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2019-20 Season Preview: James Borrego

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With Kemba Walker gone, there’s no doubting whose team this is.

At first glance, calling the head coach the unquestioned leader of the team seems redundant. He’s the head coach. It’s his job to lead the team. That’s how the Charlotte Hornets are set up this season, but that’s not exactly how it was before.

James Borrego inherited a team chock full of veterans. Those veterans were the foundation of a team that won 48 games and made the playoffs in 2016, then went on to disappoint in every subsequent season. One of those veterans was Kemba Walker, the greatest player in the history of the franchise.

Walker was on the last year of his deal and there were many reasons for him to bolt at the end of his contract. The coaching staff that helped mold him as a player was gone, the team was perpetually underachieving and holding him back from national recognition, and there was no clear direction for the team moving forward. If the Hornets wanted him to stay, they needed to win games by any means necessary. That meant Walker had to carry the team on his diminutive shoulders. That’s an outsized responsibility for Walker under any circumstances. It’s even worse if he has to do that while reformatting his game to fit a new system.

As the season wore on, the Hornets gradually slipped away from the breakneck pace Borrego promised before the season. Ball movement and team play slowly gave way to the Kemba-dominated possessions that were commonplace during the Steve Clifford era. Not that there was anything wrong with that. The Hornets needed Kemba to play hero ball, or else they’d end up with guys like Nicolas Batum, Dwayne Bacon, etc. trying to do too much.

Kemba-ball got the Hornets on the doorstep of the playoffs, but the team faltered late and didn’t get the help it needed, so they finished the season outside the postseason for the third consecutive year. After a roller coaster offseason, the Hornets made a halfhearted effort to keep their superstar, who responded by taking his talents to Boston.

Now the Hornets find themselves without a centerpiece on the roster. That’s going to lead to a lot of losses on the court, but it does help head coach James Borrego. There is no singular player to build his philosophy around, and there are no players on this roster with the clout to usurp their head coach’s fundamentals. The Hornets are going to do things James Borrego’s way.

They don’t really have a choice. No player on this roster has the offensive gravity of Kemba Walker. There’s no one to give the ball to and say “get me a bucket.” They could try that with Terry Rozier, Dwayne Bacon, or Malik Monk. Any one of them would take the request with glee, but they won’t deliver consistently. Those three are the best offensive threats the Hornets have, but they’re a far cry from the firepower sported by teams vying for playoff spots. It’s the same story on the defensive end of the floor. Nicolas Batum, Marvin Williams, and Cody Zeller are good defenders, but none of them will be mistaken for defensive anchors like Rudy Gobert or Draymond Green.

All of that means the Hornets have to manufacture production as a team, just the way Borrego likes it. In his media day interviews, he acknowledged how Kemba Walker made the ball-dominant style of play work, but admitted that it wasn’t the style he wanted his team to have. He wants his team to move the ball side to side and attack quickly in transition. He envisions a team full of versatile playmakers and switchable defenders.

The Hornets front office has done its best to stock the cupboards with players like that. Recent draft picks Miles Bridges, Devonte’ Graham, PJ Washington, and Cody Martin all fit that style. Free agent acquisition Terry Rozier does too. Borrego has the pieces to implement the concepts he wants, and the front office has given him the freedom to do so.

Expect the Hornets to play fast this season. They played with the 21st fastest pace last season, but that’ll climb without Walker or Tony Parker here. The team heavily relied on its point guards to generate offense out of the pick and roll. 22.8% of the team’s possessions were ended by the pick and roll ball handler, second most in the league. 46.8% of Walker’s possessions came as a pick and roll ball handler, and his 11.8 possessions per game in that role were the most in the NBA. New point guard Terry Rozier only ended possessions as the pick and roll ball handler 21.8% of the time.

The Hornets were credited with assists on just 57.8% of their made baskets last season, seventh fewest in the league. That number should go up as well without the point guards creating so many looks for themselves. No single Hornets will generate a lot of assists, but everyone on this roster (except for Dwayne Bacon) is a capable passer.

The Hornets were a mess defensively last season, but they should be better this season. Borrego has said that he overstretched the team defensively last season, so he’s made adjustments for this one. He’s also going to hold players more accountable, meaning guys like Malik Monk and Willy Hernangomez are going to have to buy in to see court time. That’ll be easier to do with this young group. Last year, two of the team’s three most important offensive players (Walker and Parker) were two of the team’s worst defenders. That put the head coach in a bind he won’t have this season. If a player doesn’t defend, he doesn’t play.

James Borrego enters his second season as coach of the Hornets with an entirely different approach than he had in his first season. He’s more confident and assured of his standing with the organization. He won’t be burdened by playoff expectations or a front office that prioritizes winning games over developing talent. He gets to put his stamp on this team and mold it to fit his image. This is James Borrego’s team now. It’ll be exciting to see what that means.