Was Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego a pushover last season? No.
But did he try too hard at times to placate players in his first season as an NBA coach? Yes, he did.
“I feel like J.B. probably too much, to an extent, last (season) tried to keep everybody happy,” veteran forward Marvin Williams told the Observer recently.
“I think this (season), he’s much more comfortable with people. He understands who we are as people and players. He’s just in a better place because of that.”
Borrego acknowledged as much, and that is a natural progression for a rookie coach: For the first time in his career, Borrego was in charge of world-class athletes, some of them making eight figures annually. The challenges of this job right now are abundant: Overseeing a makeover after the loss of Kemba Walker. Balancing a lean toward youth while respecting competition from veterans for playing time. Working for an owner in Michael Jordan who remains a basketball icon.
A year ago, Borrego had to fit into an existing structure: Don’t be overly critical. Assess the available talent, and how you want to use it now and in the future.
Borrego’s approach is different heading into Wednesday’s season-opener against the Chicago Bulls. He’s still a good listener and relentlessly positive. But since mid-summer, he has asserted his authority more. He signaled this publicly in a September interview with the Observer when he said he didn’t care about anything except who he thought belonged on the court.
Borrego’s actions reflect that. Veterans Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Bismack Biyombo, former lottery picks who make a combined $30 million this season, played little in the preseason and there is no reason to assume that will change in the regular season. Borrego is pivoting hard toward his younger players, and if that causes awkwardness with veterans, that’s not his problem.
That awkwardness clearly exists: Just before training camp started, Kidd-Gilchrist, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 draft, was asked where he fits in a youth movement, and he replied “I don’t know.”
When asked what he’d been told about his role this season, Kidd-Gilchrist replied “No comment.”
Forming a voice
Managing the egos of elite athletes — knowing how to exert authority without alienating enough players that the locker room tunes you out — isn’t something easily studied, like the pick-and-roll offense or switching defense. But refining those interpersonal skills is essential to lasting as an NBA coach.
“People don’t understand how difficult it can be to inherit a team, where you don’t really know guys or know much about them,” said Williams, entering his 15th NBA season. “As a coach in professional sports, most of your job is to keep people happy. The reality of the situation is, you’re not going to keep people happy.”
That is literally impossible, said Hornets guard-forward Nic Batum, and counter-productive to boot.
“I don’t think 15 guys can be happy because you can’t play 15 guys 20 or 30 minutes” each game, Batum said. “That would never happen during the season. The coach’s job is to manage egos on and off the court, and that’s the next step for him.”
What aids Borrego in this regard is the Hornets are already in flux. General manager Mitch Kupchak calls this “transition,” but the precise term is rebuild. You can’t lose an All-NBA guard such as Walker and last season’s second-leading scorer in Jeremy Lamb and not accept that you are starting over.
If nothing else, that’s hands Borrego an important tool:
‘Teeter’ in conviction
Last season, Borrego’s task was try to get the Hornets into the playoffs, while still developing the youth on his roster. This season the playoffs are such a remote possibility that he acknowledges the win-loss record isn’t a measure of success.
Borrego has said repeatedly that winning or losing any individual game for now is less important than establishing who should be at the core of this roster beyond this season. And, he says, he has the full support of Kupchak and Jordan.
“It’s strength-in-clarity for me right now. Be much more decisive in every move I make,” Borrego told the Observer. “Last year, I teetered a little bit in that area, just because I didn’t know much about this group.”
If that makes him unpopular with certain players, so be it, he says. It comes with the job.
“You want people to like you, you don’t want to step on anybody’s toes right away as you’re learning the landscape,” Borrego said. “I didn’t want to come in firing bombs right away in the first year. That’s not a good way to lead.”
“I’ve got to do what’s best for this organization, and many times that’s tough decisions,” Borrrego said. “I’m much more confident this season in that regard.”
Borrego’s job is unique among 30 NBA coaches in the sense he’s the only one working for an owner who is also a former Hall of Fame player. Who Jordan was — a five-time MVP and a six-time champion with the Chicago Bulls — raises the pressure on the basketball operation by his mere presence at the top.
“I feel pressure because it’s Michael,” Kupchak told the Observer. “I know he wants to win and I feel that. I know our coach feels it, too. It’s not like that’s coming from some guy who made a lot of money on Wall Street. It’s Michael Jordan.”
“You can’t help but feel his presence.”
A Hornets spokesman said Jordan declined to comment for this story.
I asked Borrego if he shares Kupchak’s feelings about the added pressure attached to Jordan’s legacy. Yes and no, Borrego said. More so initially, which speaks to the change in the head coach from season one to season two.
“I felt that pressure early on, I felt it last season,” Borrego said. “The pressure to win every single game, I felt the weight of that.
“I now view it more as a partnership. That we are more aligned (as to direction) and I feel less pressure to win for Michael..
“What has allowed me to settle in is Michael’s faith in what I’m doing, what I stand for, what I believe in. It has given me peace to build this thing the right way. That’s something I probably didn’t have last year, that I wish I’d found earlier, but that’s OK.
“I’m in a better place today.”