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The Hornets should not draft a center with the twelfth overall pick

The Hornets need help on the interior, but there are better ways to address that than using significant draft capital.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Charlotte Hornets need center help. There’s no arguing that. Cody Zeller is a good all around player, but he’s missed exactly half the team’s games over the last two seasons. The backups currently under contract are Bismack Biyombo and Willy Hernangomez, both of whom are among the worst centers in the league statistically. Frank Kaminsky played pretty well down the stretch as the team’s backup five, but he’s a free agent and general manager Mitch Kupchak is unsure if he will be back.

So what’s left? There are a few options in the range of the Hornets first round pick, most notably Jaxson Hayes, Brandon Clarke, and Goga Bitadze. But using a lottery pick on a center is probably not the most efficient way to build a team, despite the fact that I just wrote a scouting report on Hayes (that was for you, Rick).

ESPN’s Kevin Pelton wrote a piece leading up to the draft last season that explains the replaceability (that’s a word and I’m sticking to it) of centers. In short, there are a lot of good centers in the NBA. Unless you’re getting a transcendent star like Karl Anthony-Towns, Nikola Jokic, etc., there’s no need to invest significant assets into the position. On top of that, small ball reigns supreme in the playoffs. Why invest significantly into a position that might not see the floor when the game count the most?

I did a little digging on my own to expound on this idea. I used Spotrac to find the average veteran contract being played under during the 2018-19 season. The average was 3 years, $29 million, or about $9.7 million per year.

I then looked at the wins produced by each player performing on a free agent contract at or below that average. I used Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) and translated it to wins based on Pace and Space Hoops’ translation of VORP to wins. I used those wins to determine how many wins a player generated per million dollars on their annual contract. I broke it down by position to see which positions had the most value in free agency. The results:

Wins per million dollars spent in free agency by position

Postion Wins per $1 million
Postion Wins per $1 million
PG 0.06
SG 0.03
SF 0.21
PF 0.15
C 0.47

The center position generates over twice as many wins per dollar spent than the next best position. It’s not surprising either. Guys like Montrezl Harrell, Brook Lopez, Ed Davis, and Enes Kanter played major roles on playoff teams while playing for relative peanuts. There’s a chance that the way the statistic is calculated favors centers by default, but the big discrepancy between centers and all other positions is worth noting regardless.

To put this in context, using the wins per million dollars we calculated above, we can calculate the amount of expected wins a player at each position would add if they signed for the mid-level exception (roughly $9.3 million in 2019).

Wins at mid level exception by position

Position Wins for mid level exception
Position Wins for mid level exception
PG 0.56
SG 0.28
SF 1.95
PF 1.40
C 4.37

There are a lot of good centers in the NBA, and there will inevitably be a few hung out to dry when the dust settles in free agency. The Hornets can shore up their center rotation with a bargain signing or by using their second round pick on someone like Daniel Gafford, Jontay Porter, Bruno Fernando, etc. That’ll free them up to use the twelfth overall pick on a more premium position and construct their roster in the most efficient way possible.