Borrego or BorreGONE?

Let me paint you a picture: it’s April 10th, 2021, and the Charlotte Hornets are sitting at 4th in the NBA Eastern Conference standings with a record of 27-24. The Hornets had been hovering between the 4th and 6th seeds for the better part of a month, a great spot to be in approaching the NBA playoffs (delayed due to a shortened 72-game season). Fast-forward to May 16th, 2021 - barely a month later - and the Charlotte Hornets find themselves at 10th in the Eastern Conference standings with a 33-39 record. Seeing the Hornets' name right above the boldened line indicating a play-in tournament berth seemed impossible; they hadn’t dipped that low in the standings since January. The Hornets were poised to make the playoffs only a month earlier, but fans knew that a 4th seed finish wasn't likely. What came as a shock to most was that the Hornets would not even host a Play-In game. Charlotte finished the regular season winning only six of their final 21 games and limped into the inaugural NBA Play-In Tournament. On the road in Indiana, against a Pacers team they had beaten twice during the regular season, the Hornets were absolutely throttled to the tune of a 27-point loss in a game that was decided after the first quarter.

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Not too pretty of a picture, definitely not one I like looking back at. As you can guess, fans and media alike were looking for somewhere to place blame for the Hornets’ late-season collapse. The first scapegoat that came to mind was the $30 million-dollar man himself, Gordon Hayward. Hayward went down with a seemingly minor injury on April 2nd and did not take the floor again for the rest of the year. The Hornets played his injury status very close to the chest, providing little to no updates about his potential return. There was a growing sense that Hayward would return for the Play-In game, but he ultimately ended up sitting out, much to the dismay of the fanbase. You can argue that with Hayward playing, the Hornets beat Indiana and even advance to the playoffs as the #8 seed. However, Indiana was without two key starters themselves (Myles Turner and Caris Levert), so that excuse becomes hard to justify. Another reason that can be argued is that the team was young. They lacked playoff experience or a seasoned veteran leader after Hayward went down. This argument is also valid, but it seems hard to believe that a team playing so well for the vast majority of the regular season would suddenly fall apart late in the year. This brings me to the final - and in my opinion, the most justifiable argument – coaching.

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There’s no doubt that the Charlotte Hornets have shown overall improvement over the past couple of seasons. The development of draft picks such as Miles Bridges, Lamelo Ball, P.J. Washington, and Cody Martin has been immaculate. However, player development is not the only factor that must be considered when evaluating a head coach. The primary goal of being a head coach in the NBA is to win games. Player development is obviously a part of it, but results must be produced for a team to be considered successful. The Hornets are clearly ahead of the original rebuild schedule, but the flashes of potential portrayed by this squad have grown drastically. This has caused expectations to rise and the tolerance for mediocrity to dwindle. Let’s look at some numbers from Borrego’s tenure in Charlotte.

In his 3+ years as an NBA head coach, James Borrego has yet to lead a team to a record above .500. The Hornets have also been without a playoff berth since the 2015-16 season when Steve Clifford was running the show. Borrego finished with a respectable .476 winning percentage in his first year with the team, but that dropped drastically to a .354 winning percentage in the following COVID-shortened season. The Hornets missed out on an invite to the NBA Orlando bubble because they were almost 20 games under .500 – yikes. 

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Then we arrive at the 2020-21 season, where the Hornets struck gold with third overall pick Lamelo Ball. With the arrival of this teenage superstar, Charlotte was immediately thrust into a national spotlight, especially among the media following the Ball brothers since Lamelo's freshman year of high school. Many people called for Borrego's job after he played Lamelo a mere 15 minutes in his scoreless NBA debut. Most of the basketball world felt that he should be starting over mid-tier NBA guard Devonte Graham. However, Borrego blocked out the noise and continued to bring Lamelo off the bench. It wasn’t until an injury to Graham that Borrego was forced to move Ball into the starting lineup. Lamelo remained in the starting lineup for the rest of the year, went on to win Rookie of the Year, and it seemed that everything had been forgiven. Except it hadn’t. I’m a firm believer that if Devonte Graham didn’t go down with an injury, Lamelo Ball would not have started a single game his rookie season. 

The narrative can be spun positively to say that Borrego holds firm beliefs and is willing to stay the course even when under pressure. That’s all fine and dandy, but try this version on for size: Borrego is stubborn and unable to adjust when faced with adversity. Don’t believe me? Let’s go back to the 2020-21 season. When a team loses 15 of their final 21 games and drops SIX spots in a clearly inferior eastern conference, coaching has to receive some form of blame. Moving past that, the Hornets had a winner-take-all game in the Play-In tournament and got manhandled from start to finish. Borrego had almost two months after Gordon Hayward went down to figure it out with the rest of the roster, yet the Hornets allowed 74 points in the paint and got outrebounded by 18. The majority of the blame falls on the players, but clearly, zero adjustments were made throughout the game. That game exemplified a crucial part of coaching that I am convinced Borrego doesn’t possess: in-game management and the ability to make adjustments.

