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How James Borrego's offense could take Pelicans to next level


All of the great one-name classical artists that share nameswith the Ninja Turtles had apprentices they held in high regard.Willie Green, now going into his third season as one of the NBA’syoungest head coaches, has been shaping a vision with the NewOrleans Pelicans but there was an obvious need for a reshaping ofthe assistant coaching staff this summer. The franchise’sscaffolding was in place, but the young coach was working with oldhands from previous artists; he needed to bring in a trustedapprentice.

New assistant James Borrego is no apprentice outside of thisanalogy. He is a well-traveled former head coach with a proventrack record of building top-10 offenses, which Green admittedduring media day will alleviate some burdens on the offensive end.The new assistant will also have plenty of freedom to have someexperiments fail.

One of Bob Ross' most famous sayings is, "We don't makemistakes, just happy little accidents." He encouraged artists toembrace unexpected turns and use them to their advantage. Like Rosscashing in on “happy accidents,” the Pelicans are betting onBorrego's schemes to raise their long-term offensive ceiling thisseason, and the missteps along the way are just learned experiencesto be blended into the mosaic.

Green’s focus on defense and deep personal connections tookpriority over offensive nuances the last few seasons, but there wasan obvious need for some changes to the playbook and how thelessons learned are implemented. So, Green brought in Borrego.

Ross, with his trademark permed hair, paint brushes and soothingvoice, often emphasized the importance of mastering the basics.Build creations from simple brushstrokes, with sound structures.Likewise, Borrego's offense is built on a foundation offundamentals. He emphasizes ball movement, spacing and playermovement to create scoring opportunities. Just as Ross began hispaintings with a few basic elements, Borrego starts his offensewith simple, well-executed plays.

Last season’s formula was too simple. And basics? The Pelicanshad problems just inbounding the ball in critical situations andoften would not begin an action until there were under 10 secondsleft on the shot clock. Then, it was predictable: Brandon Ingrammethodical in the midrange. Zion Williamson rumbles to the rim offof actions with very little space or off-ball movement. CJ McCollumwas mostly stationary and waiting on the perimeter when not havingto bail out a short-handed team late in the shot clock. JonasValanciunas was frustrated with his role, while Herb Jones wasstill growing into his on offense.

Trey Murphy III continued developing but everything was a resetof the same few actions, and it all fell apart once the injuryreport started filling up. Still, the sketches of a championshipcontender are already on the canvas in New Orleans. Borrego justhas to bring out the best features. It should be a welcomed changefor a not-so-young-anymore roster looking to show they are seriousabout winning a championship. With structure, the team will have abetter ability to adapt on the fly. This hallmark of Borrego'scoaching style is also reminiscent of Ross turning mistakes intoopportunities on his canvas.

While Ross often started his paintings with a simple sky andlandscape, he gradually added layers of detail and complexity tocreate stunning compositions. Similarly, Borrego's offense isdesigned to be layered. It begins with basic actions but can evolveinto intricate plays with multiple options. Just as Ross patientlyadded trees, mountains, and rivers to his paintings, Borrego'steams gradually added complexity to their offense as the playersbecame more comfortable with the system.

Alvin Gentry was an abstract artist with not a lot of museumshowcase pieces, constructing a portfolio that was an interestingsmorgasbord of ill-fitting talents and philosophies. Sure, itsometimes produced good-looking, free-flowing hoops but not oftenwas the end product something worthy of the NBA Playoff platform.Stan Van Gundy tried to implement structure but just wound uperasing almost all of the goodwill between the locker room andfront office.

Willie Green has mended those fences, taped together thetapestry if you will, and has a team on the verge of a breakoutseason. They just need an offense that is a bit more unpredictablyefficient and some injury luck. Just get repetitions and a spot inthe playoffs, then see what happens. An accidental, out-of-nowherechampionship is still a banner raised. Some teams have to takesmaller steps to a title, but why not dream of a historicalbreakout season? Even eighth seeds have made runs to the NBAFinals.

It all starts with Ingram. He needs to step into a bigger No. 2role more than CJ McCollum, who would be perhaps the best fourthoption in the NBA should Murphy III make a jump. Borrego should beable to get Ingram into easier-to-read actions and the formerAll-Star's assists numbers should take a jump. The team said Ingramis expected to be more of a ball-in-hand offensive initiator thisseason. This draws attention away from Williamson, instead of thePoint Zion experiment that sometimes induces ball-watching.

That’s not to say Point Zion does not have artistic merits.Williamson is a great passer, draws the attention of all 20,000 inattendance, and can be a one-man wrecking ball when the rest of theoffense is just not working. It’s just that Williamson cannot bethe only attraction, dominating the canvas at the detriment of therest of the bigger picture. It puts too much pressure on internalrelationships and makes the team too predictable.

No worries. The Charlotte Hornets finished in the top-10 inthree-point attempts in three of four seasons under Borrego.Charlotte was a top-10 team in points (fourth), three-pointers made(fifth), three-pointers attempted (sixth) and three-pointpercentage (sixth) that season. They were 11th in field goalpercentage and snatched the ninth-most offensive rebounds.Charlotte led the NBA with 28.1 team assists per game and had the10th-fewest turnovers.

Work hard, keep moving to provide options, don’t get caughtlooking and fight for extra opportunities. Build greatness on theback of the basics, just like Bob Ross taught. Borrego’s cleardirections during training camp should have everyone on the samepage to start the regular season in a few weeks. They alsounderstand a few messy mistakes early will not have much of aneffect on how this season is eventually framed. It’s how they adaptto those moments that matter most.

New Orleans was near the bottom in offensive rating,assist-to-turnover ratio and true shooting percentage last season.Borrego had a rebuilding franchise’s mismatched roster eighth inoffensive rating, third in assist percentage, second inassist-to-turnover ratio, second in assist ratio and ninth-best inturnover percentage. Those Hornets played with the sixth-quickestpace, were third in shots at the rim, and second in cornerthree-pointers.

“For the first three-quarters of the game, I’m drawing stuff upbased on concepts that we already know. I’m just adding a littletweak here to maybe a few sets to disguise it," Borrego has explained. "I think that’s one of the things thatwe do as coaches. You’re just trying to disguise a concept. You’rerunning your sets, your flow, throughout a game. Your ATOs, you’vegot to try to come up with something a little bit trickier. But theconcepts are the same, you’re just trying to disguise it. The toughones, and they’re getting tougher now, are the fourthquarter/end-of-game situations because these timeouts are so quick.I don’t even have time to think. I’ve already got to know what playI have in mind.”

When things start shaping up where everyone can see the biggerpicture, the tougher moments start to become easier. Thatphilosophy and Borrego’s style will help hide the flaws andaccentuate the strengths of role players like Jose Alvarado, LarryNance Jr., Jones, Valanciunas, Dyson Daniels and Kira Lewis Jr.

Borrego was Green’s NBA coach just over a decade ago. Now, theroles are reversed but cultural expectations and goals are thesame. The Pelicans hope everything comes together in a way thatlooks like the Larry O’Brien trophy.

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