The Charlotte Hornets are re-grouping Friday, less than 24 hours after learning Nicolas Batum will miss at least six weeks after tearing a ligament in his left elbow. The initial figure seems low, particularly next to reports indicating it to be 8-12 weeks or even the season. The disparity, of course, is in the details. Batum can opt for rest and rehab, or can go ahead with surgery. The former keeps him out until December or January, the latter for the season. Batum appears to have opted for R&R, but if six weeks pass and the elbow isn’t responding, surgery could be back on the table.
The news is disappointing, frustrating, and if we’re being honest, just this team’s luck. Nothing seems to come easy with the Hornets. Two seasons ago, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist tore the labrum in his shoulder in preseason, returned midway to play seven games, and then tore it again. The Hornets still made the playoffs, but there remain what if’s over the team’s playoff run and what it did for MKG’s development. Last season, the team fell apart largely due to a thin bench made even thinner thanks to an injury to Cody Zeller. The team was unable to fill his absence, going 3-17 without him.
So a question with Batum is whether the Hornets can weather his absence, however long it ends up being. They have depth on the wing, but players are going to be asked to play bigger rolls than they expected.
It’s pretty much a given that Jeremy Lamb will start. He started five games for Batum last season, and Clifford has indicated he will be the guy again. It’s fitting in a way -- after all the talk of Lamb’s strong offseason, he will get an even bigger opportunity to cash in on his hard work. He has been the team’s most consistent player two preseason games in, so take that for what it’s worth.
However, even if Lamb proves reliable he can’t replicate Batum’s playmaking. That can’t be emphasized enough. When we talk about irreplaceable skills, there’s no one else on the roster that can do what Batum does. That above everything else is what makes this injury so potentially damning. We saw it last season with Zeller — no one on the roster could replace what he brought as a screener, rim runner, and interior defender. In the same vein, no one among this group can create offensive opportunities like Batum.
His absence will change the entire framework of the offense. All the sets meant to be started by Batum will have to start with someone else. Those touches Batum promised Dwight Howard? They’ll have to come from someone else. In all likelihood, we’re going to see a different kind of offense while Batum recovers.
The domino effect of Lamb moving to the starting lineup means an opportunity for Dwayne Bacon and Treveon Graham. Two preseason games in, Bacon appears ahead of Graham in the rotation. He played well during crunch time in the win over Detroit, and his size actually gives the Hornets some versatility. Depending on the lineup, he could play both forward positions or even a bit of shooting guard. Graham, meanwhile, is a bit more of a known commodity. 3-point shooting and defense are his mantra, and the second unit will need both.
Bacon and Graham are the most likely candidates for more playing time, but Clifford has other options he could flirt with as well. He could go big in the starting five by sliding Marvin Williams to small forward and moving Frank Kaminsky to power forward. That leaves the team thin on the bench though, so unless Johnny O’Bryant III is ready, this could get dicey. Malik Monk is going to get more minutes regardless, but whether that remains with the second unit or if Clifford decides to play him with the starters depends on how he and others are playing. There’s little chance he starts in the immediate future, however; Clifford isn’t going to start a rookie still learning to play defense at the NBA level unless his hand is forced. Beyond Monk, there could be some experimentation with Michael Carter-Williams and Julyan Stone. Both are big guards with length that can play multiple positions. They don’t have to play point guard, but it’s important there is enough shooting around them whenever they are on the court.
But regardless of who fills in, Kemba Walker and Howard will have to shoulder a lot of responsibility. They are, after all, the team’s two best players. Walker’s rise the past two seasons was helped by the addition of Batum, but he showed last season that he isn’t as reliant on Batum as he was two seasons ago. Meanwhile, Howard’s quest for resurgence is now even more important. Both must perform each night.
We will have a better idea of life without Batum once the season begins. There is plenty to be concerned about, but if one or more players seize the opportunity, there is reason to think the Hornets can salvage things.