July 27, 2021

Gordon Hayward and LaMelo Ball will eat Charlotte Hornets minutes; who loses them?

Not everyone on an NBA roster plays. Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego suddenly has better options.

Adding free agent Gordon Hayward and No. 3 draft pick LaMelo Ball will carve into other Hornets’ minutes. Forward Miles Bridges could lose his starting spot to Hayward. Point guard Ball will chip into minutes for Terry Rozier and Devonte Graham.

Borrego has said a coach must have the power to decide playing time on merit, without concern with contracts or salary. He coached that way last season, limiting roles for expensive veterans Nic Batum and Marvin Williams, while investing heavy minutes in first- and second-year players.

However, Borrego was part of decisions to agree to terms with Hayward (4 years and $120 million) and draft Ball. He is vested in making those major personnel decisions pay off.

Typically, an NBA rotation is eight players, nine at most. Dividing 240 minutes per game among more than nine guys doesn’t work, as far as establishing roles and rhythm.

With that in mind, here’s a tiered projection of how Hornets playing time might go this season:

(The following analysis was written prior to the Hornets resolving how they will acquire Hayward; whether it’s a signing or a sign-and-trade. A trade could move players off Charlotte’s roster)

Must play
(Imperative these guys have significant roles)

1. Gordon Hayward: Beyond the obvious financial commitment, Hayward is the closest thing the Hornets have had to an established star since Kemba Walker left for the Boston Celtics before last season. Hayward should be Charlotte’s top offensive player next season, not just as a scorer but as a secondary ballhandler. His primary position is small forward, but he demonstrated an ability in Boston to match up with power forwards. It’s a given Hayward averages at least 30 minutes.

2. LaMelo Ball: He won’t automatically start. However, finding ways to fast-track Ball’s development — he is the highest Hornets draft pick since 2012 — has to be a priority. Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak noted on draft night that Ball doesn’t have to only play the point. At 6-7, he could also get minutes at shooting guard and small forward.

3. P.J. Washington: He was so good in his first NBA preseason that Borrego started him in the season-opener. Washington’s natural NBA position is power forward, but Borrego has experimented with him as a small-ball center. It wouldn’t be a shock if a quarter to a third of Washington’s minutes this season were at center.

4. Devonte Graham: He went from a third-string point guard (and often in the G-League) as a rookie to the Hornets’ leading scorer last season. Graham is a keeper, and among the NBA’s better 3-point shooters. With Ball on the roster, Graham might play more off the ball this season.

Will play
(Hard to picture them not in the rotation)

1. Miles Bridges: Bridges started last season at small forward, but he’s best suited to be a small-ball power forward. Seems a strong possibility he’d come off the bench and playing equivalent minutes at each forward spot.

2. Terry Rozier: He was Charlotte’s key acquisition of the 2019 offseason (3-year contract, nearly $57 million), initially intended to be Walker’s replacement. As Graham ascended, he played as much shooting guard as point guard. If/when Ball moves into the starting lineup, Rozier could move to the second unit.

3. Malik Monk: Last season, Kupchak called Monk this team’s most talented player. Monk had a breakthrough month in February, right before a drug suspension ended his season. He’ll be a free agent (presumably restricted) at the end of this season. Gauging whether he is worth retaining long-term is important going into next summer.

4. Cody Zeller: He is the best true center on this team. He doesn’t care whether he starts or comes off the bench. But on a team so lacking for experience at center, he is going to play in the final season of his contract.

Might play
(On the fringe of a nine-player rotation.)

1. Cody Martin: He played the 8th-most minutes last season as a second-round rookie by being a versatile defender and secondary ballhandler. But at 6-5, he is roughly the same size as Ball and Hayward, both of whom are more skilled. It could take an injury or two at the wings for Martin to be in the rotation.

2. Bismack Biyombo: Veteran Biyombo’s value on a one-year contract might be more as a mentor to the young players than as a center who plays regularly. His role might expand if Zeller’s expiring contract is dealt by the trade deadline.

Won’t play unless…
(Something — an injury, a trade, a Dwayne Bacon-like demotion — would likely have to happen for these guys to join the rotation.)

1. Caleb Martin: His situation is just like twin brother Cody’s: Borrego now has so many more players of similar size and greater skill.

2. Jalen McDaniels: Called up from Greensboro late last season, he shot surprisingly well (38% from 3-point range). He’s been told it’s imperative he gain bulk and strength.

3. Vernon Carey, Jr.: The Hornets desperately need to improve defensive rebounding. But it’s hard to picture Borrego immediately devoting rotation minutes to a second-round rookie center.

4. Nick Richards: There might be no G-League season, which would be a shame for Richards, a big athlete who started late in basketball and needs offensive refinement. He is a classic developmental project.

5. Grant Riller: College of Charleston guard Riller was the 56th of 60 picks. The Hornets have a crowd of guards. He is a ways from being even the emergency third point guard.

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