If the Charlotte Hornets’ roster ever gets back to whole this season, then what?
That was the prevailing topic of interest when I asked fans for questions via Twitter: How would/should coach James Borrego reassemble this rotation once Gordon Hayward, LaMelo Ball and Malik Monk have all recovered from injury?
Coach James Borrego says he doesn’t know whether all three of those guys will be fully healthy by the end of the regular season or even in a possible play-in/playoff appearance. But my best guess as to what would happen leads this mailbag column.
(Questions may be mildly edited for clarity and brevity):
J.K. asks: Who would you have in the Hornets lineup when everyone is healthy?
Keep in mind, there will be a period for each of these guys when he is available to play, but not yet ready for major minutes and contribution. But here’s what I anticipate if everyone on the roster is healthy enough for heavy minutes:
That means Graham would be the backup point guard, playing with Monk. While Washington would start at center, I think his minutes would be pretty evenly divided between center and power forward once the Hornets are back to a full active roster. I also think Cody Martin would play a lot off the bench because he’s Charlotte’s best perimeter defender and that matters more in playoff games when easy transition baskets dwindle.
Colby asks: What will the starting lineup be when LaMelo Ball gets back? A 3-guard lineup?
This question dovetails the prior one, but it’s valuable to discuss the 3-guard lineup: Borrego has been pleasantly surprised how well a 3-guard combination (usually Ball and Rozier with either Graham or Monk) has performed. This makes the Hornets smaller and a bit shaky defensively, but having so many playmakers/scorers on the floor creates predicaments for the opposing team.
So I do think you would see that. But probably not as a starting group when Hayward is available at small forward.
Cheese asks: What are the odds of the Hornets missing the play-in (by finishing 11th or worse in the standings)?
Low — maybe 20%. Remember that the Hornets already hold tiebreakers over the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers and Washington Wizards — three teams surrounding them in the standings.
I think it’s unlikely the Hornets finish sixth or better in the East, avoiding the play-in. But I also think it’s unlikely they flounder so much, with eight of their remaining 12 games at Spectrum Center, that they fall out of the play-in draw.
Will asks: Where do you see Hayward fitting in long-term, with the younger players gaining confidence and improvement?
I think how the Hornets have played since Hayward suffered that foot sprain April 2 reinforces how badly they need him.
No one on this team comes close to his effectiveness at small forward. When healthy, he has provided exactly what they hoped he would — scoring, play-making and veteran decision-making.
Miles Bridges can play small forward, but if he’s playing primarily that position, rather than power forward, he’s not in an optimal position to succeed. Jalen McDaniels and the Martin twins are NBA players, but I don’t see any of those three replacing what Hayward does.
It’s reasonable to question whether the last two seasons of Hayward’s four-year, $120 million contract will look cost-effective. But the month of April has only confirmed how much this team needs a player of Hayward’s skill set at small forward, and that will be true in the future as well.
ewhornets92 asks: Has Graham’s value diminished in recent weeks? Is there a further impression that Monk’s scoring/creativity is more valuable to this team than Graham’s?
I don’t think Graham’s recent performances changes much either way. As I have written before, I think this team will be built going forward around Ball. So the question for general manager Mitch Kupchak might become, “Is Graham’s value as Ball’s backup greater or lesser than Monk’s as a backup shooting guard?”
That is a close call. Also, it could come down to how much other teams value Graham and Monk, as far as signing one or the other to an offer sheet. Which leads to the next question…
Preston asks: What’s the current decision calculus on whether to extend Monk a qualifying offer and take him into restricted free-agency?
I’d be very surprised if the Hornets don’t make qualifying offers to both Monk and Graham to restrict their free-agency. The risk-reward balance heavily favors the team unless a player has been a huge disappointment relative to where he has been drafted.
The qualifying offer gives teams choices: Whether or not to match an offer sheet if one is extended. Also, it’s not something so irretrievable that it would significantly hinder Kupchak from exploring other ways to improve the roster.
Offendedhooper asks: Is Cody Zeller’s time in Charlotte up?
I don’t think anything is that final now, regarding whether Zeller is still a Hornet beyond his current contract expiring after this season. However, I sure understand why you would ask.
If veteran center Zeller is back in Charlotte, it would be in a limited role at a salary dramatically lower than his current $15.4 million. I would guess contenders would be interested if they could get him affordably for limited minutes. So I’d guess the odds are 50-50 or lower that Zeller is back in Charlotte.
Sportsfan asks: So, it looks like the Vernon Carey experiment may be over?
It’s on hold probably for the rest of this season with a playoff chase going on. The coaches will spend the summer working with Carey, and I’d think he’ll get the chance to compete for a starting spot next season. But Borrego was clear before Friday’s victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers that he’s leaning toward experience in close playing-time decisions.