A Deeper Dive Inside the Hornets Hiring of James Borrego

Hornets Name Borrego Head Coach | Borrego Photo Gallery

By Sam Perley, hornets.com

Just over a month after announcing Mitch Kupchak as the organization’s next President of Basketball Operations and General Manager, the Charlotte Hornets now have a new head coach in place with the addition of former San Antonio Spurs assistant, James Borrego.

A graduate from the University of San Diego, the 40-year-old Borrego was an assistant at his alma mater for two years before joining the San Antonio Spurs as a video coordinator in 2003. He rose up the ranks under Gregg Popovich and spent seven seasons with the team, winning a pair of NBA Championships in 2005 and 2007.

Borrego then joined New Orleans’ Head Coach Monty Williams in 2010 before latching on with Jacque Vaughn’s Orlando staff two years later. Vaughn was eventually fired by the Magic in February of 2015 and Borrego took over for the final 30 games of the season on an interim basis. At the time, he was the youngest head coach in the NBA at just 37 years old.

He returned to San Antonio in the summer of 2015 and had been back there ever since. All in all, the newest Hornets Head Coach spent 10 total seasons with the Spurs organization, which has arguably been the most consistent and successful in the NBA over the last two decades.

“We are thrilled to have James join our franchise,” said Kupchak. “He brings a wealth of experience and a strong track record of player development from his time as a coach in San Antonio, New Orleans and Orlando. He has been a part of teams that have ascended to the highest levels of success in our league and understands what it takes to win in the NBA. James is considered one of the NBA’s most well-regarded assistant coaches and it’s great to have him as part of our team. I look forward to working with him in the years to come.”

Borrego’s official ascension to the highest tier of professional basketball coaching will add another branch to the already impressive Popovich tree. Amongst the five-time NBA champion’s former assistants or players that went on to become head coaches in the league include Brett Brown, Mike Brown, Mike Budenholzer, P.J. Carlesimo, Steve Kerr, Joe Prunty and now Borrego. 

Current San Antonio assistants Ettore Messina, Ime Udoka and Becky Hammon have also all been contacted for at least one vacant NBA head coaching position this offseason as well.

As it’s currently constructed, Borrego inherits a Hornets roster that had the 13th-ranked offense and 16th-ranked defense in the NBA last season. When Borrego became interim head coach of the Magic in 2015, the team sat 25th in the league in offense and 26th in defense. During his 30-game stint, those numbers were tied for 23rd and 18th in the league, respectively.

Other areas in which the Magic saw notable improvements under Borrego included rebounding percentage, which jumped from 27th (48.3 percent) to 13th (50.2 percent). A majority of the ground was made up on the offensive end as the squad jumped from last (20.9 percent) all the way into a tie for fourth (26.8 percent) in offensive rebounding percentage.

Orlando’s opposing field-goal percentage also upgraded from 29th (47.1 percent) to 17th in the league (45.0 percent) during this transition of leadership three years ago. The team also went from 20th in the NBA in opposing turnovers (13.8) to a tie for seventh (15.6) under Borrego as well.

Since the start of his second stint in San Antonio, the Spurs finished with the league’s top defense in back-to-back seasons before slipping to fourth this past NBA campaign. Their most recent finish came in spite of the fact they were without two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, Kawhi Leonard, for all but just nine games this year.  

Also of note, the Spurs were the second-slowest team in the league last year in terms of pace (97.16 possessions per game) and allowed the fourth-lowest opposing three-point percentage (34.8 percent), a category in which the Hornets finished with the fourth-highest mark (37.5 percent).

In terms of offensive ball movement, the Hornets recorded the fifth-fewest passes of any team in the league last season (281.5), while San Antonio had the ninth most (314.0). The Spurs were also second to only Golden State in secondary assists per game (4.0), which is a statistic that measures how many times a player passed the ball to another player who recorded an assist within one second and without dribbling. Charlotte finished eighth in this category (3.1).

Even without their franchise superstar for 73 regular season games, the Spurs still finished with 47 wins and were within two games of the Western Conference’s third playoff seed this year. The coaching staff did a brilliant job of maximizing the talent on the roster, particularly with regards to the internal development of players such as Dejounte Murray, Kyle Anderson, Bryn Forbes and Davis Bertans. It’s an area that will undoubtedly come into play next year for Borrego and his staff with the Hornets likely limited from a free agency standpoint.

Looking at the numbers, Borrego’s coaching style may have its foundation on the defensive end with a heavy emphasis on ball movement as well. While he has relatively limited head coaching experience, Borrego’s 10 years under Gregg Popovich and with the Spurs makes this particular hire an exciting (and promising) one for the Charlotte Hornets.