New team, new roles – the Hornets are a work in progress

If you expected the Hornets to look crisp and on top of things to start the preseason, you were wrong. Last night the Hornets lost to the Miami Heat 104-98 in a game that felt like much more than a 14 point loss. The Hornets failed to get into rhythm on offense and had communication issues that resulted in easy baskets throughout the night on defense. 

Despite shooting 41.2 percent from the field (8-36 from three), having only 5 assists in the first half – Charlotte totaled 29 assists in Sunday’s game against Boston – and committing 10 turnovers in the third quarter alone, James Borrego thought last night was a great learning experience. “I thought this was a great learning game heading into the regular season to face a good defense – a physical defense.”

The Hornets are at the dawn of a new era. New players in new roles with a new team. James Borrego gets to cement his culture into this team this year on his terms after having to make a playoff push last season. Dwayne Bacon, Miles Bridges, and Terry Rozier are all being put in positions that they have never been in during their young NBA careers. They are young, this team is young, and forming chemistry with a team like this takes time. As Borrego said, “We are learning each other. This is a work in progress.” 

Miami’s loss should not be blown out of proportion but is just another sign of the current situation this team is in, further driving the point home that this team is not set for immediate success. Development takes time, and the process to get to the point you envision is not a pretty and perfect path. 

It’s early – No need to panic

There’s a reason the NBA has the preseason, and teams need games like the Hornets had last night to prepare for the season. James Borrego said he doesn’t want to overreact to his team’s performance last night. “We’ve been together 10 days. There’s no need to overreact… It’s early and we have a lot of young guys out there trying to figure this out and learn.”

Both Terry Rozier and Devonte’ Graham mentioned postgame that the team lacked energy against Miami. Defensively, not communicating and letting the Heat get off high-percentage shots was a constant trend last night as Miami started 7-13 from three. Graham attributed the poor offensive outing to being sluggish, explaining that this is all just a part of preseason and why teams use this time to get prepared for an 82 game season. 

Rozier is trying to fit in as quickly as possible, but he knows it has only been a week and a half with all of his new teammates and head coach. “It’s early. This is the time to learn right now. [These preseason games are] the time to get everyone on the same page… That’s just facts. I think every team needs that, and that’s what we have preseason and training camp for. I’m new to this team…”

New players in new roles

The biggest change to the Hornets this season is the loss of the franchise’s all-time leading scorer in Kemba Walker, along with their second leading scorer, Jeremy Lamb. Tony Parker, the Hornets’ backup point guard, also retired. There is a dire need for scoring and ball handling on this team, and the three guys that Borrego has in line to take the reins of his offense – Miles Bridges, Dwayne Bacon, and Terry Rozier – have never had a role of this magnitude in their young NBA careers.

Terry Rozier spent the majority of his tenure in Boston as the backup point guard to Isaiah Thomas and Kyrie Irving. Dwayne Bacon is coming into his first year where he will be on the Hornets roster full-time after being assigned to the G-League to play for the Swarm for 17 games last year. Miles Bridges averaged just over 21 minutes per game last year, making only 25 starts for the Hornets. With an increased role comes growing pains, and that’s just a part of the process – it’s inevitable. Kemba struggled mightily being an efficient basketball player in his first few years in Charlotte, and struggle will come as this season goes on.

Borrego trusts Rozier and thinks he has done a great job so far playing the role Borrego has set out for him. He totaled 9 assists on Sunday, and last night against Miami, he was more aggressive to find his shot. He ended up scoring a team-high 18 points on 7-12 shooting.

Kemba Walker’s usage rate last season was 33.3% which ranked him 98th percentile among guards in the NBA. For reference, Russell Westbrook’s usage rate was 36.2%. Usage rate is how much of the team’s offense the player used by shooting (including free throws), turning the ball over, or assisting according to Cleaning The Glass. Last season Terry Rozier had 19.4% usage rate (50th percentile among guards). Miles Bridges’ usage rate was 13.6% (27th percentile among forwards). Lastly, Dwayne Bacon’s usage rate was 16.6% (60th percentile among wings). There is obviously a large gap to be filled on this team’s offense, and Borrego expects Rozier to be the team’s quarterback but doesn’t want the Louisville product to come in and save the day. He wants him to find his role, protect the ball, make plays for others, and find high-quality shots for himself. The Hornets will compensate for the loss of Kemba by relying on Bacon, Bridges, and Rozier to produce the majority of the team’s offense.

Bacon, Bridges, and Rozier aren’t the only guys in new spots. Devonte’ Graham will assume the position as the team’s backup point guard in his second season after averaging just 14.7 minutes per game in 46 appearances last year. Rookie P.J. Washington continues to play well after scoring 13 points last night and could see a large role as a backup forward and small ball center off the bench. Cody Zeller is also finally healthy, and coach Borrego wants him to be more aggressive on offense. He specifically wants Zeller attempting threes this season after only attempting 25 over his previous two years. Everyone on the Hornets has to step up in order for this team to be successful, especially when you lose an All-NBA caliber guard of Kemba’s usage.

“These guys are in new spots. They are handling the ball more than ever. All of them – Terry, Bake, Miles.” Borrego trusts his young team but understands that games like Wednesday against Miami where the ball is not moving, the offense is stagnant, guys not knowing where to go will happen and is part of the process. 

Progression isn’t linear – Chemistry takes time

Sometimes to take a step forward, you need to take a few steps back. To go along with the Hornets players seeing increased roles – virtually every rotation player from last year and rookie P.J. Washington will have an increased role – comes the progression to get from point A to point B. Progression is not linear. Chemistry takes time, and everyone on this team is using the preseason as an opportunity to learn everyone’s games on an elevated level.

When Terry Rozier was asked last night how he is handling finding his role this early he had this to say: “I don’t have all the answers. I’ll be the first guy to tell you that. I’m just trying to find my role, get everyone on the same page.” When Terry says getting everyone on the same page he means, “Communicating and talking to one other. Playing with better effort.”

A direct link to the lack of chemistry could be seen last night with the lack of ball movement. Several turnovers in the game – most notably the aforementioned 10 in the third quarter alone – were attributed to a lack of chemistry, with guys anticipating someone to be in a specific spot and they weren’t. The offense would often then just go stagnant, and guys would force things and cough up the ball. All in all, Borrego said he liked his team’s physicality and presence and that they just have to limit simple mistakes.

Communication lacked last night on both ends of the floor. Heat players were getting easy layups off backdoor cuts to the basket, and they got several open threes off botched switches. Borrego stressed the lack of that last night but agreed that communication wasn’t the only reason for their porous play. They did not play with as much effort as they did Sunday, and as P.J. Washington said, they allowed several threes off offensive rebounds.

Last night’s game wasn’t a work of art. But it was also just the start.