NEW YORK — Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego delivered two messages to his team on the first day of training camp. One was about spirit. He wanted the Hornets to come to work with a sense of joy, to build on what they’d done last season, to embrace the opportunity ahead. The second was about belief.
“It just matters what we believe and what we want,” Borrego said, recalling his speech weeks later. “And it comes down to our choices. Nobody else dictates what we become. We choose what we’ll become.”
The Hornets want to run you to death. They pressure ballhandlers and get their hands in passing lanes so they can turn you over and race the other way in transition, where Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball and Eastern Conference Player of the Week Miles Bridges make magic happen. What they want to become, though, is a more refined team.
“Just because we’re young doesn’t mean we have to be undisciplined and loose,” Borrego said. “If we want to win in this league, we can be young, we can play fast, we can play aggressive, but we can also play smart. And we choose that. As I said, it comes down to choices and decisions.”
In no way do they want to ditch the speed and the attacking mentality that have turned the Spectrum Center into a house of highlights. If you’re fortunate enough to posterize a Hornet, you better not be foolish enough to stop and celebrate. As the Cleveland Cavaliers found out last Friday, they will come right back at you.
Charlotte knows its strengths are “our athleticism, our youth, our legs, our speed and our playmaking,” Borrego said. But after sneaking up on the league last season, Borrego challenged the team to make better decisions with the ball and bring more consistent effort on defense, experience be damned.
“We’re not waiting,” Borrego said. “I don’t use that as an excuse anymore. We know how to play good basketball and now it’s just about being consistent about that.”
Early returns have been encouraging: Hornets started 3-0 for the first time in franchise history before Monday’s overtime loss against the Boston Celtics on the second night of a back-to-back. Among their wins were a dramatic, come-from-behind victory against the Indiana Pacers to open the season and a 16-point win in Brooklyn on Sunday.
Before the game at Barclays Center, Nets coach Steve Nash said his team had to be particularly locked in on taking care of the ball because the Hornets are so difficult to defend in transition. Seventeen turnovers later, Nash lamented that his team had surrendered easy baskets on the break.
Borrego, meanwhile, said Charlotte’s 29-13 advantage in points off turnovers might have been the difference. Then he asked a reporter for pizza recommendations.
No one needs to tell the Hornets that their margin for error is small. Last April, they were 25-23 and fourth in the East when they announced that Gordon Hayward had sprained his right foot. He joined Ball, who had broken his wrist, on the sideline, and the Hornets slid all the way to 10th place. Their season ended with a 27-point loss to the Pacers in the play-in.
The plan is to round out their rough edges. The major offseason additions are role players Mason Plumlee, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Ish Smith. Borrego has stressed the importance of the possession game: Charlotte was a poor defensive rebounding team last season, and, as effective as it was at forcing turnovers, it coughed the ball up even more often than its opponents.
“I believe we can win the turnover game, so we’ve got to be smarter offensively,” Borrego said. “The board is something we’ve really focused on this year in the personnel we brought in, but also in our practices. I’ve never worked on defensive rebounding as much as we worked on it this summer and through camp.”
Borrego envisions Charlotte making a leap on defense. “That’s been our No. 1 priority,” Borrego said. “Top-10 defense this year. That’s where it starts.” Last season, the Hornets were 13th on defense when they lost Hayward and finished 16th. Respectable, but far from reliable. They often struggled to contain the ball and they allowed an alarming number of 3s and shots at the rim. Even reaching the land of the average took creativity: They played more zone than any team in the NBA, much of it with the 6-foot-7 P.J. Washington at “center,” and pressed more often than anybody else, too.
Now it’s about being more solid. Oubre, who at 6-6 with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, allows them to switch and shrink the floor more effectively than they did last season. That effect has been heightened with Terry Rozier hurt and both Cody Martin and Jalen McDaniels in the rotation. Plumlee is a reliable drop defender who has a knack for staying vertical when challenging shots at the rim.
