By: Twumasi Duah-Mensah
Too many NBA fans and analysts are underestimating the Charlotte Hornets this season. NBA.com determined them to have the third-worst offseason of all 30 NBA teams. They are at odds of +1200 to win the Southeast Division—not very good odds at all—and +130 to make the playoffs—again, not that amazing.
Yes, the Hornets have won only 36 games in each of the past two seasons and missed the playoffs in both. Yes, the Hornets’ roster isn’t exactly the best in the division, let alone the Eastern Conference. Yes, the Hornets get hit by major injuries every season.
All of these things might convince the average NBA fan that the Hornets have little chance of making the playoffs. But the effect of a new head coach and general manager, a new style of play, and the signing of a veteran player could and will have more effect on the Hornets than you think.
This is the comprehensive 2018/19 Charlotte Hornets season preview—that came out two weeks too late.
How Did We Get Here?
Under head coach Steve Clifford (we’ll get to him later), the Hornets won 48 games in the 2015/16 season. It was also the season in which they won their most amount of games since 2000.
Charlotte quickly fell back down to reality, though, and didn’t make the playoffs in 2016/17. And by the 2017/18 season’s All-Star break, the Hornets were 24-33, and had little chance of making the playoffs.
It’s already bad enough when a small-market team doesn’t make the playoffs, especially financially. (This is also why tanking, despite some fans’ desires to blow up the roster, is not an option.) It goes from bad to worse when a small-market team can’t make the playoffs while paying their players exorbitant salaries—Charlotte has the tenth-highest payroll in the league despite not even being one of the 16 playoff teams from last season. It goes from worse to e v e n w o r s e when, as a result of the bad contracts the team has given, they can’t sign quality free agents, nor can they make good draft picks year in and year out.
All these failures convinced owner and basketball legend Michael Jordan that change was needed. He started by firing general manager (GM) Rich Cho during the 2018 All-Star break and replaced him with former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak in April.
And at the end of the 2017/18 regular season, the Hornets sacked commander Clifford and replaced him with head coach James Borrego. Borrego had been an assistant coach at the San Antonio Spurs for ten years in two separate stints and had a short stint as interim head coach of the Orlando Magic.
Many trades, draft picks, summer league games, training camps, trade rumors, and preseason games later, we are here. The season has started, and I’m two weeks late with this preview.
Well, a lot of what will happen this season will depend on the new head coach, Borrego. His ability to develop our young, promising talent, install his fast-paced, passing-oriented style into the squad, and adapt to situations where key players are missing several games due to injury will determine how the Hornets’ season goes.
A Frenchman and a Hispanic Walk Into a Bar…
The Hornets also signed veteran point guard and 4-time NBA champion Tony Parker to a two-year, $12 million contract. Parker, from France, had been a cornerstone for a San Antonio Spurs dynasty that has gone to the playoffs each of the past 20 seasons.
While many fans questioned giving $12 million over two years to a 36-year-old point guard when you already have a star at the same position—Kemba Walker—and decent backups, Parker will be very important for Borrego to instill his philosophy, since he played under Borrego when they were both in San Antonio. Parker will also be important to admonish the young players when they fall out of line and draw from his experience to pass invaluable knowledge onto a young Hornets team (the average age is 25). In short, he deserves every penny of that $12 million.
As for Borrego, when hired by the Charlotte Hornets in May of this year, he became the first Hispanic head coach in NBA history. Borrego is looking for an up-tempo, faster-paced style of play (i.e. getting into attack mode in the first five to eight seconds of possession) with more three-point shooting, which is a more modern approach to the game.
While last year’s Hornets were top 10 in the league in pace under Clifford, they were 21st in three-point attempts per game. They were shooting well from three (8th in 3-PT percentage), but not shooting enough (bottom ten ranking in effective field goal percentage shows this). Borrego could also bring a passing-oriented style of play to a team that ranked 24th in assists last season.
It should also make the team more exciting to watch. When you combine every team’s attendance percentages in the past five seasons, the Hornets rank bottom five. This is not very good for a small market team that only gets one nationally broadcasted game, so Borrego’s style is also important for the bottom line.
On defense, Borrego is similar to Clifford in that he emphasizes minimizing fouls and protecting the paint first.
In terms of player development, Borrego wants to focus on developing a player’s talents first before moving onto his weaknesses. Such a philosophy could help the likes of Malik Monk, a somewhat streaky shooter who could develop into a great and consistent one. This would add to his insane athleticism and his potential as a great defender.
Side note: I am almost fully on board the Malik Monk hype train. I just worry that, even with his athleticism, he won’t be able to keep up with players on defense due to his lack of length.
It would also mean the patient development of players who may not exactly fit Borrego’s system. That’s very important, as Charlotte has been awful at developing draft lottery picks as a result of constantly demanding a playoff-caliber team. Last year, it most notably led to lottery pick Monk to be sent to the bench, when that shouldn’t have been the case.
So What’s the Gist, and What’s at Stake?
Overall, Borrego-Ball should be better for the Hornets than the outdated systems of Clifford. If he can get the most out of the playmaking abilities of Nic Batum, revitalize Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and use him somewhat similarly to how the Mike Budenholzer-led Milwaukee Bucks use Giannis Antetokounmpo, and instill his philosophy, the Hornets really could make the playoffs.
Making the playoffs is something very important for the Hornets, a small-market team that needs to take every opportunity to maximize revenue (partly why they drafted human highlight reel Miles Bridges). They are also at risk of losing star Kemba Walker, arguably the greatest player in the team’s history. Increasing the buzz (no pun intended) in Charlotte, superb team chemistry, and a playing style that best fits him will be integral in keeping Kemba in the Queen City.
Of course, making the fan base more crazy about Charlotte requires a good team. This is why Borrego was brought in, and this is why the Hornets must make the playoffs.
Truly, the pressure is on the fledgling head coach, but if the pieces fall in the right places, Charlotte could be the team it was in the 1990s: the team to watch.
Godspeed, Coach Borrego. Godspeed.