Through thirteen games, the Charlotte Hornets sit at 7-6, the fifth seed in the Eastern conference. It’s not unfamiliar territory for a team that made the postseason in two of the previous five seasons and was in the hunt for the better part of the other three seasons. Furthermore, the same issue that plagued the Hornets in the final seasons of the previous regime, losing close games, has reared its head again this season. But things are different now.
When James Borrego was hired to be the head coach of the Hornets back in May, he made it very clear that he intended to change the Hornets’ style. He talked of changing the rotation, shifting player positions, and adjusting the style of play.
Putting players in positions to succeed
It hasn’t taken long for those changes to have an impact. Jeremy Lamb replaced Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in the starting lineup, which allowed Nicolas Batum to slide his more natural role at the three spot. Batum is thriving in that role, particularly on the defensive end. The Hornets defensive rating is 12.5 points per 100 possessions better with the Frenchman on the court, and his 1.8 combined blocks and steals and his +1.5 defensive PIPM are both best on the team. Lamb has smoothly transitioned into a starting role, posting almost identical numbers to last season and providing a secondary scorer to Kemba Walker.
Meanwhile Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is experiencing a career rebirth. His move to the bench was accompanied by a switch from small forward to power forward. The new position and the bench role have put him in a prime position to succeed. He’s rebounding, assisting, and blocking shots at a greater rate than he ever has in his career. His 15.2 points per 36 minutes are better than every full season he’s played, and his true shooting percentage is nearly two percentage points higher than his career average. He’s even hit a couple of 3-pointers.
Making the Hornets 2018-friendly
Pace, ball movement, and 3-pointers. In every early presser, James Borrego emphasized those tenants as the foundation of the offense he envisioned for his new team. The players bought in immediately. The Hornets are just 17th in pace this season, but their 101 possessions per game would have been fourth in the league last season and is over two more possessions per game than their 2017-18 mark. The team is firing up 34.3 3-point attempts per game, the sixth most in the league. Last season, the Hornets attempted just over 27 3-pointers per game, tenth fewest in the league.
They’ve replaced getting into the paint via post ups with getting into the paint via drives, and the offense is better for it. Last season, the Hornets ran post up plays 13 times per game and passed out of those a league low 21.4 percent of the time. This season the Hornets are only posting up 3.3 times per game and passing out of it 37.5 percent of the time, the sixth highest rate in the league. This season, Borrego’s group lead the league with 51.8 drives per game, up from the 37.2 they averaged last season. It’s culminated in a massive jump in offensive efficiency, as the Hornets boast the fourth best offense in the NBA as of this writing.
Defensively, Borrego replaced the Hornets ‘help and recover’ defensive strategy with a more switch oriented scheme. The old philosophy required all five defenders to be on the same page with every move of the basketball. Too often a link in the chain would break and the opposition would be left with a virtually uncontested 3-point attempt. Last season, Hornets opponents connected on 37.5 percent of their 3-point tries. This season, that number has dropped to 32.5 percent. Their are still lapses on this end, but the potential is there.
Managing games and adjusting to game flow
Former Hornets head coach Steve Clifford became notorious for his predictable player rotations. Between six and eight minutes into the opening quarter, Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams would be replaced by Lamb and Frank Kaminsky. Cody Zeller, Michael Carter-Williams, and Treveon Graham would soon follow suit, usually in that order. Repeat in the second half.
That rotation would often hold true regardless of opponent or game flow. Even when the Hornets struggled to find wins, the lineups wouldn’t change.
That couldn’t be further from the truth this season. Saturday’s near comeback over the Philadelphia 76ers provided a perfect example of that. With the Hornets looking for a spark, Borrego dug deep into his bench and summoned Dwayne Bacon to the floor. The sophomore wing hadn’t gotten any meaningful minutes to that point, and the team responded to the sudden changed. He scored 15 points and the Hornets outscored the 76ers by ten points during his time on the floor. Later, with the effects of the Bacon move apparently wearing off, Borrego pulled a classic Gregg Popovich move. Just over three minutes into the second half, he called a timeout and replaced the entire starting unit with five bench players. The Hornets outscored the 76ers 62-44 from that point through the end of regulation.
James Borrego has brought a modern style to a Hornets team that desperately needed it. The players have bought in immediately and the new system is paying early dividends. He has also proven willing to ride the hot hand and adjust his rotations to each individual game. He’s done everything Hornets fans wanted their new coach to do. It’s resulted in a winning record through thirteen games and there’s hope that it will lead to the team’s first playoff birth since 2016.
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