Trust, Development Have Readied Hornets for The Moment, Says Borrego

by Sam Perley

The Charlotte Hornets exited the NBA All-Star Break last month with a much-welcomed clean bill of health, then won three consecutive home outings before embarking on a six-game Western Conference road trip. It was around this time that the injury bug started striking – first to LaMelo Ball, then Malik Monk and most recently, Gordon Hayward.

With no immediate sign that any of these three players – who all rank within the top five on the team in scoring and account for a majority of the overall playmaking – are returning soon, Hornets Head Coach James Borrego has been steadfast about pushing forward and trusting the organization’s next-man-up approach.

“I think these are the moments you learn a lot about your team and the identity and culture you’ve built,” he said. “When you go through these tough times, what will you be about? I think this is really where I see the trust between players and staff, players with each other and our development program. There’s not a void or as big a void if these players were not ready, groomed or developed to handle this moment.”

He added, “I think these are some of the most satisfying moments for me as a coach. Given the darkest, most difficult situations of injuries and inconsistencies, we have the ability for guys to step up and produce. We trust them to go into games and impact winning and I think that’s what they’ve been doing the last few games.”

Nothing epitomized this sentiment more than Borrego moving second-year forward Jalen McDaniels into the starting three spot last Wednesday night in Oklahoma City. The tinkering paid off with the San Diego State product totaling a team-high 21 points – nearly double his previous career best – six rebounds, three assists and two steals in the win. He then followed up this showing with another 19 points, six rebounds, five assists and two blocks in Milwaukee two nights later, leading to a second straight victory over the Bucks.

One of the primary reasons that the Hornets have been able to weather this trifecta of key injuries as been the team’s defensive play. Since falling to the Clippers on March 20, Charlotte has gone 7-3 and sits sixth in the NBA in defensive rating (107.0), a vast improvement from the 20th-place ranking accumulated over its first 41 appearances (112.2).

“We’ve done a better job of protecting the paint,” explained Borrego. “We’re doing a much better job one-on-one and I think that’s partially us challenging our guys to defend one-on-one and keep the ball out of the paint. Part of that’s our personnel – we’ve added more length out there on the floor. We have more guys capable of staying in front of the ball. Our transition defense is up and our ability to rebound is up. That’s really the key right now.”

The absence of Ball in particular has caused the Hornets’ pace to drop from the ninth-fastest in the league (100.84) down to 24th (97.09). Factor in Monk and Hayward’s injuries and the offense has dropped from 18th (110.8) to 23rd (109.2) across this 10-game stretch. With the personnel and rotations all different simply out of necessity, lately it’s just been about finding a way to win on a night-to-night basis, even if it isn’t always pretty sometimes.

“We knew when LaMelo, Malik and Gordon went out, our offense was going to take a hit,” said Miles Bridges. “Our defense was going to have to step up even more. We’ve just been taking defense even more seriously than we have been. There’s been a lot more communication and guys take it personally when people score on them. Offense is cool and all, but if you don’t have a good defense, you’re not going to really be a good contender.”

With almost the exact same core in place at the moment as the one that finished last season, Borrego has been looking to see what he can draw from the Hornets’ final eight games of the 2019-20 campaign, a span in which the team posted the NBA’s 11th-ranked defense (111.0).

“We were in front of the ball a lot more. Teams were continuing to shoot threes against us last year, but we were in front of them contesting threes. I’m seeing the same thing on film right now in that we’re not giving up as many easy, wide-open layups or threes. We have a hand, we have a contest and then it has to finish with a board. We have to generate some turnovers with our defense and this group did the same thing last year. We were turning teams over at a high rate and we’ve continued to do that these last couple weeks.”

At the end of the day, things like offensive rating, defensive rating and pace are simply tools to measure how well a team is performing as it navigates a long, grueling NBA schedule. But when it’s all said and done, stacking up victories is the only thing that matters and right now, the Hornets are clawing their way into the win column despite some major injury hardship.

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