Why the Charlotte Hornets fired coach James Borrego

Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak made the call to fire coach James Borrego, a source with direct knowledge told The Observer.

Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak made the call to fire coach James Borrego, a source with direct knowledge told The Observer.

dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

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The voice on the other end of the phone was busy with other tasks early Friday afternoon and impervious to news making the rounds.

Once informed the Charlotte Hornets fired coach James Borrego, severing ties with him after four seasons, the person was genuinely stunned. He had to ask for a repeat, ensuring he didn’t hear things incorrectly. But it was true and he couldn’t believe it, especially since he represents a player on the team and recently spoke with a member of the Hornets’ hierarchy.

“I’m shocked,” the NBA agent told The Charlotte Observer. “I’m kind of surprised. I thought he did a good job. ”

He wasn’t the only one, either.

“Crazy,” is how one member of the organization described it.

Borrego, who compiled a 138-163 mark in his tenure, is out as the Hornets’ coach just over a week after their season came to a halt with a 132-103 loss to Atlanta in the Eastern Conference play-in tournament. General manager Mitch Kupchak informed Borrego on Friday the team was moving in a different direction and relieving him of his duties.

In pulling the rug out from under Borrego, the Hornets made a decision that caught more than a few people off guard. While ultimately owner Michael Jordan had to sign off on the move, a source told The Observer he wasn’t the man who delivered the edict to sever ties with Borrego, who had two years remaining on his contract after signing an extension in August.

Kupchak has been the architect of the Hornets’ blueprint and that wasn’t suddenly altered this week. He made the choice to let Borrego go, figuring it was a necessity to propel the Hornets’ young core led by LaMelo Ball forward. There were a variety of factors that pushed Kupchak into that direction, things that were hard to ignore when he began the full evaluation process.

At the forefront is that brutal defeat to the Hawks last week.

For the bulk of the season, particularly down the stretch, the Hornets talked about how motivated they were to make amends for their 27-point pasting in Indiana in the play-in tournament in 2021. The front office attempted to address the lack of postseason experience by bringing in four players – Mason Plumlee, Kelly Oubre, Montrezl Harrell and Isaiah Thomas – with a combined 132 games of playoff action to help keep it from happening again.

But the Hornets were clobbered by the Hawks and embarrassed on national television, falling apart in the second half and losing by two more points than they did in Indiana a year prior. To have such a rough performance in their biggest game of the season for the second straight year was a factor in casting Borrego aside.

Defensively, the Hornets also never got it together consistently and that shortcoming also played a role in Borrego’s dismissal. Although they improved slightly on that side of the ball following the All-Star break, they finished 22nd in defensive rating and there were too many frustrating outings to close the season.

Yielding 144 points in consecutive games to Philadelphia and Miami as they were chasing an opportunity to host a home play-in tournament game proved to be a crusher considering the Hornets finished with the exact same record as Atlanta, but lost the tiebreaker, and were within a game of seventh place in the conference. They didn’t clamp down frequently enough to come close to matching their offensive strengths. Adjustments weren’t overly effective for sustained periods and they eventually still got carved up, often producing deficits too large to overcome.

There were times, too, recently when Borrego’s messages weren’t always getting through to his players. As someone who’s been in the league since 1976 and has a good handle on a team’s environment, Kupchak likely picked up on that as well and determined a new voice is best right now instead of potentially coming to that same conclusion sometime in the next calendar year . The Hornets’ window to build and sustain a team that put together successive winning seasons is upon them and the move to go in a different direction is an indicator Kupchak fully understands they are on the clock.

By switching gears with two years remaining before Ball is eligible to hit restricted free agency, the Hornets have to get this hire right. Whether it’s tapping the likes of someone with head coaching experience such as Mike D’Antoni or Frank Vogel, going with Utah’s Quin Synder if he’s cut loose following the Jazz’s postseason run, or tabbing a rising assistant coach and ex-player like Sam Cassell, the Hornets can’t get this one wrong.

Kupchak has hit on a lot of his moves in his tenure in the Hornets’ basketball operations department. The most recent being the Hornets scoring a first-round selection in the June draft for Devonte ‘Graham thanks to the protections on the pick they acquired from New Orleans in the sign-and-trade last offseason. His new hire has to be someone capable of reaching that next level the Hornets can’t seem to climb to.

The new coach will also have to put together a staff and decide if they want to keep any of the current assistants. Those who worked under Borrego will remain on board until their fate is determined by the Hornets’ incoming hire, according to league sources.

With a key offseason looming, the Hornets are preparing for a major reset at the end of their bench. Expectations have increased with Borrego’s dismissal and it’s obviously another playoff-less April in Charlotte is not acceptable. The next coach is already on notice.

This story was originally published April 22, 2022 5:50 PM.

Roderick Boone joined the Observer in September 2021 to cover the Charlotte Hornets and NBA. In his more than two decades of writing about the world of sports, he’s chronicled everything from high school rodeo to a major league baseball no-hitter to the Super Bowl to the Finals. The Long Island native has deep North Carolina roots and enjoys watching “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” endlessly.
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