The Rise of James Borrego

The San Antonio Spurs vaunted organization is finally starting to bear fruits elsewhere. Gregg Popovich has cultivated a culture of winning, and the spin off supporting characters are finding themselves in major roles elsewhere.

Orlando Magic Head Coach James Borrego fits the bill.  Like Miami Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra, Borrego is a film student.  He spent his time with the Spurs dissecting video, something that Pop himself finds to be a bit of a task, simply saying “I can’t believe he did it that long.”

But in those reels of tape, or digital files, lie the intricacies of the game.  Borrego was responsible for being able to quickly provide in-game situations of the lessons that Pop tries to instill in his team.  The fluidity of the Spurs offense as well as the suffocating defense are in part products of a diligent film team able to provide Popovich (or any other head coach) with just the clip he needs, at just the right time.

Pop joked that it took over a year to get Borrego’s full name down, an obvious jab at the quiet nature of Borrego.  He added that he “didn’t speak much,” but further elaborated saying he doesn’t just talk for the sake of hearing his voice, nor does he lace his speaking with “B.S.” (Gotta love Pop).

That no-nonsense attitude of Borrego has shown in his dealings with both media and players alike.  His responses to questions rarely seem canned, and there is little dispute that Borrego knows the game.  The problem is that he’s faced with an unenviable prospect of trying to take over a struggling team mid-season.  By and large, he’s done a decent job.

“He knows what it takes to win”

– Gregg Popovich

Pop cited Borrego’s great work ethic and said he “know(s) what it takes to win.”  So why are the Magic continuing to struggle so badly?  The team just dropped four of its five games in a home stand featuring a victory over the Portland Trail Blazers; before succumbing to Denver, Atlanta, San Antonio, and even the Detroit Pistons.  Essentially, the Magic are failing to defend its homecourt.  In the contest against the Spurs, black and white checkered the audience to applaud the Spurs’ rout of the Magic.  Maybe it made Borrego wish he had remained in the film room, but that’s pushing it.

James Borrego has inherited an awful mess left behind by "coach" Jacque Vaughn.
James Borrego has inherited an awful mess left behind by “coach” Jacque Vaughn (unknown source)

Pop said the film room is a “pretty special position on most teams,” and it stands to reason that if Borrego is given another gig with another franchise that it may run far smoother.  He’s certainly welcome to return to the film room in San Antonio, Pop joking that his “number is on speed dial… he basically made us smarter.”

That’s high praise from one of the best coaches in NBA history, so a ringing endorsement from Pop should speak volumes in and of itself.  When asked if he thought Borrego would be the long-term answer in Orlando, Pop diplomatically commented that he isn’t going to get involved with the Magic’s plans, just saying “We hope things go well for JB, and whatever comes of it, comes.”

Perhaps that may be the best Borrego can hope for at this point.  Pleasing both management and fans seems unlikely given that the Magic have not really improved with “JB” at the helm.  He cited aspects he is trying to inculcate to his team in the same manner as he did in San Antonio:  ball movement, team play and good knowledge of one’s teammates.

“Pop has gotten the Spurs to the place they are today,” Borrego resigned himself—quite unsure if he’ll ever be given that kind of opportunity.  To be sure, this is not it.  The expectations of the team are all but shot in a season now devoid of any real meaning.

But the underlying story behind this struggling team is a good coach doing his best with the X’s and O’s until the team finds some needed help this summer and gets a full camp under its belt.  As to whether Borrego will be a part of next season in any way, it seems pretty unlikely.  But Borrego seemed almost wistful when he said the Spurs “(helped) build a great foundation and there’s nobody in the NBA that watches more film than video coordinators.”  There’s no doubting the basketball IQ is there with Borrego, but is the leadership?

That’s a much tougher question to address, all the more so since the Magic are entirely out of the playoffs mathematically and at this point involved heavily in the tank-a-thon (to what end?)  Just scanning the cheers for the Spurs in the Amway, it had to leave Borrego wondering if he may have been best off just staying put.

This isn’t the golden egg of opportunity that most feel is afforded to a head coach.  It’s an interim position, with minimal chance of turning into a full-time job.  And maybe it’s best that way, even for “JB.”