Since sports were abruptly taken from us, I’ve been putting in a lot of hours on NBA 2K20, pretending to be Mitch Kupchak and rebuilding the virtual Hornets via user-uploaded draft classes (thank you @Cosmis) and the free agent market. Things are going well so far, it’s currently January of 2021 and my Hornets are 14-25 (I simulate a lot of games), with Jalen Green mocked to them in the 2021 2K mock draft at sixth. I got Onyeka Okongwu, Tre Jones and Trevelin Queen in the 2020 draft, and I also picked up Jon Teske on the undrafted free agent market. I signed Christian Wood to a 3-year, $50M deal with a third-year player option, but he stunk and I traded him to Portland for Trevor Ariza (who was waived) and an unprotected 2022 first-round pick. You won’t see me complaining if the real-life Hornets end up in a similar situation. It’s an insanely fun team to play with.
But, I digress. That has little to do with the subject of this article, which is; how viable is it to have both Miles Bridges and PJ Washington on the Hornets for the foreseeable future?
Before we begin, I’d like to say, in short, that it could be viable. Their skillsets contrast enough to fit as a tandem and both can contribute to the function of a team system. PJ is the “big” of the two, while Miles is the “forward,” and there were lineups that James Borrego deployed this season that featured this positional alignment, so I think the Hornets organization believes in their long-term fit, too. But, there are questions to be asked.
Can PJ play full-time small-ball center?
PJ is just 6’ 8” in shoes, and on the surface-level, does not have the size to defend opposing centers on a nightly basis. Luckily for PJ, he has a 7’ 2” wingspan, 8’ 10” standing reach and he weighs 230 pounds. Combine that with sufficient NBA athleticism, and he has all of the physical tools one would need to play as a small-ball center. He isn’t a great defender yet, but I think his fouling and awareness issues will iron themselves out as a sophomore in the league. PJ will probably never be a shot-blocking presence, but there’s a lot more to rim protection than that. He’s a good help defender and he has a low center of gravity that prevents him from getting moved around easily. If PJ could up the aggressiveness, he’d have few problems playing center.
Can Miles play full-time on the wing?
This is probably the question with the most contingencies. Miles is best-fit as a modern four in the NBA and his peak effectiveness wouldn’t found as a wing; unless he improves some things and commits to the necessary style of play. He’s not very quick with his hands or feet and doesn’t move well laterally, but he does have elite strength, verticality and open-floor speed to make up for it. Against teams that are smaller and quicker in the half-court, Miles might struggle. What is most important for his development as a wing player, is his shot creation.
Miles has a solid mid-range game and has improved as a 3-point shooter, but he doesn’t score off-the-dribble and relies on other players to get him an open look more so than he creates them for himself. His handle isn’t bad, but he isn’t going to break down a defender, either. Improving his pull-up jump shot and adding some functional half-court ball-handling would go a long way. Ball-handling and shot creation aren’t easy things to improve as an NBA player, but his jumper seems to be coming along, albeit inconsistently.
What does the rest of a small-ball lineup look like?
Similar to what the Philadelphia 76ers have to do with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, the Hornets would have to build a very specific roster to keep both Miles and PJ in the starting lineup at their current positions. Devonte’ Graham is a good fit because of his unlimited pull-up shooting range, court vision and decision-making, though his perimeter defensive limitations can spring leaks in the defense. The two-guard in this scenario probably needs to be much larger and better at perimeter defense than Terry Rozier is; which is no slight to Terry, who is a solid on-ball defender, but the rim protection would suffer some with PJ at center, so ball containment on the perimeter would need to improve.
A scoring wing is a need now, and it would become even more of a need if the Hornets were to commit to small-ball. The Hornets don't have a high-usage, shot-creating scorer outside of Devonte’, and he has his limits with shot creation. A three-level scoring wing with size, at least average defense and some secondary playmaking skill would be a must. Cody Martin and Caleb Martin each showed good things last season, but neither of them are going to be starters on competitive teams without monumental development. Perhaps, the 2021 draft is where they get this player, perhaps Terrence Clarke, 6’ 7” Brewster Academy alum and Kentucky commit. But don’t mind me, I’m just spitballing.
Does one player move to the bench?
Ideally, yes, unless the Hornets are 100 percent committed to playing small-ball all the time. Between Miles and PJ, PJ is more likely to find peak effectiveness as a starter. His two-way versatility and ability to alternate between the four and five spots give him a bit higher ceiling than Miles, even if Miles is the better athlete. Both players could absolutely be starters in the NBA, but if the Hornets want to keep them both and give them ample opportunity to grow, it would be interesting to see Miles with the second unit, especially if Malik Monk is out there with him. He’d be a lot more efficient as a No. 1 or No. 2 option in the second unit as opposed to the first unit.
What is the course of action if they don’t develop on the right trajectory?
The only alternative to keeping both Miles and PJ, is not keeping both Miles and PJ. This decision won’t have to be made for years, if at all. Miles doesn’t become a restricted free agent until the summer of 2022, and PJ the year after that. Neither of them are getting traded unless Mitch Kupchak has his socks knocked off by an undeniable offer. We have a long time to watch these fun and good players develop as Hornets.
I know most ATHers are high on PJ and not as high on Miles, but still fairly high. Anyone else that has thoughts on the projection of their long-term fit should post a comment in the comment section below elaborating on those thoughts.
Also, if anyone has 2K20 for the Xbox and does similar franchise rebuilds or anything like that, I’d love to hear about the choices you make. I’ve always loved playing armchair GM. There’s gotta be someone else out there that does it, too.