Before the 2019-20 NBA season began, Charlotte Hornets head coach James Borrego laid out four pillars that he wanted the team to accomplish in his second year at the helm.
Compete every night, player development, establishing an identity and winning habits.
The record may not have been good enough to be a part of the league’s 22-team return in Orlando after the coronavirus hiatus, but Borrego believes the team followed the pillars and made great strides in a shortened season.
“It’s been quite a season,” Borrego said Monday during an end-of-season press conference on Zoom. “Obviously, it didn’t end the way we expected or hoped and are disappointed we couldn’t continue, but I couldn’t be more proud of them. We talked about competing and we did that. (We) played the 12th most clutch games in the NBA, won the most one-possession games in the NBA, (and) that’s probably one of the areas I was most surprised about was how we just competed down the stretch in these close games.”
Charlotte finished the year with a 23-42 record but went 7-6 in the final 13 games before the season was paused, which included wins over the Houston Rockets, Miami Heat and Toronto Raptors.
The late-season improvements made not being invited to Orlando that much harder of a pill to swallow.
“The biggest disruption for us was the virus and when it started,” Borrego said. “There was significant momentum, identity and development going on when it stopped and obviously, we can’t get that back. That hit everybody. My hope was by being brought to Orlando, we could try to recapture that at a minimum of eight games.”
It’s uncertain when the Hornets and the seven other eliminated teams will get to play or fully practice as a team again with the league yet to figure out when the 2020-21 season will begin.
Either way, Borrego won’t allow the lack of live game action to set them back heading into next season.
“I can’t allow this to be a disadvantage,” Borrego said. “We have to be creative moving forward. We need to use this summer as a jumpstart. An opportunity to get better. I can’t do anything about not being included in Orlando but I can push this group forward.”
Many projected the team would win less than 20 games after losing all-star Kemba Walker last summer but the youth movement began earlier than projected.
The Hornets saw a surprise breakout season from second-year guard Devonte’ Graham, a solid year from their big free agent acquisition, guard Terry Rozier, and were impressed by the quicker than expected strong play from rookie P.J. Washington this season.
“Our season overall would be characterized as a growing, development season,” general manager Mitch Kupchak said. “The last 10-12 games, we were playing our best basketball. We were getting contributions from our young players, who will be part of our core going forward.”
Charlotte improved defensively and proved they can compete against some of the league’s top teams as the season went on, making a young core of Graham, Rozier, Washington and Miles Bridges, something fans can get excited about.
Kupchak said it’s too early in the building process to think about which players fit position-wise and which don’t, and the biggest thing for the team right now is to simply add more talent.
“It’s a little early to be worried about fit,” Kupchak said. “It’s more so about getting talent on the team, seeing how they do fit together and at some point we’ll have to address that we have 5, 6, 7 great guys with talent, how do they fit together? I don’t think we’re there right now.”
The message has stayed consistent about how the Hornets will find talent: Through the draft and by making savvy trades.
Kupchak once again reiterated that plan despite having a lot of cap room this summer.
However, if things keep moving in the right direction, Charlotte could become an appealing destination for big-name players.
“I don’t think right now we are a premier destination. I think we’re getting there,” Kupchak continued. “Having said that, any player that is drafted or does come to play in Charlotte, they love this city. The fans here in North Carolina are basketball passionate. I don’t think right now…maybe we’re a year away or two years away. With the group we have, it’s a little early.”
Not only have the players shown growth, but Borrego has also proven to be a young coach on the rise.
“The last two years we’ve maximized our players,” Borrego said. “When you come into our program you’re going to get better. There’s a system in place that gets players better. P.J. Washington should be first-team all-rookie. Miles Bridges was the MVP of the Rising Stars Challenge. Terry (Rozier), the (Cody and Caleb) Martin brothers, all took a step. When you put it all together, this is attractive to me if I’m a player looking for a destination.”
It wasn’t the way the Hornets expected their season to end, but they won’t allow the missed time to set them back with a seemingly bright future still ahead of them.
“The challenge is to move forward. We’re not going to sit here and feel sorry for ourselves,” Borrego said. “Those days are behind us. Our goal is now to get better. We have an opportunity here. Five months is a long time. This is an opportunity to get better, bigger faster, stronger. This is a group that has shown they want to work. They’re open to development. I believe our development program is only getting better. My job now is to move the group forward.”