If you had asked Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego in September to check off his first-season priorities, you would have seen some obvious ones: More assists. More switching defense. Develop Malik Monk.
The talking point that wouldn’t have been so obvious: Do whatever possible to keep center Cody Zeller healthy.
The Hornets did something predictable Monday, beating the Orlando Magic 125-100. It was their 13th consecutive victory in this series. Unfortunately, something else familiar happened: A serious injury to Zeller, this time a broken right (shooting) hand.
Borrego said he anticipates Zeller missing several games. Zeller wasn’t the only starter hurt; shooting guard Jeremy Lamb suffered a strained right hamstring. But Zeller’s loss appears more serious, both in the nature of the injury and in Zeller’s hard-to-replace value on this roster.
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“You know how we have fared in the past when Cody has not been in uniform,” power forward Marvin Williams said. “I love Cody. I know this team loves him. We know how important he is to this team.”
To illustrate Williams’ point, since the beginning of the 2015-16 season the Hornets are 27-43 when Zeller doesn’t play. It was particularly ugly in his absence during the 2016-17 season, when the Hornets went 2-16.
Zeller isn’t brittle, but he sure does get injured a lot, and in a variety of ways. Last season it was primarily a left knee that required surgery. He missed most of December and January while recovering, then was shut down from mid-March on with continuing soreness in that joint.
Before that, it was a little of everything — quadriceps soreness, a concussion, right shoulder soreness and ankle strain. He’s broken his nose, as I recall, multiple times in his NBA career.
Borrego saw Zeller as so important to this season that he announced before a regular-season game was played that he intended to hold Zeller out of some practices to keep him fresh. There is no preventative medicine for a fractured hand, but that speaks to Zeller’s importance.
“Obviously, he’s a big part of what we’re doing,” Borrego said post-game. “It’s a big loss for us, but it’s an opportunity for someone else.”
I never doubted Zeller would be the starter at center once the Hornets traded Dwight Howard in July. That doesn’t mean they lack for alternatives. They have three other big guys with a wide range of skills in Willy Hernangomez, Frank Kaminsky and Bismack Biyombo.
After general manager Mitch Kupchak did another deal in July, swapping Timofey Mozgov to Orlando for Biyombo, Kupchak said he projected a center rotation that might evolve over the course of the season relative to matchups. Kaminsky is the best scorer, but often struggles defensively. Biyombo is the best rim-protector, but a limited scorer. Hernangomez is the compromise between those two on offense and defense.
And then there’s a fifth option Borrego has used more than I ever imagined in the preseason — the 6-9 Williams, who started his NBA career as a small forward, at center. The NBA has evolved in recent seasons to smaller, more skilled options at center. Borrego discussed the idea with Williams over the summer, then has implemented it at least for a few minutes most games.
Williams says he’s enjoyed those minutes as a center, and appreciates Borrego’s reasoning.
“When I’m at center, what it does is (force) other teams to downsize to match up. Now they have a guy playing center who doesn’t normally play center,” Williams said. “I do get reps at center all the time in practice.”
Borrego has been as experimental and improvisational as any coach in Hornets history. Over this season’s first 35 games, he has put 250 different five-man combinations on the floor. When I told Williams that number, he was shocked, but he sees the strategy.
“That’s just him knowing the NBA; he’s very smart when it comes to basketball. He understands other teams’ offenses and defenses, and he knows how to take advantage of those situations,” Williams said.
“Some coaches like to react. I think he’s more proactive in his approach.”
Find a new mix
Adapting to Zeller’s absence won’t be easy, but that doesn’t equate to a disaster, if only because of the numerous options and Borrego’s creativity. Along with the obvious big guys, he’s also played Williams and 6-7 Michael Kidd-Gilchrist some in the middle already.
“You never want to see a situation like this because Cody is really valuable to us on many levels,” Borrego said. “But Billy is more than capable, Frank has started before, and Biz has started before. We’re deep at that position.
“We have to figure it out, but it’s not like we have to call up a guy (not playing in the NBA) or anything like that. There are more than enough bodies to get it done.”