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Let’s touch on this season and how this trend has continued. The Hornets hold an 0-7 record in overtime games this season, far and away the worst in the league. There are various reasons for the horrendous overtime record, but the one that sticks out the most is rotations. Since Hayward went down with an injury (again), Borrego has repeatedly only given meaningful minutes to eight players. Many teams go 10 or 11 guys deep every single game, but recently Borrego has his starters logging 38+ minute nights on a consistent basis. When overtime hits, this team is clearly gassed. The NBA regular season consists of 82 games; it wouldn't hurt to give 12-15 MPG (minutes per game) to a younger guy such as James Bouknight or J.T. Thor. Once again, I argue that this speaks to his inability and/or unwillingness to change his methods when they begin to crumble.

Top-tier NBA coaches all share one trait: successfully adapting to unexpected situations that arise during a game or season. Borrego has repeatedly been outdone in this category, and the overtime record exemplifies his inability to make adjustments in-game. Let’s look at this issue through a broader lens: Charlotte finished with a 2-10 record in the month of February and proved that they are prone to be blown out when shots aren't falling. The Hornets shot a season-low 31.6% from three-point land during February, which directly correlates with their floundering record. On top of that, the team has progressively decreased their percentage from behind the arc throughout the season since their blistering start in October (41.5%). The Hornets must figure out a way to spark their offense when first-side Kelly Oubre three balls or Lamelo floaters aren’t falling at a high rate. Moving on, Charlotte boasts a dismal 1-11 record on the second night of back-to-backs and lacks the discipline to respond to an opposing team's second-half run. Has anyone noticed a trend yet? Overtime games and back-to-backs have been responsible for 18 of the Hornets' 33 losses so far this year – fatigue plays a significant role in winning games, even with a young team.

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When James Borrego was hired, the Hornets' front office shifted its focus toward player development and rebuilding the team's culture. In my opinion, Borrego and his staff have accomplished both of those goals with flying colors. On paper, the Hornets are ahead of schedule for their multi-year rebuild plan. However, the fact remains that Charlotte possesses the pieces to compete with the top teams in the league; they just lack consistency. There is entirely too much talent on this Hornets roster to finish below .500 in a year where the eastern conference is ripe for the taking. Borrego can receive the credit for his role in setting this franchise on the right path, but the evidence is glaring that he isn’t the guy to take this team to the next level.

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Steve Clifford finished with a .524 winning percentage and made the playoffs in his first year with the franchise. Two years later, Clifford led the team to a 48-34 (.585) record and took the Miami Heat to Game 7 in the first round of the playoffs. The league was in a different place in 2016, but I argue that the Hornets have more overall talent on this year's squad. Clifford's team that took Miami to seven games had Nic Batum as their second-leading scorer and Cody Zeller as the starting center. Frank Kaminsky started five of the seven playoff games, and the Hornets still won three of them! I may have recency bias, but you mean to tell me that a roster consisting of NBA All-Star Lamelo Ball, most improved player candidate Miles Bridges, Terry Rozier, Gordon Hayward, Montrezl Harrell, Kelly Oubre, and P.J. Washington can't perform any better than Clifford's playoff teams? I don't believe that for one second.

I'm not calling for Borrego's head at this moment, but I am arguing that the seat should be warming up by the day. Last year's collapse, coupled with losing 10 of 11 games heading into the All-Star break this year, has to signify some blatant red flags. After consecutive losing seasons, Steve Clifford was fired in 2018, so when does Borrego get the ax? At least Clifford took the Hornets to the playoffs twice in his five years – Borrego is nearing the end of his fourth campaign and hasn’t accomplished that feat a single time.

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Obviously, the Hornets aren’t a great NBA dynasty like Golden State or Milwaukee, but parallels can be drawn from those situations. Mark Jackson wasn't the guy to lead the Warriors to the next level; Steve Kerr filled that role. Jason Kidd wasn't the guy to lead the Bucks to the next level; Mike Budenholzer stepped in to do that. I'm not taking anything away from the player development and culture building that Borrego has accomplished in Charlotte. I'm merely stating that the time may be drawing closer for the Hornets to prioritize winning and making their way into the playoffs. I would love if Borrego could right the ship this season and lead the Hornets to a playoff berth, but I have my doubts. Haven’t Charlotte Hornets fans suffered enough mediocrity in recent years? The talent is there, the culture is there, the marketability is there, it’s time for the Hornets to take that next step – with or without James Borrego at the helm.