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How the LaMelo Ball injury changes the Hornets’ plans

With the trade deadline fast approaching, Charlotte general manager Mitch Kupchak has decisions to make—and soon

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NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Los Angeles Clippers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

An unexpected, once-promising 2020-21 season for the Charlotte Hornets has come to a complete halt after the franchise announced that star rookie LaMelo Ball would miss the remainder of the season with a fractured right wrist.

The timing of such an injury truly could not be worse. The Hornets were one of few potential “buyers” at the trade deadline in a year where teams have convinced themselves to clutch their assets in hopes of making the play-in tournament, but a franchise that just lost its most important player will have a harder time convincing itself to make a trade that bolsters the current roster. Without Ball, the prospects of advancing—or even winning a game—in the play-in are not great.

The trade deadline

Still, that hasn’t stopped the Hornets from being tossed around in the rumor mill as we enter the week of the deadline. Trades are much more complicated now; Devonte’ Graham and Malik Monk were the team’s two most-tradable assets, and now they’ve become crucial elements of the rotation as the only quality ball-handlers.

Per Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer:

Some league personnel were already doubtful Graham will actually be moved. “They’ll try to keep him, and they’re willing to pay,” said one assistant GM. The salary range for Graham appears quite broad, as it could range from anywhere between $52 million and $64 million over four years, according to team executives polled by B/R.

Graham has been “available” for a while now, but it’s always seemed unlikely the Hornets would move him due to A.) the importance of his playmaking on the second unit and B.) the fact that his value to Charlotte is currently higher than it is to teams trading for him. Now, it seems almost definite that he closes out the year as starter and the organization makes a decision on their backcourt in the offseason.

The absence of Ball’s presence on the glass will make the Hornets’ lack of size and a true rim-protecting center even more apparent than it already is for the fourth-worst interior defense in the NBA. Prior to his injury, the Hornets were in the market for centers like Myles Turner and Richaun Holmes, and that still seems to be the case.

Per Bleacher Report’s Jake Fischer:

The Hornets could find that frontcourt depth in Memphis’ Gorgui Dieng, whom the Grizzlies are looking to move before his contract expires at the end of the season. Charlotte has also called the Lakers about Montrezl Harrell, Los Angeles’ bruising center, sources said, and the reigning champions appear willing to entertain offers.

Per The Athletic’s Shams Charania:

Several teams have expressed interest in Kings center Richaun Holmes, including Toronto and Charlotte, sources said. Holmes, a 6-foot-10 big man, has developed into a highly productive starting center for Sacramento, averaging 14 points, 8.7 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in 30.1 minutes a night. He will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season and should command a strong market.

Per ESPN’s Zach Lowe:

The Pacers are always pretty good, but they can’t seem to reach a higher level with the Domantas Sabonis-Turner double-center pairing. The Charlotte Hornets have strong interest in Turner, sources said, and between Miles Bridges, P.J. Washington, and their future draft assets — plus Devonte’ Graham, about to hit restricted free agency — they have what it takes to make a real offer. They need a center badly. On the flip side, as a small-market team, they figure to be very protective of their future first-round picks.

Between Holmes and Turner, Turner will require more assets to obtain but is under team control for two more years after 2020-21, while Holmes would be easier to trade for but can bolt in free agency this offseason. The Harrell and Dieng rumors are a bit surprising, as they’re both good enough to net assets for their current team, but not capable of raising the ceiling of the Ball-less Hornets. These are the bigs linked to the Hornets at the moment—it wouldn’t be surprising if other name(s) surface in the coming days.

The 2021 NBA Draft

Obviously, without Ball, the Hornets’ record is going to worsen (more than it’d already been on this road trip). Going back to the absolutely horrible timing of this injury, it’s simply too late for Charlotte to tank for another top pick; they’ve already racked up 20 wins and some of the teams above them in draft order will be selling off players (Orlando, Houston, Sacramento).

The team is going to compete and maintain a healthy culture within the organization, so jumping from 15th, where they currently sit, into the top-seven or eight would require insane lottery luck for the second year in a row. This is Charlotte, we can't count on that.

As of Monday morning, Tankathon had the Hornets selecting Kentucky big Isaiah Jackson at 15. Just below Jackson was Ziaire Williams, a Stanford wing that was projected as a top-10 pick in the fall but has fallen as he struggled through his freshman season. Choosing between those two high-upside prospects at 15 would be great, and the variety they’ll have to choose from is sure to grow as they (presumably) slip down the standings a bit.

The current rotation

There are now 28.6 minutes per game up for grabs in the Hornets’ rotation. Graham, Monk, Rozier and Hayward will be tasked with more shot-creation responsibility and will be relied upon to produce offense even more than they already were. Bridges, Monk, and the Martin twins should be the bench unit for the game against the San Antonio Spurs, but it will be interesting to see if Vernon Carey Jr., Jalen McDaniels, Nick Richards or Grant Riller can carve out a spot for themselves, even if it’s a game-by-game basis.

Riller, especially, is intriguing as he was regarded as a late-first or early-second round prospect, fell to Charlotte with the 56th pick, was hobbled with a knee injury for the first half of the season and G League bubble, and is suddenly the second point guard behind Graham on the depth chart.

Overall standpoint

This injury is such classic Charlotte. Good things rarely, if ever, come to the Hornets, and even then, it gets abruptly taken away from us. This season was a total blast from the start up until Sunday evening; unprecedented attention, respect and love shown from national media personalities and outlets, a wildly fun product to watch on-court, and most of all, the team was succeeding.

It wasn’t all for naught, but it’s pretty damn close. If the Hornets make the playoffs, there’s no chance they do anything to make it worthwhile without Ball, and if they don’t, their draft pick won’t be of the same caliber as last year’s. Plus, Ball playing/developing in a playoff environment is what made a postseason push appealing in the first place, and now he’d be watching from the sidelines.

All-in-all, this whole situation is awful, terrible, no good, horrible, depressing, and very bad. Ball is an excellent, exciting young player and it will be about eight months before we watch him play again. Life isn’t fair.