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Behind the ‘Grind’ of the N.B.A. Team With the Next Big Thing

The Charlotte Hornets are emerging from obscurity, thanks to the star power of the rookie LaMelo Ball and the shotmaking of Gordon Hayward. Here’s how they’re doing it.

The buzzer sounded, signaling a Charlotte Hornets loss to the Indiana Pacers. Charlotte wouldn’t have to wait long to try to exact revenge.

This N.B.A. season is unusual in many ways because of the coronavirus pandemic, and one of its main scheduling wrinkles is that teams are playing each other in consecutive games to reduce travel and potential virus exposure.

For the Hornets (12-13), a young, rebuilding team that has turned heads with its star rookie LaMelo Ball, the two-game stands have become a time for learning. Charlotte provided behind-the-scenes access to The New York Times for 48 hours to see how its coaching staff — a team within a team — prepared for recent back-to-back home games against the Pacers. There was practice (practice?), film sessions together and apart, family time and a little bit of trash talk.

“I allow my coaches — I trust them — to put together a good game plan,” Hornets Coach James Borrego said. “I take in that information, I digest it, and obviously I make the final decisions. But I trust them to help me make those decisions.”

Three of the assistant coaches — Jay Triano, Ronald Nored and Nick Friedman — focus on the team’s offense, while the other three — Chad Iske, Dutch Gaitley and Nate Mitchell — prioritize defense.

“A big, overall philosophy for me is a developmental approach with our players, that they help our players grow and develop,” Borrego said. “And I want to have a culture as a head coach that our coaches are developing as well. They’re not just static.”

Another assistant, Jay Hernandez, recently departed to coach the Greensboro Swarm in the G League’s bubble at Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla.

This season is the staff’s third as a group. Triano has head coaching experience, with the Toronto Raptors and the Phoenix Suns. Nored is young enough to have shared a backcourt with Charlotte’s marquee off-season acquisition, Gordon Hayward, when the pair played together at Butler.

“We blend well,” Nored said of the coaching staff. “We have a couple of 30-year-olds. Chad is in his 40s. Jay’s in his 60s, but he acts like he’s 25, so it all fits really well together.”

After losing to the Pacers on Jan. 27, the Hornets had less than 48 hours to prepare for a rematch.
Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

The coaches started filtering from the Spectrum Center following the loss to Indiana. Nored, 30, spoke to Hayward over the phone as the two drove home, dissecting the game. Indiana limited Hayward to just 16 points on 6-of-14 shooting in 40 minutes.

Getting home that night provided a short decompression window for most of the coaches before they dove back into work. Gaitley, 33, caught an episode of “The Real Housewives of Dallas” with his wife, Moraya. “Made sure that I was up on everything, so that whenever we have that conversation, she knows that I was listening,” he said.

At home, Nored tries to study film only after his 2-year-old daughter, Avery, is asleep. He caught up with his wife, Danielle, before plopping on his living room couch, close enough to attend to Avery or his month-old son, Kai, should they stir.

Indiana’s defense was Nored’s scout, meaning he was tasked with providing the rest of the coaching staff with a report on the Pacers’ defense so they could prep Charlotte’s offense. (Gaitley had to do the opposite.)

Nored watched the game again from his laptop. He jotted notes as he created the video edit that he would show the staff the next day, with clips no longer than three minutes highlighting key decisions and reads.

Jordan Surenkamp, Charlotte’s head video coordinator, wrapped up his evening at the arena. The video staff coded the game as it happened, breaking it into segments — for example, all of the team’s pick-and-rolls and how Indiana defended them.

When the game ended, Surenkamp reviewed the film, tightening the segments into digestible pieces before making them available to the coaches. The video staff also gathered film for the players, such as all their shots or assists, so that it would be available to them by the time they returned home. Surenkamp then moved on to his own duties, editing video and compiling statistical spreadsheets, then sending any noticeable trends to the coaching staff.

“It’s really the hub of my program, the video room,” Borrego said.

It’s also Borrego’s background. Long ago, he started his N.B.A. career in San Antonio’s film room under Coach Gregg Popovich. He sets high standards for Surenkamp, who tries to be the first into the arena and the last to leave.

“The expectation is there to be really, really good and prompt and available at what I do,” Surenkamp said. “But I think with that being said, he does understand that it’s a grind, it’s longer days, there’s a lot of responsibilities that I’m given.”

Courtesy Charlotte Hornets
Courtesy Charlotte Hornets

Surenkamp had already been at the arena for an hour by the time the assistant coaches returned and eased into their practice day. Friedman, 30, hopped on the treadmill while listening to the author Ben Greenfield’s fitness podcast. Nored had dropped Avery off at school en route to the Spectrum Center, then did some recreational reading before starting his day. Gaitley watched film on his next scout, the Miami Heat, whom the Hornets would play in four days. “You’re always working on one game ahead,” Triano, 62, said.

