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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 names with the Ninja Turtles had apprentices they held in high regard. Willie Green, now going into his third season as one of the NBA’s youngest head coaches, has been shaping a vision with the New Orleans Pelicans but there was an obvious need for a reshaping of the assistant coaching staff this summer. The franchise’s scaffolding was in place, but the young coach was working with old hands from previous artists; he needed to bring in a trusted apprentice.

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

 One of Bob Ross' most famous sayings is, "We don't make mistakes, just happy little accidents." He encouraged artists to embrace unexpected turns and use them to their advantage. Like Ross cashing in on “happy accidents,” the Pelicans are betting on Borrego's schemes to raise their long-term offensive ceiling this season, and the missteps along the way are just learned experiences to be blended into the mosaic.

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

Ross, with his trademark permed hair, paint brushes and soothing voice, 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 of fundamentals. He emphasizes ball movement, spacing and player movement to create scoring opportunities. Just as Ross began his paintings with a few basic elements, Borrego starts his offense with simple, well-executed plays.

Last season’s formula was too simple. And basics? The Pelicans had problems just inbounding the ball in critical situations and often would not begin an action until there were under 10 seconds left on the shot clock. Then, it was predictable: Brandon Ingram methodical in the midrange. Zion Williamson rumbles to the rim off of actions with very little space or off-ball movement. CJ McCollum was mostly stationary and waiting on the perimeter when not having to bail out a short-handed team late in the shot clock. Jonas Valanciunas was frustrated with his role, while Herb Jones was still growing into his on offense.

Trey Murphy III continued developing but everything was a reset of the same few actions, and it all fell apart once the injury report started filling up. Still, the sketches of a championship contender are already on the canvas in New Orleans. Borrego just has to bring out the best features. It should be a welcomed change for a not-so-young-anymore roster looking to show they are serious about winning a championship. With structure, the team will have a better ability to adapt on the fly. This hallmark of Borrego's coaching style is also reminiscent of Ross turning mistakes into opportunities on his canvas.

While Ross often started his paintings with a simple sky and landscape, he gradually added layers of detail and complexity to create stunning compositions. Similarly, Borrego's offense is designed to be layered. It begins with basic actions but can evolve into intricate plays with multiple options. Just as Ross patiently added trees, mountains, and rivers to his paintings, Borrego's teams gradually added complexity to their offense as the players became more comfortable with the system.

Alvin Gentry was an abstract artist with not a lot of museum showcase pieces, constructing a portfolio that was an interesting smorgasbord of ill-fitting talents and philosophies. Sure, it sometimes produced good-looking, free-flowing hoops but not often was the end product something worthy of the NBA Playoff platform. Stan Van Gundy tried to implement structure but just wound up erasing almost all of the goodwill between the locker room and front office.

Willie Green has mended those fences, taped together the tapestry if you will, and has a team on the verge of a breakout season. They just need an offense that is a bit more unpredictably efficient and some injury luck. Just get repetitions and a spot in the playoffs, then see what happens. An accidental, out-of-nowhere championship is still a banner raised. Some teams have to take smaller steps to a title, but why not dream of a historical breakout season? Even eighth seeds have made runs to the NBA Finals.

It all starts with Ingram. He needs to step into a bigger No. 2 role more than CJ McCollum, who would be perhaps the best fourth option in the NBA should Murphy III make a jump. Borrego should be able to get Ingram into easier-to-read actions and the former All-Star's assists numbers should take a jump. The team said Ingram is expected to be more of a ball-in-hand offensive initiator this season. This draws attention away from Williamson, instead of the Point 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 in attendance, and can be a one-man wrecking ball when the rest of the offense is just not working. It’s just that Williamson cannot be the only attraction, dominating the canvas at the detriment of the rest of the bigger picture. It puts too much pressure on internal relationships and makes the team too predictable.

No worries. The Charlotte Hornets finished in the top-10 in three-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-point percentage (sixth) that season. They were 11th in field goal percentage and snatched the ninth-most offensive rebounds. Charlotte led the NBA with 28.1 team assists per game and had the 10th-fewest turnovers.

Work hard, keep moving to provide options, don’t get caught looking and fight for extra opportunities. Build greatness on the back of the basics, just like Bob Ross taught. Borrego’s clear directions during training camp should have everyone on the same page to start the regular season in a few weeks. They also understand a few messy mistakes early will not have much of an effect on how this season is eventually framed. It’s how they adapt to 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 in offensive rating, third in assist percentage, second in assist-to-turnover ratio, second in assist ratio and ninth-best in turnover percentage. Those Hornets played with the sixth-quickest pace, were third in shots at the rim, and second in corner three-pointers.

“For the first three-quarters of the game, I’m drawing stuff up based on concepts that we already know. I’m just adding a little tweak here to maybe a few sets to disguise it," Borrego has explained. "I think that’s one of the things that we do as coaches. You’re just trying to disguise a concept. You’re running your sets, your flow, throughout a game. Your ATOs, you’ve got to try to come up with something a little bit trickier. But the concepts are the same, you’re just trying to disguise it. The tough ones, and they’re getting tougher now, are the fourth quarter/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 play I have in mind.”

When things start shaping up where everyone can see the bigger picture, the tougher moments start to become easier. That philosophy and Borrego’s style will help hide the flaws and accentuate the strengths of role players like Jose Alvarado, Larry Nance Jr., Jones, Valanciunas, Dyson Daniels and Kira Lewis Jr.

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

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