The Charlotte Hornets are in a tough spot when it comes to Cody Zeller. When he’s on the floor, he makes the team better. He’s not physically imposing and he doesn’t put up big numbers, but he’s the quintessential team player. He sets good screens, he positions himself well defensively, and he’s unselfish, almost to a fault. He’s not without his warts, but he could easily be a middle of the road starting center. The problem: he can’t stay on the court.
When Cody Zeller plays, he’s good, especially compared to the Hornets other options. Over the last two seasons, the Hornets are 3.4 points per 100 possessions when he plays than when he sits. He trailed only Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb in Win Shares among Hornets. He was second only to Kemba in Box Plus-Minus. He was fourth behind Walker, Lamb, and Marvin Williams in Real Plus-Minus. The Hornets scraped out a 17-16 record in games that Zeller didn’t play, but their average point differential was -3.7 compared to +0.7 in the games in which he did. Pick any advanced stat. It’ll like Cody Zeller.
Unfortunately, this article can’t focus on all those nifty numbers. Zeller has missed exactly half the team’s games over the last two seasons. If he proved that he could stay healthy this season, the center spot wouldn’t look so much like a need for the Hornets. Could the spot be upgraded over a healthy Zeller? Of course. But it wouldn’t be a glaring issue like the team has in other parts of the roster.
Instead, the Hornets need to move forward with the expectation that Zeller will miss significant time each season. That means they need to seek out big upgrades over Bismack Biyombo and Willy Hernangomez. They could potentially look to bolster the spot in the draft or swing a trade for a big fish like Andre Drummond. They have to do something though. Pinning the success of the five spot on the healthy Cody Zeller is a fool’s errand at this point.
It can’t be stressed enough- Cody Zeller is a good NBA player. Every team needs a Cody Zeller or two. But good NBA players don’t help much when they’re sitting behind the bench in a nice suit. It’s not Zeller’s fault, but his inability to stay healthy has been a major thorn in the side of the Hornets. They need a better contingency plan at the center spot next season.