One month after firing their last head coach, the Charlotte Hornets have reportedly lined up their next one. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported Tuesday that owner Michael Jordan and newly minted general manager Mitch Kupchak are “finalizing a deal” to hire San Antonio Spurs assistant James Borrego to take the reins in North Carolina.
Who’s James Borrego?
Borrego, 40, entered the NBA in 2003 as an assistant video coordinator after beginning his coaching career at his alma mater, the University of San Diego. Following a seven-year stint in the Spurs organization that included roles in two NBA championships, Borrego headed east with Spurs colleague Monty Williams when he took over the New Orleans Hornets in 2010. After two years in Louisiana, he joined another former Spurs colleague, Jacque Vaughn, when the Orlando Magic hired him to replace Stan Van Gundy in 2012.
Borrego served as Vaughn’s lead assistant during 2 1/2 lean years in central Florida following the departure of superstar centerpiece Dwight Howard, and was elevated to the head of the bench when Vaughn was fired in February of 2015. Borrego finished the season as Orlando’s interim coach, going 10-20 over the final 30 games of the campaign. He wasn’t retained, as general manager Rob Hennigan elected to hire veteran taskmaster Scott Skiles in hopes of whipping the young Magic into shape. Borrego returned to San Antonio that summer, and has served as an assistant on Gregg Popovich’s staff ever since.
Borrego had reportedly drawn interest for multiple head coaching openings this offseason, including in Milwaukee, New York and Phoenix. The Suns and Knicks wound up turning elsewhere, with Phoenix hiring Utah Jazz assistant Igor Kokoskov while New York landed former Memphis Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale. The Bucks’ position remains open.
A tough road ahead
Once the deal’s finalized, Borrego will take over a Hornets team that made overtures toward relevance during Steve Clifford’s five-year tenure, but that has missed the playoffs in each of the last two seasons, hasn’t advanced past the first round in 16 years, and finds itself in a complicated salary cap- and roster-management situation after the reign of ousted general manager Rich Cho.
Charlotte has one bona fide All-Star, point guard Kemba Walker, who is set to hit unrestricted free agency after next season. Beyond that, a roster full of high-priced veterans — the Hornets owe $68 million to Nicolas Batum, Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in 2019-20 — and yet-to-really-pop prospects (Frank Kaminsky, Jeremy Lamb, 2017 lottery pick Malik Monk) who comprise a roster that is already nearly $20 million over next year’s salary cap.
Transforming that collection of talent into a perennial postseason contender seems like tough sledding, even in an East where teams can go from rags to riches in a hurry. But after a couple of down years convinced him that a change was in order, Jordan has identified a general manager and coach that he believes can turn things around, and Borrego has secured a second chance to make a good first impression as the leader of an NBA team.
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