The defensive staff filed into a room for a coaches’ meeting, making small talk. George Rodman, Charlotte’s director of basketball analytics and strategy, opened by discussing the recent saga involving GameStop’s stock. “We’re talking about what happened the night before,” Gaitley said. “Who was talking trash or posted on Instagram? You’re joking about that, and keeping everybody up to date on everything that’s happening in the league and then you sort of organically jump into it.”

The group watched the video edit that Gaitley had compiled, discussing whether they adhered to their main principles of protecting the paint, grabbing defensive rebounds and contesting 3-point shots. Nored watched, looking for points to emphasize with Ball, one of his developmental priorities and an early leading candidate for the Rookie of the Year Award.

Pre-practice: The players who did not log many minutes in Wednesday’s game went through an extra workout session to maintain their cardio. Gaitley let the veteran Bismack Biyombo choose between playing pickup with the other players or working out individually.

While Biyombo chose to work out, Malik Monk and the twins Caleb and Cody Martin played three games of four-on-four with Gaitley and the assistant video coordinators. “When you’re playing with Gordon Hayward, you’re not going to get 25 shots,” Gaitley said. “But when you play against the video guys, that’s where you’re like: ‘All right, I’m going to get some shots. I’m going to get my game. Get into rhythm.’”

The moment afforded Gaitley a chance to connect with the players. He is the son of Stephanie Gaitley, the women’s basketball coach at Fordham University. As a child, he often accompanied her on recruiting visits. Occasionally, she handed him a binder that listed tidbits about the recruit and he’d quiz her on the drive about the name of the recruit’s boyfriend or favorite movie.

His mother’s attention to detail stayed with him.

“We don’t recruit at our level, but you are still showing the guys that you care every single day, because if you don’t build a personal relationship with them, then it’s going to be hard to coach them hard,” Gaitley said.

Practice: “You want to give them two or three things that they’re going to be able to remember and translate,” Triano said.

In previous stops, Triano would list the team’s principles on the whiteboard with an addendum stating that any player who read the board could come into his office to collect $50. Few ever did.

Homework: Some coaches stayed in the building throughout the afternoon, working with players and watching film on upcoming opponents. Others resumed their personal lives, like picking up their children from school. Still, they would often text one another through the night.

“I think it happens a lot in our culture where it’s just, ‘I’m going to spend every waking moment thinking about basketball and watching every drop of film,’ ” Nored said. “And I could do that, but my daughter would be missing out on time with her dad, my wife would be missing out on time with her husband. And so they’re my priorities as well. And so I try to be efficient in everything that I do.”

Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

The defensive scout meeting was shorter than the previous day’s, a reinforcement of the principles heading into the rematch. “It’s the battle of the adjustments to a degree and what can win out,” said Iske, 44. “Can you prepare for their adjustments, and on the other side of it, what they might do ahead of time? I think it’s always a good chess match to a degree, and exciting because it reminds you of the playoffs.”

Afterward, the offensive coaches’ meeting included a 20-clip edit of how Indiana would most likely guard Charlotte on key plays, from screen-and-rolls to pin downs and dribble handoffs.

To limit potential exposure to the virus, the Hornets bypass traditional team morning shootarounds in favor of individual sessions with coaches, called vitamins. “A big thing for us is our player development,” Triano said. “How are we going to get these guys better?”

Mitchell, 34, started his day working with Hayward on his ball-handling and finishing at the rim. Later, he would also work with Biyombo, P.J. Washington and Devonte’ Graham. The goal was for Hayward not to settle for midrange shots when there was a path to the basket.

Mitchell hopes Hayward’s free-throw attempts will soon rival his career high of 6.1 during the 2014-15 season. He’s averaging 4.8 per game this season.

“It’s almost to the point now where he’s pointing out the opportunities more than it is me,” Mitchell said.

The coaches filled the middle of the game day as they saw fit. Iske played a shooting game with Surenkamp before finishing his scout of the Milwaukee Bucks, Charlotte’s opponent the following evening. Some, like Triano and Mitchell, took a brief nap, after having watched film late the previous night.

Friedman squeezed in another workout before preparing for his next scout. “It’s hard for me to nap on game days,” he said. “I just like to cram some work in. It’s basketball at the end of the day, so you’re not really overworking yourself.”

Walk-through: The players and coaches gathered on the practice court for a walk-through of the night’s matchup. The session included an offensive breakdown, defensive scout and a review of plays. Then the assistants worked on the court with players, pulling some aside to watch quick video clips.

Friedman played a short montage for guard Terry Rozier of his first start of the 2017-18 season, when he was with Boston. It was a triple-double effort against the Knicks. “It’s more for helping him envision the best version of himself right before we play,” Friedman said.

The Hornets won the rematch, 108-105. “We made more plays down the stretch than we did the night before,” Borrego said, adding: “And I love this setup. I love playing two games against the same team in such a short period. This is a great way to teach.”

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