Borrego keeps Hornets in contention

Charlotte keeps winning despite a rash of injuries

Coach James Borrego has navigated the Hornets through several key injuries to have Charlotte in playoff contention. (Nell Redmond / AP Photo)

Utah’s Quin Snyder is the odds-on favorite to win NBA Coach of the Year this season given that the former Duke Blue Devil has led the Jazz to the best record in the league. Rounding out the leaders, according to online bookmakers, are Philly’s Doc Rivers, Brooklyn’s Steve Nash and the Suns’ Monty Williams.

For those inclined to wager on such things, however, it may be worth devoting a few dollars to one of the coaches in the next tier of candidates. With 25-1 current odds of winning the award, Charlotte’s James Borrego may be doing some of the best coaching of the season right now.

The Hornets have hung in the playoff race all year long, led by Rookie of the Year candidate LaMelo Ball and key offseason pickup Gordon Hayward.

Selected third overall in the draft, Ball was expected to be a unique talent — eventually. Borrego’s handling of him, however, took advantage of his talent while helping to shield the raw areas he still needed to develop.

Borrego resisted the temptation to start Ball early, bringing him off the bench until the end of January. Once Ball entered the lineup, he averaged 19.5 points, 6.2 assists and 5.8 rebounds as a starter. Then Borrego made his next tweak, often playing Ball with fellow point guards Terry Rozier and Devonte’ Graham, creating a matchup problem for opponents. The three lead guards were a remarkable plus-51 in 106 minutes together, 111 points better than all other Hornets lineups over the first three months of 2021.

“They can all create,” Borrego said of the lineup. “They look for each other. They can all get downhill. It’s just having multiple playmakers on the floor.”

Rozier called it a “run-and-gun” lineup. Graham raved over how much faster the team could play with the three of them together, and Ball said simply, “I love the lineup.”

The reason the three guards spent so little time on the floor together is that the Hornets have been hammered by injuries almost from the moment Borrego began experimenting with the combination. Rozier has battled ankle, groin and hip injuries.

Then, just as Rozier was getting back to 100%, Ball broke his right wrist, an injury that could end his season, although the Hornets still hold out hope of getting him back for a late-season playoff push.

Tuesday’s game against the Lakers, a 101-93 loss, was the 12th straight Ball has missed, a development that would seemingly torpedo Charlotte’s season and Borrego’s dark horse coach of the year candidacy.

Borrego called the injury “tough to swallow” but wasn’t ready to write off the season.

“We want to get Melo back here as soon as possible, but we’re going to be cautious,” he said. “For me, I got to move the group forward and Melo will join us when he joins us. For us right now, we just got to continue to improve. I coach the group that is in front of me, and Melo is going to be a part of this. He is going to be our biggest cheerleader here in a few days once we get him back. But for me, we march ahead, we move forward without Melo.”

The march forward continues without a few other contributors, as well.

Hayward, the 30-year-old veteran pickup who has been Charlotte’s go-to guy much of this season, suffered a sprained foot that will keep him out four weeks. He’s missed the last five games, with the Hornets going 2-3 since he went down.

Then there’s Malik Monk and his 13.1 points-per-game average. He’s missed six straight games and eight of nine due to an ankle injury that could keep him out another week.

Forward PJ Washington, averaging 11.6 points and 6.4 rebounds, is also day-to-day with his own ankle problem. That leaves Borrego with a total of 60.2 points per game in Charlotte’s sickbay.

A funny thing happened on Charlotte’s fall back to earth, though. The Hornets have won seven of the first 11 games without Ball (and company), moving from seventh in the Eastern Conference playoff race at the time of the injury to as high as fourth.

Rozier has stepped up in Ball’s absence, averaging 24.8 points in the first five games after Ball’s injury and 20.8 in the 11 games without the rookie. He’s currently Charlotte’s leading scorer. He’s also increased his assists average by one per game since Ball went down.

Raleigh’s Graham has also taken a step forward as everyone else is coming up lame. He’s averaged 17.1 points over the last 10 games, up more than four points from his season average up to that point.

Whether it’s with mirrors or just underrated guard play, Borrego is keeping the Hornets in contention while waiting for the stars to return.

“We do this together,” he said, “and we do this resiliently and we move forward and we continue to fight. And that’s all we got right now. I expect our group to fight.”

In other words, Snyder may not want to start clearing space in his trophy case just yet.