A night filled with Warriors dunks screamed it: Hornets must acquire another center

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Rick Bonnell
·3 min read
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There were many reasons the Charlotte Hornets lost to the Golden State Warriors. But P.J. Washington nailed the one that matters going forward.

“I think they had around 70 paint points,” Washington said following a 130-121 loss. “We just can’t allow that.”

Actually, the Warriors scored 72 points in the lane. That was the most the Hornets allowed this season; the previous opponent high was 64. On average, they allow 46.5.

Hornets coach James Borrego prioritized lane defense this season, so much so that it often leaves the Hornets exposed at the 3-point line. Charlotte packs defenders into the lane, but that made no difference Friday; there just weren’t enough bodies at center to do anything about the Warriors’ cutting and dunking.

Starting center Cody Zeller missed this game with a hip contusion, the 14th game he’s been unavailable this season. Borrego chose to start 6-foot-7 Washington at center, rather than move Bismack Biyombo, who’s 28, into the first unit.

Borrego said post-game that his ninth starting lineup of the season -- Cody Martin was added at forward -- was an effort to keep the normal second unit intact. I’m sure there’s truth to that. However, it was obvious by his actions that Borrego didn’t want veteran Biyombo out there.

Biyombo played 12 minutes and those minutes were all but empty: One point, one rebound and one block. He missed all three of his shots.

Not enough options at center

When Zeller can’t play, the Hornets don’t have a real Plan B. Borrego’s other center options are too small (Washington), too used-up (Biyombo) or too new (second-round rookie projects Vernon Carey and Nick Richards). There aren’t really schemes Borrego can employ at this point to hide that deficiency.

Some fans were frustrated that Borrego used so much zone defense earlier this season, because that conceded too many open 3s. Typically, basketball coaches turn to zones to hide weaknesses. Friday’s matchup with the Warriors put that weakness on prime display.

By the end of the first quarter the Warriors had nine dunks -- the most dunks the Hornets had allowed in a quarter in 20 years. Washington committed two fouls in the first five minutes, the last thing the Hornets could afford with Zeller out.

Borrego avoided pointing fingers post-game, saying, “We’ve got to do a better job in the paint on the defensive end,” and “Obviously, we missed Cody.”

What he didn’t say -- but what seemed obvious -- was he didn’t think Biyombo could help a situation as this team’s only available true center.

Will Mitch Kupchak use the tools available?

Biyombo, in his 10th NBA season, is doing his best. It made sense to re-sign him to be a mentor -- which he has done tremendously with rookie LaMelo Ball -- and to play spot minutes.

The Hornets need another experienced center in this hunt to reach the playoffs for the first time in five seasons. I don’t know who that is, but at least general manager Mitch Kupchak has tools to pursue that most front offices lack right now.

Kupchak has held open a roster spot all season and the Hornets are roughly $4 million below the $109 million salary cap. The only NBA team with more cap space is the New York Knicks.

So Kupchak has room to maneuver between now and the March 25 trade deadline, whether that be a deal or a signing. It would be tough to part with a Devonte Graham or a Malik Monk to facilitate a trade. But Friday made it all the more apparent how fragile the Hornets’ center position is.

Zeller gets hurt a lot. Biyombo is getting old. These things aren’t news.

Go address that while there’s still time this season to make a difference.