Smith said that assistant coach Chad Iske “has been really good at staying on us defensively, and we’re just pushing, pressing up, got a lot more length, a lot more quickness.” Borrego said he saw “glimpses” of the kind of execution he’s looking for last season, and now, as long as they “own it and buy into it every single day,” he thinks they belong in that top-10 range.
“With the additions of length, another year in our system, a fully healthy roster, my belief is that we can get there,” Borrego said. “And we will get there. We have to get there.”
So far, so good — mostly. The Hornets did not lose either the turnover battle or the rebounding battle until the Celtics game. Borrego was not pleased at halftime against Indiana, but they went on a 24-0 run in the third quarter, during which they forced five turnovers in about five minutes.
“I think that sums up who we are as a team,” Borrego said. “The other 29 teams in the league will score at will if we just follow them around and we don’t dictate play with our pressure, our aggression. We just can’t be on our heels defensively. Second half, we turned it up. Our physicality picked up. They felt us in the second half. We turned them over. Obviously it led to better offense as well.”
In Cleveland two days later, the Hornets stole the ball on the first two possessions of the game and opened the fourth quarter on a 19-2 run that included six forced turnovers. Ball’s five steals inspired Bridges to tweet, “I thought they said my boy can’t play defense,” punctuated by two facepalming emoji.
Ball played just 26 minutes in Brooklyn, none of them in the fourth quarter. He wasn’t hurt, nor was he playing poorly. He just saw Smith scorching the Nets from midrange and encouraged Borrego to ride the hot hand. Last season, Bridges said, Ball wouldn’t have done that.
When he has been on the court, Ball has been even better than he was in Year 1. His 50-percent mark from 3-point range isn’t sustainable, but his increased volume might be. If he can make the types of 3s he’s taking at a respectable clip, trash the old scouting report.
Ball has been a more disruptive help defender, and, in his coach’s view, an improved game manager. Borrego was particularly pleased with Ball’s performance in the opener, not only because of his glorious stat line (31 points, 7-for-9 from deep, seven assists, nine rebounds, two steals) but because of his floor game down the stretch.
“He’s taken a step in that area,” Borrego said. “Understanding time, score, situation, making plays for his teammates.” The challenge is to do this all the time, on both ends. “His leadership, taking ownership of his defense needs to be significant for us. Taking responsibility for guarding his man every single night. And he’s placed much more value on that end of the floor this year, which is a major sign for me that he’s committed to winning.”
Smith, a Charlotte native playing for his NBA-record-tying 12th team in his 11th season, marveled at Ball’s ability to make the game look easy. “He keeps up this level,” Smith said, “he’ll be an All-Star this year.” The most improved Hornet, though, appears to be Bridges. The fourth-year forward evolved as a playmaker and shooter over the course of last season, and he’s started this one on a tear. Thirty points in Cleveland, then 32 in Brooklyn, getting his buckets from strong drives to the rim, putbacks, transition dunks, 3s off the catch, 3s off the bounce, you name it.
“Miles is special, man,” Smith said. “Holy freakin’ crap, man.”
This version of Bridges is another source of offense when the Hornets are playing random basketball. He can find cutters with pinpoint passes, and, as a powerful finisher himself, he has a knack for sliding into open spaces without the ball.
Hours after Bridges was named Player of the Week, he shot 2 for 10 from deep against Boston. The Hornets looked uncharacteristically sloppy late in the game, and Boston picked on Ball defensively. Borrego said they looked gassed, but he liked the way they fought.
Based on last season, based on this summer — Ball and Hayward stayed in Charlotte, the entire team went to Miami for a weeklong training camp — and based on this start, Borrego is encouraged. They’re not where they need to be yet, but he sees a team that has bought in, that cares about each other, that plays for each other, that has a certain focus about them.
“There’s a resiliency and a perseverance about our group that says we’re in this together,” he said. “Time will tell if that plays out. But I think that’s what gives this team a chance to be special.”
If he turns out to be right, remember how the season started. Another team might have folded when it was down 23 points in the opener, against an opponent it had last seen in a nightmarish elimination five game months earlier. Not the Hornets.
“We never die,” Borrego said.