Charlotte Hornets

It took forever for James Borrego to shake up Hornets’ starters. Here’s why it came Friday

Charlotte Hornets coach on new starting lineup

Hornets coach James Borrego on starting rookie Miles Bridges
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Hornets coach James Borrego on starting rookie Miles Bridges

It took 57 games for Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego to intentionally shake up his starters from opening night.

This new lineup sounds like it’s in for a long ride as well.

Fresh off the All-Star break, Borrego told his team at Thursday evening practice that he was adding rookie Miles Bridges to the starters and moving Jeremy Lamb to the second unit. That wasn’t the determining factor in the Hornets beating the Washington Wizards 123-110, but this small sample was sufficient that Borrego sounds convinced he’ll stick with it.

“I like the mixture of starting Miles, and what it does for both our units. I can mix-and-match a little bit better,” Borrego said post-game.

This change isn’t just about Bridges and Lamb. Here are the effects:

Nic Batum returns to shooting guard, after spending this season at small forward. There is not a big difference in those two positions, and shooting guard was where Batum played his prior three seasons as a Hornet. However, Batum’s responsibilities will shift (more on that later).

Bridges starting (he was the 12th overall pick in July out of Michigan State) and getting more minutes means the Hornets will be bigger and probably have more opportunities to switch defensively the rest of this season.

Lamb has the opportunity to strengthen what has already been an improved Hornets bench, compared to last season. That improvement has been primarily about the presence of veteran point guard Tony Parker. Lamb might lessen the burden on Parker to create half-court offense. That would have the tumble-down effect of allowing Borrego to play the second unit longer and not wear down the starters quite so much.

No winners or losers

You can construe this as a demotion for Lamb if you choose, but not really. He played 23 minutes, compared to an average of 29 this season, and played in crunch time midway through the fourth quarter when the Hornets were protecting a lead. His key stats - 16 points and six rebounds Friday - were nearly identical to his season average.

I’m sure Lamb would prefer to start - this was his first time consistently starting in the NBA - but he’s used to being ready off the bench and he seemed to accept the decision in a post-game interview.

“I’ve been coming off the bench my whole career,” Lamb said. “Whether I’m starting or coming off the bench, I’m going to do my job: come in and rebound and be aggressive at both ends of the floor. It was good to start it off with a win.”

I don’t think Lamb’s contract expiring at the end of this season was an incentive for the lineup change, but exploring alternatives should Lamb not re-sign with the Hornets could have side benefit. Lamb adapting to being a reserve again might be the least adjustment this shift entails.

Switching

Keep in mind the broader context: The Hornets have bounced along at just below .500 this season, with an urgency to make the playoffs for the first time in three seasons.

They have been good offensively, far less reliable defensively. The net effect of Batum, Bridges and Marvin Williams all starting is a lineup that is slightly bigger and more versatile defensively.

Borrego came into this season hoping to play a lot of switching defense, a major trend in the NBA. He started out switching more, then backed off some to a core group of players who could switch. That group is essentially Batum, Bridges, Williams and reserve Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

To provide Lamb a bigger role - effectively to get more scorers on the floor - Batum changed positions in October and, more importantly, was asked to guard the opposing team’s top offensive player just about every game. That previously fell on Kidd-Gilchrist.

Batum will no longer always be assigned the top opposing perimeter scorer. Bridges will sometimes get that job, based on game-to-game matchups.

“We want to groom Miles to become one of these top-level defenders,” Borrego said. “It’s my vision that both guys (Bridges and Batum) are going to tag-team (an opponent’s) best perimeter player.”

That hopefully allows Batum to ration more of his energy for the offensive end. Friday was one of Batum’s better games statistically this season: 20 points, eight rebounds, five assists and one turnover.

Borrego has been improvisational with his lineups all season, but hadn’t previously touched the original starters in situations not related to injury. This is different; this team needs a spark to get into the playoffs and Borrego had eight days between games to figure something out.

So far, so good. To be continued Saturday against the Brooklyn Nets.

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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