Well Hornets fans, the unfortunate calling of an early offseason has rung again. The team finished the season with a 39-43 record, which left them in the dreaded ninth spot in the eastern conference. It’s now the third time in the past four seasons in which Charlotte has missed the playoffs. But the silver lining in all of this is the team’s win total improvement compared to the previous two seasons. Having notched 36 wins from 2015-2017, the Hornets finally escaped that struggle of consistently posing the same record.
On At the Hive, we are starting our yearly edition of Hornets’ players analysis. We will dive into how each player on the roster performed and their projections in the near and long-term future.
Three players were excluded from making this slew of pieces. J.P. Macura, Joe Chealey and Shelvin Mack all donned the purple and teal this season, but due to their extremely small sample size on the court, we will not have pieces directly tied to their play.
To begin this series, we will start with none other than head coach James Borrego. Borrego, having now experienced his first full-time head coaching stint, showed many ups and downs this campaign. But the adjustments made towards the end may help form a new and successful style of basketball for years to come.
Before nose-diving into the major coaching adjustment that was made, we must first understand the biggest move that did not turn out as promised.
The most noticeable schematic error initiated by Borrego season was the Hornets center rotations. The team missed having a consistent body down low ever since Cody Zeller went down with an injury to end 2018. At the time, the Hornets were 18-18 and looked to be on the ascent as the calendar turned over.
Unfortunately, Zeller’s injury plagued him nearly the entire 2019 season, as he ended up playing in just 49 games total including twelve in the new year.
This obvious hole in the offense put the Hornets in a tough position. Instead of acquiring talent at the center spot via trade or free agency, the team decided to grow from within. That meant having a rotation of Bismack Biyombo, Frank Kaminsky and Willy Hernangomez servicing the five-spot.
In his 32 games starting, Biyombo played a role that was similar to what guard P.J. Harriston used to perform back in 2015. That was to play the first ten or so minutes to start out the game, then give the rotational players the majority of those open minutes. We have seen Hernangomez have a few distinctive outings in this role, but the lack of a defensive identity was a major reason for his dramatic drop-off in playing time later in the year.
Luckily Kaminsky was able to settle in at the five spot during the last fifteen or so games of the year and proved his value to the team. Scoring at all three levels, he finally looked like the player Hornets fans were calling upon for four years. This was to be consistent attacker who plays well off of dribble hand offs and pick-and-pop situations. Although his defense was still a big gap in his game, having him playing the five spot for a majority of this season was truly a step in the right direction. That way, he wasn’t as likely get athletically beaten on cuts to the basket. The former Badger gave a sense of fresh air to the Hornets offense as they closed out the regular season.
But, it’s safe to say that Borrego’s indecisiveness at that spot for what appeared to be the entire 2019 portion of the season caused the Hornets some major rotational problems. Apart from Kaminsky’s end performance, the number of times the Hornets plugged in and experimented with the team’s different centers was truly confounding. Although given more than enough chances, Biyombo and Hernangomez both failed in providing the spark from the five that the team was desperately trying to fill.
The Hornets hope that Cody Zeller can maintain his consistent center role without the dreadful possibility of yet another injury. If this time next season we recap what was another year of injury-plagued performances, then the team must look elsewhere for short-term options. This is because we saw when Zeller went down, players on the current Hornets roster simply aren’t capable of manning that role.
Luckily, Borrego found a key strategy that may very well end up replicating itself next year.
This lineup change happened in the final twelve games of the regular season. During this time, the Hornets were situated at 34-39. With all hope seemingly lost for the smell of the postseason, the team completely shifted rotations.
Out went veterans Marvin Williams and Tony Parker, both of whom suffered minor injuries during this stretch and were informally shut down the rest of the season. In came the Hornets young assets: Devonte’ Graham, Dwayne Bacon, and Miles Bridges.
Both Bacon and Bridges took over starting duties while Graham was the main facilitator off Charlotte’s bench.
For the entirety of those twelve games, Borrego seemed to make everything click.
The Hornets ran a different approach on both sides of the ball during this stretch, and it all seemed to be working to the fullest effect. Adding the athleticism of the two young wings helped tremendously in creating transition opportunities after rebounds. This lead to many sensational throw-downs with Bridges receiving the lob on the other end.
All three youngsters were able to expand their game on an individual level thanks to the extended minutes. Bridges was able to show that he can fully-commit in small-ball four lineups, as he played that area tremendously. The team’s last five games Bridges averaged 12.2 points and 5.4 rebounds, and nearly four assists per night while guarding up against power forwards. These minutes allowed him to become more suitable in matching up against physically imposing players, and this stretch may push him towards a more permanent four-spot.
As for Bacon and Graham, their G-League experience in 2019 certainly helped them elevate their game to a whole new level at the end of the regular season. Graham looked poised and capable of running the team’s offense, a feat that was not the case earlier in the year. In fact, he led all rookies in assist/turnover ratio.
As for Bacon, his two-way play only improved as the final slew of games rolled along. He looks like a legitimate candidate for the starting shooting guard spot next season.
Defensively speaking, you could tell that the Hornets played with much more intensity. In the eight games won during that stretch they held opponents to an average of 107 points per game. In context, this would have made them the seventh-best defense in basketball if they were able to consistently put this intensity up. Instead, the Hornets ended up being 17th in defense, giving opponents 111.8 points per contest.
Leaning towards the younger players gave great confidence for Charlotte’s outlook, and their head coach should be celebrated in a big way. Although there were hiccups here and there, what James Borrego was able to do during the latter half of the season was truly sensational.
He was able to crack multiple players out of their shells and they looked like the long-term assets that fans have been waiting to see. If they are able to keep this level of success throughout the start of next season, it’s safe to say that Borrego made the right decision in getting the young talents’ training wheels off.
Borrego came into the Hornets organization this year with a whole different mantra. Out when Steve Clifford’s in-and-out fundamental style of offense. In came a swift, new, and more importantly modern approach to the game of basketball.
Looking back at it, the Hornets absolutely made the correct call in hiring Borrego as their head coach just over a year ago. He has shown the willingness to recognize needs and adapt to those as best suit. Between putting Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at the frontcourt positions instead of his normal spot on the wings helped tremendously in the team’s spacing. He wasn’t afraid of taking away height on defense when he pulled out lineups featuring Walker and Parker late in games.
The Gregg Popovich product looks direct a major step in the right direction for Hornets basketball.