Coaching is a lot of things, but at its essence the job is defining a role for each player that optimizes his abilities.
Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego has done that splendidly with Miles Bridges this season. With rookie LaMelo Ball? Not so much just yet.
The Hornets are 0-2, which leaves fans frustrated. But what seems to really annoy them is the limited playing time Ball, the No. 3 overall pick, is getting. After scoring 13 points in nine first-half minutes — on 5-of-6 shooting — Ball played just 6 1/2 minutes in the second half of a 109-107 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Twitter was abuzz over Ball’s limited second-half playing time. Granted, social media is a cauldron of negativity and second-guessing, and Ball struggled defensively. However, the critiques of Borrego’s rotation choices were wide-spread and heated.
Borrego is a good coach and Ball has a lot to learn defensively. But I get why fans are agitated: This franchise has gone four years without playoffs, Charlotte lost All-Star Kemba Walker to the Boston Celtics, and drafting Ball was a reason to dream again.
He’s entertaining in a way other Hornets aren’t. He threw four passes in the preseason that were Pete Maravich-imaginative. Seeing him get just the ninth-most playing time on this team Saturday night drew some rage.
Borrego sensed that in his post-game comments.
“It’s tough. There are a number of guys that are capable of handling minutes. I’ve got to juggle that rotation,” Borrego said. “LaMelo’s got to do his part. It’s my job to do what’s best for this club.
“I thought LaMelo played extremely well tonight. I’ll look at the film and see what that looks like. Maybe there are some more minutes for him.”
Optimizing Miles Bridges
Borrego worked for a championship organization as an assistant to San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich; he knows what good looks like in the NBA.
It took awhile, but Borrego found the ideal role for forward Miles Bridges. Circumstance caused Bridges to play mostly small forward his first two seasons. He can do that, but he’s better suited as a power forward and his best quality — frenetic energy — lends to being a sixth man.
Borrego switched Bridges to that role with the signing of small forward Gordon Hayward, and Bridges is thriving. He went 4-for-4 from 3-point range in the fourth quarter Saturday to make up a 13-point deficit in the final 2 minutes.
Bridges isn’t making a sacrifice by not starting. He has shifted to a role more suited to his abilities. That’s what leads to long NBA careers.
Bridges gets that.
“(Borrego) wants me to play-make, defend and rebound. He lets me do everything and I feel like I’m flourishing,” Bridges said after finishing with 14 points and six rebounds. “Going back to my Michigan State days, (prioritizing) energy, that’s how we won games. I’m kind of used to this.”
Ball can’t be used to sitting so much. He’s playing behind two guards in Devonte Graham and Terry Rozier who don’t have his talent or size, but each has far more experience. It’s clear Borrego trusts those two more, for now.
The Hornets needed to dramatically improve their talent base. Drafting ball and acquiring free agent Hayward were major steps toward that. Integrating Hayward was easy; he comes with 10 years of NBA experience and his greatest strength is decision-making with the ball.
Blending in rookie Ball was always going to be messier: He’s far from a finished product and he’s going to siphon minutes away from two guards who were the Hornets’ top scorers last season.
It’s not Borrego’s job to do what’s popular; it’s his job to do what’s right.
It might be Sunday against the Brooklyn Nets, or a week from now against the Philadelphia 76ers. But the right thing soon is playing Ball more than 15 minutes a game.