of 21, Nored, Gaitley and Mitchell rank in the top-ten youngest assistants league wide. Nored is in the top five. No other team holds more than one coach in that group.
Further, using those same assumptions, every single Hornets assistant other than Jay Triano, and even the head coach (Which is worth mentioning, since the average head coach tends to be older than the average assistant for obvious reasons), sits below the median age for an NBA assistant coach, 45.
And while the Hornets are not the youngest average coaching staff — that title belongs to Milwaukee, who employs no one older than 45 year-old Darvin Ham, as well as five coaches at or under the age of 36 — they still have a strong collection of young coaching talent and a fairly clear plan to develop it.
In other words, the Hornets specifically sought to build their coaching staff in a very specific way this year. They wanted it young, so that they could develop it their coaches for the long run, and they very clearly accomplished that, but they also wanted an experienced coach to be able to keep things from going off the rails. Developing coaches was as much a goal as developing players, and they put the pieces in place to do just that.