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James Borrego wants the Hornets to play fast, but why aren’t they?

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A closer look at the Hornets’ not-so-fast pace of play.

New Orleans Pelicans v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Brock Williams-Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

Ever since the day that James Borrego was hired to be the head coach of the Charlotte Hornets, he has emphasized ball movement, quick shots, and “playing fast.” With the departure of you-know-who, it became readily apparent that moving the ball, getting quick, efficient shots, and taking threes was the Hornets’ best approach to (middling) success.

So far in the 2019-2020 season, Borrego has done a respectable job of getting the team to do two of the things listed above; they rank 13th in the NBA in assist percentage (60.7), and 10th in three-point attempts per game (35.1) while hitting them at a 35.1% clip (ninth-best). The Hornets take 40.8% of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc, good for seventh in the NBA, with threes account for 36.5% of their points per game (fifth-best). Devonte’ Graham, Terry Rozier, and Nic Batum keep the ball moving, and they know where their bread is buttered; behind the three-point line.

A lot of time has been spent talking about what Charlotte is doing right in their hot start, and rightfully so. They’ve overachieved as a team, and certain players (*cough* Devonte’ and PJ) have developed and contributed much sooner than expected. But this is still a rebuild, and the Hornets are still just a “fun” team and not a conventionally “good” team. “Good” teams play to their strengths, and outside of chucking threes and praying that they fall on a nightly basis, the Hornets aren’t really doing that.

What Borrego wants out of this Charlotte offense and what he actually gets are a different story. Him, along with his assistants, emphasize a quick pace of play at some point in almost every interview pre-game, in-game or post-game. But as of now, the Hornets rank a lowly 22nd in the NBA in pace of play (100.36). If you ask me, that is not fast, but I’m just a guy in an armchair. Regardless, Guy In An Armchair has exactly two general thoughts on why the Hornets can’t/aren’t playing fast.

Defensive rebounding:

This won’t come as a surprise to most Hornets fans, but they rank 28th in the NBA in rebounding percentage (48.0). If a team isn’t grabbing defensive rebounds and is taking the ball out of bounds on a make more often than not (which segues into the next point I’ll make), it becomes marginally harder to run the floor and get ahead of the defense. This is never going to be a strength on a Hornets team that’s best rebounder (who gets consistent minutes) is Cody Zeller, but if guys like PJ Washington and Miles Bridges were more impactful on the glass, it becomes easier to speed up the pace of play.

One could make the argument that the Hornets not living up to Borrego’s pre-season expectations is a good thing due to their record, and my counter-argument to that is this; 6-11 is not good, and winning games shouldn’t be the priority right now, no matter how exciting it can be. Implementing a coach’s system and philosophy and getting players to buy into it can take a long time, and they shouldn’t postpone that process because they exceeded expectations and are the 26th-best team in the league instead of 30th.

Half-court defense:

As I alluded to a few paragraphs prior, it’s much harder to play fast and generate quick shot opportunities when your team has to take the ball out of bounds to start the possession, rather than hauling in a defensive rebound, getting a steal, etc. The Hornets rank in the bottom-third of the league in both steals (6.8) and blocks (4.1) per game, which is unsurprising due to their lack of needle-moving perimeter and interior defenders (something I imagine they focus on heavily this summer). The only defenders on the team who can be taken to task on the perimeter are Bridges and Cody Martin. Couple that with Zeller and his fellow big men allowing the NBA’s fifth-worst defensive field goal percentage (63.6) on shots less than 6ft from the rim, and it becomes very easy to picture their offense not being able to move the ball up the floor quickly.

Typical for a rebuilding team, Charlotte plays bad defense. Few (rational) Hornets fans expected the team to be formidable on that end, but having the 25th-ranked defensive rating in the NBA (112.7) isn’t going to allow your team to dictate the pace of the game. Once things get tightened up on that end, Borrego’s offensive philosophies will see themselves play out more consistently.

The Hornets have the personnel to live out Borrego’s dreams of playing a run-and-gun offense that revolves around efficient three-point shot-making and defense playmaking. Graham, Rozier, Monk (especially Monk), Bridges, and Washington would all excel in a system that gives them additional transition opportunities. Imagine how many lobs Devonte’ would be throwing for Miles and Malik if the Hornets had a defense that gave them such opportunities on a more frequent basis. A man can only dream...