Navigating through things in his third season hasn't exactly been easy for James Borrego.
Having to adhere to the NBA's safety protocols and regulations makes it challenging enough for the Charlotte Hornets coach. But a rash of injuries to his key players mounted at a rapid pace, forcing a constant juggling act that's injected inexperience into the rotation.
LaMelo Ball, Gordon Hayward, Malik Monk and PJ Washington are all out at the moment, and there is no complete clarity yet regarding an exact timeline when Ball and Hayward will return. At best, they are multiple weeks away from being able to rejoin their teammates on the floor.
Practice time? Forget about it. Due to the hectic nature of the schedule it's impossible. So that leaves less of an opportunity for Borrego to teach and correct any reoccurring issues.
Put those things together and it's threatened to derail an exciting season that has the Hornets on the cusp of punching a postseason ticket for the first time since 2016.
"It's been very complicated," Borrego said. "An unprecedented year. We've never see anything like this before. I think it's forced us to adapt, be flexible. We've done a really good job of managing the season, something that I've never been through or anybody in this league has ever been through. I think the teams that have held it together have been the ones that have stayed the course, didn't mope or whine about it. That's the one thing we said to start the season. We are not going to complain and mope about what's in front of us here. Let’s choose to approach the season through a grateful mindset no matter what happens along the way. If we can carry the mindset of being grateful for this opportunity to play this game of basketball, we’ll be in a much better spot as we move through the season. And I think for the most part we’ve done that.
"The game was taken away from us. Our jobs were taken away from us through this pandemic like it did for many or most people throughout this country and this world. But we are fortunate to work for a league that figured out a way to get us back on the court and do it in a healthy way. Even through the inconveniences of testing and protocols, and multiple buses and limited access to each other, we've done it with a mindset of being grateful at controlling what we can control. So I give our players and our staff a ton of credit for continuing with that mindset throughout the season. Even through those very difficult moments of uncertainty going into a game, uncertainty the night before a game. Who’s going to play? Who’s in? Who's out? We've had a number of injuries, we've multiple issues that could have really set back our organization. And we’ve chosen just to move forward. Sort of the, 'Next man up' mentality. And it’s worked for us. And I give our guys a lot of credit for that."
In an exclusive chat with SI.com's Hornets channel, Borrego dove into a variety of topics. In Part I, he discussed expectations, developing the team's core and the importance of trying to keep Devonte' Graham in the fold this offseason among other things.
You've had several instances this season where COVID-19 testing added to the uncertainty. How disruptive can the process be and what is it like, say, after following a road trip?
It’s very difficult. The example I’ll give you is coming off the Milwaukee game (last Friday), we had to test right when we got off the plane after a very long night. We arrive at 2, 3 in the morning. We got a test immediately when we arrive and then the next day should really be a day off for the guys to rest their minds, rest their bodies. And the players and myself that evening had to come back in at 11 p.m. and test for a game that was scheduled for Sunday at 1 p.m (against Atlanta). So instead of being in your bed resting, getting the proper rest for your body and mind, you have to be back at the arena testing.
And I get it. I understand it from a health perspective. We’ve got to do these things. But it’s very disruptive to our rest cycle. both mentally and physically. There's a lot of disruption to the season. And it's made for a lot of mental fatigue and physical fatigue throughout the league. But I understand we have to do this to get this season accomplished and finished it’s going to take these sort of standards to get it done. But on a day-to-day basis, we are getting minimum testing of once a day and sometimes multiple times per day, having to go home and back in the evenings to get it accomplished.
Can you explain what some of your expectations and main goals were heading into your third season here?
When I laid to out this season, my expectations were a couple of things to start the season. No. 1, take a step forward as a organization. In our individual and our team development. The second thing is to expect our players to become perpetual students of the game. Meaning, I want to develop players that are curious and hungry to learn the game, and not be satisfied with just being average, just being OK. That was a major goal of mine to start the season. Expect each player to grow in basketball and leadership skills. This was an area of focus for me, was really developing leaders and leadership in our program. For us to take the next step as an organization, as a culture, we need to have that rooted in our leadership.
And that's got to come from the player ultimately. I can set the table, I can lay the vision. But the players at some level have to take ownership of this team and lead this team. And that’s one area I really focused on from the start. I said to our guys, ‘Expect our culture to become more solidified.’ So the groundwork we’ve laid the last couple years in our culture, in how we play, how we conduct ourselves, this was year to solidify those roots. Make it stronger, more defined, more concrete. And I think we've done that. We’ve become more connected than ever. We’ve become more unselfish than ever. We’ve become more competitive than ever.
All that goes back to our culture. But I think this has taken years to develop and grow. And we’re only getting started. This has other layers to it. We are far from where we need to be to become a championship-level organization. But that's my goal, that's my vision. I want to be at the top some day, but it starts one year at a time one day at a time.
Was there anything else you wanted to convey to them right away?
The last thing I expressed to our players to start the season was I expect a group of professionals to show up on a daily basis and work. I expect this group to be professional in everything we do. In our habits. How we approach the games. How we see the game. How we work. How we conduct ourselves as teammates, as coaches. That's the standard. That’s the level we need to get to. And basically it comes down to commit to do your job at the highest level possible. Nothing less, nothing more. Do your job at the highest level. And we’ve gotten closer to that. We are not where we need to be, but we are trending in the right direction.
And the success that people may see from the outside didn't just happen because we added a few players. That's part to it, but the standards have been raised here. The commitments have been raised here. The work habits have been raised here and we’ve got to continue that. For me, it’s about competing at the highest level, developing at the highest level and continuing to establish our identity. And I think we’ve done that this year. I’ve been pleased with that standard this season even through all the chaos, throughout the uncertainty. I believe our group has stayed focused in how we compete, how we develop and how we continue to establish our identity in this league.
You often talk about Devonte' Graham and how much he means to this team and organization. Obviously, he will be a free agent this summer. How important is it to keep core players like him around?
Probably one of the more satisfying things for me as a coach, as a leader in this program, is watching our players grow and develop. And Devonte's one of those examples that I’ll always look to. He defines our culture. He defines who we are, who we want to be about. How he works, where he’s come from. Nobody expected anything of him. Nobody thought he was an NBA point guard. Nobody thought he could impact winning. Yet, through his hard work, his approach, our development, his commitment to our program, he’s shown the league and our fans the he belongs in this league. And there's nothing like keeping your own players in house. The players that we find and develop, we want to keep them here. They are core pieces of our program moving forward.
Ultimately that's how you build winning organizations -- you build from within. And Devonte’s one of those guys. Obviously this is a business and Devonte' and his representation have to do what’s best for them. Obviously, (GM) Mitch (Kupchak) and Michael (Jordan) will do what’s best for our organization. But what I can say as the head coach of this team, I value those players that we've developed. We believe in them and there’s another layer to this as far as the business side. To me, Devonte’ is a prime example of what we want to be about as an organization, and as players and as people.