Here are all the Charlotte Hornets who have played center already in a 3-4 season start:
Cody Zeller, Willy Hernangomez, Marvin Williams, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Nic Batum, Frank Kaminsky and Bismack Biyombo.
Here are the Hornets who have excelled so far at center:
Um, uh ...
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Yeah, none. The reason there has already been so much experimentation at that position is no two centers have played so well as to lay claim to the minutes. Zeller has been the starter, and should be, but neither he nor any of the other candidates has wowed. I don’t see that changing any time soon.
Coach James Borrego said after practice on Monday that he can live with that.
“We’re still searching (but) I like the dilemma I have,” Borrego said when I asked him about the shifts in center minutes. ”These are some good centers, and we’re not even playing one of them (Kaminsky).
“For some of the guys it can be frustrating at times, but we’re looking for the right combination.”
At first, it was Zeller backed up by Hernangomez. Briefly, it was going small with forwards Williams, Kidd-Gilchrist or Batum matched against the biggest opposing player. Then, Biyombo, who hardly played at all in the preseason, got significant minutes in the victory over the Chicago Bulls and the next night was matched defensively against Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid.
That was quite a flip: Biyombo — who will make $17 million this season — went from designated inactive Oct. 24 in Chicago to 18 1/2 minutes in Philadelphia three nights later. Meanwhile, Hernangomez, who looked so promising initially, didn’t play at all versus the 76ers.
Ideally, Borrego would prefer a firm rotation at each position to the mix-and-match he’s now using at center. But he accepts that his strength at center is in depth and variety of skill, not star power. So he won’t fight that for now, entering the first of four consecutive home games Tuesday against the Miami Heat and center Hassan Whiteside, who grew up in Gastonia.
“Each guy brings us something different. Biz helped us the other night against Embiid. Billy (Hernangomez) had a great preseason and early season. Cody provides us something different from those other two guys.”
Ultimately, this is about figuring out to replace Dwight Howard without the downside of Howard’s presence. The Hornets dealt Howard to the Brooklyn Nets because he was likely to impede the crisp ball-movement Borrego wanted and — to use general manager Mitch Kupchak’s description in July — to address the likelihood Howard’s minutes would have been reduced significantly had he remained a Hornet.
Kupchak accepted back a bad contract in Timofey Mozgov, then traded Mozgov to the Orlando Magic for a similar contract in Biyombo, who hardly ever played in the preseason.
Biyombo, who started his NBA career in Charlotte before moving on to Toronto and Orlando, is a gentleman. However, I have no doubt he was frustrated by the preseason and the outset of the regular season, when he was essentially a barnacle on the Hornets’ roster.
So I asked Biyombo Monday if he wondered if he’d ever get a chance to play this season.
“There’s no wondering. It’s a new coach, you’ve got to understand him,” Biyombo said of adjusting to Borrego’s preferences.
“No, I’m not (wondering about his minutes) because in the end he’s the coach. He’s the coach and I’m a player. I cannot do the coach’s job, and neither can the coach do my job. I have to let the coach do his job and I have to trust that he’s going to make the right decision for the team.”
That “right decision for the team” might not come quickly. I always thought, going into training camp, that once Borrego decided on a starter at shooting guard, the toughest roster-management question he’d face was drawing the line between who does and doesn’t play at center.
Zeller is the most talented of the bunch, but as his statistics this season reflect (9.4 points, six rebounds and 22 minutes per game), he is far from a dominant center by NBA starter standards. Biyombo is a defensive presence with little offense. Kaminsky can score, but struggles defensively. Hernangomez is in the middle of that scale.
Then, there’s the option of going small, which Borrego has explored with 6-9 Williams and 6-7 Kidd-Gilchrist.
“I trust all those guys to play for us,” Borrego said.
If this sounds like a jumble, it is. Can Borrego accept that as his center reality?
“I’m comfortable going in that direction. If we need to go game-by-game with the matchup, I’m OK with that,” Borrego said.
“I would like to get a more consistent rotation, though.”
Of course he would. But based on the sample so far, don’t count on it.