Borrego Touches on NBA Hiatus, Team Evaluation, Player Engagement and More

by Sam Perley

It’s been exactly six weeks since the Charlotte Hornets stepped off the floor at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami and into uncharted territory with the indefinite suspension of the NBA season in lieu of the ongoing global coronavirus pandemic. It’s a new experience for everyone involved, but Head Coach James Borrego is making the most of the unexpected hiatus.

“We don’t know if there’s going to be more season to be played. We could be in offseason mode right now,” said Borrego in a Wednesday morning conference call. “What I can control is figuring out what we looked like this season. Where is our team headed? Really reflecting on what we looked like this season, where do our players need to get better, how did our player development program respond this year and then from there, what’s our next step? So, whether we continue this season or we’re into offseason mode, we’re ready to go with a plan for each player in our development program.”

He added, “I’m challenging them mentally right now and giving them some things to watch. Their bodies are a different thing. I don’t really have a lot of control in that area right now. We’re trying to keep them engaged physically, but a lot of these guys are limited. They don’t have access to a ton of equipment. They don’t have a court, a hoop. More than anything, a lot of players right now feel isolated just like many people throughout this world. It’s my job as the head coach and the leader of this team to engage with them, talk with them, make sure they have what they need. If I feel somebody is disconnected, it’s my job to reach out to them.”

Across the eight games heading into the league’s suspension on March 11, the Hornets ranked 10th in the NBA in offensive rating (112.7) and 11th in defensive rating (111.0). They went 4-4 during this stretch, which included wins over Toronto, Houston and Miami and single-digit losses to Milwaukee, San Antonio and Denver.

“I’ve really studied these last eight games,” Borrego explained. “I think that’s where we saw a lot of growth and development. When we get back, we need to hit the ground running. We need to get back to playing that type of basketball. We were defending, we were moving the ball, we were athletic, we were attacking the rim. We cleaned up the turnover game a lot. I think we really held our own. The future is extremely bright with these guys. I think the more I watch those eight games, the more excited I get about our team and the leap they made throughout the season.”

Utilizing a rotation consisting primarily of younger players after the All-Star Break, Borrego praised President of Basketball Operations and GM Mitch Kupchak and the team’s scouting department for his work in pinpointing the right pieces for the roster over the last two years.

“The character piece is significant for us,” he said. “That’s where we’ve had success. These kids we’re bringing in are built with the right fiber, the right DNA. They’re receptive to getting better and they fit our player development. Devonte’, Miles, PJ, the Martin twins, Jalen – these are guys that are extremely coachable and very receptive.”

Borrego did admit there’s only so much individual and team evaluating that he and the staff can do, and at the moment, he’s begun identifying how the draft and free agency (whenever they take place) could address the team’s most pressing needs.

“Rim protection is something we’re looking for. To be a top-level defense in today’s league, you need to have some length and athleticism out there. I do think we’re getting longer on the perimeter, and have some more size and athleticism. We’re looking for another playmaker, a guy that can create for himself and create for others. I think the third piece is just shooting. In our system, we can never have enough shooting. That makes the game easier for everybody when you can space the floor and allow the athletic wings and bigs to attack the rim.”

“We have started the process of looking at free agency and the draft. I don’t watch a ton of college or international basketball during the season, so it’s been fun to take a step back and watch a few of these young kids. We’ll have a very good first-round pick, and we’re slotted for an early second-round pick. These are valuable pieces and this is where we turn our franchise. As we study ourselves and the NBA, I can go back and look at some of these upcoming free agents, and at the right time, sit down with Mitch and talk through the draft and free agency. We’ll be able to pull some of the players who fit our system long term.”

Like much of the rest of society, Borrego doesn’t have much clarity on when things will be back to normal in the NBA, but trusts that those in charge will make the safe, responsible decision when the time indeed comes.

“We’ll leave that to the league. I think Adam Silver is looking through all those options right now. Obviously, he has not set a [date] for us yet. I do think we could still see basketball this season. Could we play 17 more games? I don’t know. We’ll just have to let the league dictate that. I’m sure the commissioner has a date in mind, but we don’t know what he’s thinking in that regard. We’ll trust him. He’s on top of it and listens to the experts. I believe he’ll do the right thing by our league making sure everybody is safe and healthy.”

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