When key players get hurt, a team loses depth. When it loses depth, it sooner or later loses games.
The Charlotte Hornets’ chances against the Houston Rockets weren’t so good, regardless of who played Friday: The Hornets had lost 12 of the previous 13 to the Rockets, and with small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist playing only 14 minutes, the alternatives guarding James Harden were scarce.
The final score, though – Rockets 109, Hornets 93 – would have looked more respectable had something like the intended rotation been available. Beyond Kidd-Gilchrist’s limited minutes (he’s still getting back into shape following a 12-day absence following the death of his grandmother), the Hornets are missing Nic Batum, Cody Zeller and point guards Michael Carter-Williams and Julyan Stone.
That meant heavy minutes for rookies Dwayne Bacon and Malik Monk, who combined to shoot 3-of-15. Bacon had to guard Harden for long stretches, and that looked just unfair: Harden finished with a triple-double of 27 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds.
Monk, Bacon and power forward Frank Kaminsky had each played well in one or more games of late. Kaminsky is hitting a new level in his play, and the rookies look promising. But Friday illustrated how shaky this team is, at its current depth.
As Hornets coach Steve Clifford said, whenever he “broke the lineup” – as in pulled key starters – the game changed dramatically for the worse. That was primarily in the second and fourth quarters, when Houston outscored the Hornets by a combined 25 points.
When that happens, it becomes moot what Dwight Howard (19 points and 16 rebounds) and Kemba Walker (26 points, five assists and 4-of-6 from 3) did.
Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni limited his rotation Friday to eight players (really seven, because Tarik Black played only nine minutes). Houston can play that way, even without the injured Chris Paul, because Harden is so dynamic, and Eric Gordon (26 points) and Ryan Anderson (21) are nice complementary parts.
The Hornets, now 2-3, were robbed of their depth early when Batum tore a ligament in his left elbow in the preseason and Zeller suffered a knee bruise in the season-opener. We’ve never seen what the point guard depth really is, because Carter-Williams is yet to be cleared to play with sore knees, and it might be weeks before he’s back in game shape following such a long layoff.
I asked Clifford postgame if he thought the Hornets might need to sign a fill-in veteran point guard. He said he has faith in Monk playing part time at the point. I don’t disagree. However, Walker played 38 ½ minutes Friday, and dense as the schedule is (seven games in 14 days) that much usage could put him at risk for injury, too.
The Hornets are close enough to this season’s luxury tax threshold (approximately $119 million per team) that there’s nothing costly they could afford. So it sounds like they’ll just have to ride this out for a couple of weeks.
The good news? Jeremy Lamb (20 points Friday) has risen to the occasion as a starter, and Kidd-Gilchrist should be back closer to his normal minutes soon.
That helps. But until Zeller is back (soon, hopefully) and Batum, too (probably at least a month), we just won’t know what this team is game to game.