Basketball

If wins aren’t the top priority, how do you measure the Charlotte Hornets this season?

Charlotte Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak was struck last season by just how hard rookie coach James Borrego took every loss.

“I hope he’s better than last year,” Kupchak said. “At the beginning of the season, he took each loss really, really hard.”

Borrego better be ready for abundant losses — maybe 60 in an 82-game season — because this roster sets a course for bad. The Hornets not re-signing Kemba Walker started a rebuild. The Hornets term this a “transition,” but it’s a rebuild in that Borrego is committed to playing young guys more with an eye toward building a core for the future.

How will that look, how will that feel, how should progress be measured as the Hornets open the regular season Wednesday night at home against the Chicago Bulls?

Measuring

With the path the Hornets are taking, how is performance measured if wins and losses aren’t the top priority?

Kupchak said he expects to see energy — both from players and coaches — demonstrated consistently, and expects improvement individually and as a team as the season progresses.

Clarity

Clarity seems to be Borrego’s favorite word this preseason, and with good cause. Last season, the Hornets were trying to make the playoffs while simultaneously improving player-development with young guys, such as Dwayne Bacon and Devonte Graham. Those agendas don’t automatically clash, but Borrego was trying to please a lot of people and agendas. Veteran forward Marvin Williams observed that, at times, Borrego tried too hard to make all the players happy.

It’s different now. They want to compete, but winning any individual game this season won’t trump player development. Borrego told the Observer in September he won’t consider contracts, salaries or how high someone was drafted in doling out playing time. Kupchak and owner Michael Jordan didn’t micro-manage Borrego, but he will clearly coach differently in this second season.

Youth vs. competition

This pivot toward youth isn’t a freeze-out of all veterans. First off, Borrego needs experienced players such as Nic Batum and Marvin Willliams regardless of whether those guys start or come off the bench. Those two will play a lot at multiple positions and may well close out winnable games.

On close calls, Borrego will lean toward minutes for younger players such as Dwayne Bacon, Miles Bridges and rookie PJ Washington. But if a young guy isn’t doing what he should and being clearly outplayed by a veteran, the minutes will reflect that.

It has to be that way, even in a rebuild. If players aren’t held accountable for performance with playing time, they won’t improve. Also, the locker room culture declines when it’s clear minutes aren’t tied to performance.

Road to Greensboro

The Hornets used their G-League affiliate, the Greensboro Swarm, more last season and their relationship will be that much more coordinated this season. Borrego got permission to add a player-development coach, Nick Friedman, who will float between Charlotte and Greensboro to oversee Hornets on G-League assignment.

Borrego and Kupchak both say if a young guy isn’t playing regularly in Charlotte, he’s better off getting minutes in Greensboro this season. Four end-of-roster players — rookies Caleb Martin and Jalen McDaniels, and two-way contract guys Robert Franks and Kobi Simmons — will spend almost all this season with the Swarm, Kupchak projected.

Rick Bonnell is a sportswriter/columnist for the Charlotte Observer. He has been in Charlotte since 1988, when the NBA arrived, and has covered the Hornets continuously. A former president of the Pro Basketball Writers Association, Bonnell also writes occasionally on the NFL and college sports.
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