At 13-20 the Charlotte Hornets are currently ninth in the Eastern Conference and just 1.5 games out of a playoff spot. While most of the focus of the 2019-2020 season has been rightfully centered on the integration of Terry Rozier and the development of the young core of Devonte’ Graham, Miles Bridges, and PJ Washington, let’s also give a tip of the cap to the Hornets often overlooked veteran centers.
Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo have been doing their part in keeping the Hornets competitive this year. The duo is currently averaging a combined 42.3 minutes at the center position and producing a collective 19.8 points, 13.3 rebounds, 2.2 assists, and 1.2 blocks per contest. Most impressive, Zeller and Biyombo are shooting a combined 55.5 percent from the field this season meaning they are efficiently dropping nearly 20 points on a nightly basis.
One way to measure overall production is the advanced statistic called “Value Over Replacement Player”, or VORP, which estimates the box score impact a player has above a replacement-level player at that position. From a VORP standpoint, both Cody Zeller (+0.3) and Bismack Biyombo (+0.1) are in positive territory (though just barely) which means Charlotte is getting above-average play from their two big men.
Interestingly, both Cody and Bismack are averaging career highs in points this season. Zeller, a 27-year-old seven-year veteran is scoring 11.8 points per game which exceeds his former high of 10.3 points set back in 2016-2017. Biyombo is also 27 years old but, incredibly, is somehow a nine-year NBA veteran. His 8.0 points per game this year isn’t spectacular but it is surpassing his former career high of 6.0 points in 2016-2017.
Both Zeller and Biyombo deserve some credit for their production and also for their professionalism. Neither player fits in to the Hornets rebuilding plans and Charlotte isn’t a truly competitive team this year, a combination which often leads some NBA veterans to just mentally check out. Biyombo is a free agent after this season while Zeller is still under contract in 2020-2021 but he could be a trade candidate for a competitive team with $15 million in cap space that needs a competent 18-24 minutes per game at center. Neither player is going to retire a Hornet and yet they continue to grind away and play serviceable basketball for an otherwise young and inexperienced Hornets team.
Now, there are legitimate reasons to be critical of both Cody and Bismack. For example, the duo is making a combined $31.5 million this season which is less than the $27.1 million Anthony Davis is making with the Los Angeles Lakers. Should the Hornets be getting more production from $31.5 million? Yes, they absolutely should. But their contracts are what they are. There is no changing their salaries. Charlotte’s front office decided to pay them what they are paying them at the time their contracts were signed. They make what they make and at this point their salaries are a sunk cost.
So, for now, forget their salaries. Those are locked in. The only meaningful measure of success or failure for Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo should be how they are producing relative to expectations given their past performance. At this point, they are exceeding those expectations despite knowing they aren’t part of the team’s long-term plans.
As Hornets fans, we’ll remain focused on the development of the young core, but we should also remember to give at least an occasional golf clap to the veterans down in the paint.