Charlotte Hornets

Are Charlotte Hornets in ‘play-the-kids’ mode or was Thursday a mirage?

Charlotte Hornets coach on lineup change

Hornets coach James Borrego on lineup changes
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Hornets coach James Borrego on lineup changes

The way Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego described his latest lineup, that was a test drive, not a course correction.

“I’m taking it in one-game segments,” Borrego said of the significant changes in a 113-106 home victory Thursday over the Minnesota Timberwolves. “Right now, I like that unit and I wanted to take a look at it.”

Borrego has tinkered with his rotation all season, but this was no tweak. Nic Batum, who had started every previous game he played this season -- 69 -- went to the second unit. Second-year pro Dwayne Bacon replaced Batum as a starter. And that wasn’t the only significant shift.

Shooting guard Malik Monk and Willy Hernangomez, who had hardly played of late, had major roles. Veteran point guard Tony Parker never played.

Now, Parker not playing a given game at age 36 is no surprise. But if his minutes start going on a regular basis to rookie Devonte Graham, there is no other conclusion you can draw but the Hornets acknowledging they are realistically out of the playoff chase.

I thought that’s what Thursday’s lineup was, but Borrego said otherwise post-game.

“We’ll still strive every single night to get wins,” he said.

Do the Hornets have one foot in the “evaluate the young guys” pool and the other foot in the “still chasing the eighth seed” pool? Sure looked like if you start Bacon over Batum and play Graham over Parker and find about 20 minutes each for Monk and Hernangomez, you’ve started a course change.

Maybe this is Borrego practicing diplomacy, looking not to lose the focus of veterans Batum, Marvin Williams and Bismack Biyombo. However, all three of those guys have been around the NBA long enough to see where this is headed.

Lab time

The last dozen games of this season should resemble a laboratory as much as a competition. Gather whatever data you can on Bacon, Monk (who made four of his seven 3-pointers Thursday), Graham and Hernangomez. Because if the Hornets are in a rebuild next season, this franchise has to get a fix on who is worth developing and who might be better used as trade bait.

I’m not saying treat the rest of the season like summer league; play Kemba Walker enough to let him chase All-NBA, but not so much it feels like a burden. Let some veterans, particularly Jeremy Lamb, play key fourth-quarter minutes of close games.

But salvage something beyond a mathematical chance of catching the Miami Heat and Orlando Magic. Reaching the playoffs was an appropriate goal, but it’s time to reassess what is reachable in the season’s final three weeks.

Protect bodies

I hope they don’t have center Cody Zeller or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist play any more this season. Kidd-Gilchirst is in the concussion protocol -- his third concussion in seven NBA seasons -- and Zeller missed his fifth consecutive game with soreness and swelling in his left knee.

Zeller and Kidd-Gilchrist combine to make more than $27 million against next season’s payroll. Zeller is clearly this team’s best option at center when healthy. Kidd-Gilchrist might not be as central to Borrego’s future plans, but he is still one of the team’s best defenders.

Let those two heal. Let the kids play. Let’s get this over and move on to the draft.

Rick Bonnell is a sportswriter/columnist for the Charlotte Observer. He has been in Charlotte since 1988, when the NBA arrived, and has covered the Hornets continuously. A former president of the Pro Basketball Writers Association, Bonnell also writes occasionally on the NFL and college sports.
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