After being thrust into coaching the Orlando Magic midseason, James Borrego took his team and slowly got it to turn the corner. While their 10-20 record may not fully paint the picture, Borrego's Magic looked the part of a team poised to make a leap forward.
In 20 of his 30 games as head coach, the Magic held a lead at one point or another in the fourth quarter. While they struggled closing out many of those games, they showed a tenacity and a level of play that they missed with Jacque Vaughn at the helm in the first half of the season. Add in injuries to the Magic's most important bench member, Evan Fournier, with whom the team held a 5-4 record under Borrego, and little injuries holding a plethora of players out for games here and there, and you can see part of the reason the Magic's record may not have improved as much as it could have.
When the team met for its annual exit interviews on Thursday, Borrego talked at length about how he was proud of what the team was able to accomplish. "I’m proud of what we’ve done in 30 games, under these circumstances," said the 37-year-old interim coach. "I think we’ve made some major strides in the short amount of [time], [with] limited practice, limited time, I think we’ve changed this thing."
The first-time coach went on to talk about how having a full staff, offseason, and training camp would be extremely beneficial and that he could accomplish even more. "With a full staff, a full summer, a full training camp, I think we could see an even deeper growth, and I’d love an opportunity to have that... There’s things I’d love to build on, and change to move the group forward, and I believe I can do that."
Borrego went on to talk about how the team needs to improve both individually, and as a team. "The biggest thing we can do better individually is work on our skills, get into the gym and really use this summer as a stepping stone," he said. "But, we also have to get better as a group.
"As a group, we have to spend time together to bond; the chemistry has to grow. So, it’s a two-fold thing. The guys are on board, they’re great workers. The one thing I’ll say is the men that we have in the locker room will work, they are coachable, and this summer is a huge part for them."
While most of what Borrego was asked had to do with the season, how players could improve and the long-term future of the team, he was also grilled with questions regarding the coaching search that is soon to commence for the team. The interim man said he had yet to meet with general manager Rob Hennigan, but that their previous talks have been "honest and straightforward."
The former San Antonio Spurs assistant said that, as far as he knew, he would get a fair chance to interview for the head-coaching vacancy and that should he be chosen, has a "very clear" view of the direction he would like to take the team.
He also touched on the importance of building and holding relationships in the NBA, which is one thing he has with the current group after being with it for three years. "I think relationships in this league sustain organizations," said Borrego. "I have three years of relationships with these men. There’s no other coach in this league that we could bring in that could replicate that, and we’re going to build on that. We’re going to keep building from where we’re at today.
"We don’t have to learn each other; they know who I am, I know who they are. We build on that, we grow, we collectively get better, including myself as a coach. I think that is a strength of mine. I love relationships, that’s who I am, and that’s what we’ll build this program on, and we won’t shy away from that. This organization has a clearer picture of who I am. Our players know who I am, I know who they are. We can only grow from that and we will, and that will be our foundation."
Hennigan was very complimentary of Borrego, saying he thought the interim man did a "admirable" job. "He came in under some trying circumstances, he brought his own voice, one our players responded to, they respected [it]. It was not an easy situation for JB for many different reasons, but I thought he came in and steadied the ship in a lot of ways, I think we regained a lot of that competitive spirit we were talking about earlier in the season, and did a stand-up job for us."
While the 30-game audition Borrego had may not be enough to get him the head coaching job in the long-term, it will undoubtedly lead to him getting another opportunity at some point or another. He's a coach who put his work in and has earned the respect of his players and peers with intelligence and professionalism.
Even though his tenure with the Magic is likely over, Borrego played a big role in their late-season improvement, which could carry over into next season, should they improve as much as they have the potential to.