Following a 120-111 loss to the Boston Celtics on the 28th of April head coach James Borrego was asked post-game by Buzz Beat Podcast host Richie Randall about the Charlotte Hornets center rotation. Borrego said “We’ve got to rebound the ball, we’ve struggled… Going back three years now, to rebound from that position (Center)…This is where we’re at Richie, just trying to piece it together brother”. The phrase “Piecing together” is an apt description for what Borrego has been forced to do over his Charlotte tenure, the options at his disposal over three seasons have been limited to Bismack Biyombo, Willy Hernangomez, Frank Kaminsky, Cody Zeller, Vernon Carey and Nick Richards.
Charlotte has flirted with the idea of addressing the center position at various points over the past few years, they almost traded for Marc Gasol and chased Montrezl Harrell in Free Agency. However, each time they have either been unsuccessful in their pursuit or not pulled the trigger at the last minute. This has led to Marvin Williams and PJ Washington both logging minutes at center over the past two seasons as Borrego has desperately looked for two way production out of that position.
Addressing the center rotation has to be the number one organizational priority for this off-season. Currently their only traditional center under contract for next season are Carey Jr & Richards who even general manager Mitch Kupchak described them being ready next season as “A stretch”. I should also point out that Charlotte isn’t just looking for a starting center, with Biyombo and Zeller both free agents they could also be looking for a backup as well. PJ Washington is obviously a good small ball option to have, but Charlotte needs additional size. So what are the options going into next season? I’m going to be delivering a three part series in which I catalogue every single perceivable option, first I’ll be looking at free agency, then the trade market and finally the draft. I can guarantee you that the future Hornets center rotation is going to be covered in this articles series, I just can’t tell you who exactly it is just yet.
46 options, that is how many big men could conceivably be free agents this summer according to Spotrac, that’s the list I started with. The only way to make the list more manageable to analyse was to filter the names down, firstly I crossed out anyone over the age of 34, the likes of Howard, Gibson, Tucker were all removed, none of those guys who are hanging in the league at their age are going to realistically come to Charlotte as a free agent, they’re looking at trying to hang onto a title team in win a championship. Next up I decided to go through and remove any players who are unlikely to be available due to restricted free agency or a team/player option, John Collins, Serge Ibaka, Mitchell Robinson JaMychal Green & Jarrett Allen were all casualties of this cut. However, if the environment were to change with the Robinson/Allen/Collins situations Charlotte should absolutely be sniffing around.
That left me with a list of 25 names, a much more manageable list to review which you can see below.
From the above list I decided to try and select my top 10 free agent targets, at first you might think it’s odd that I’ve got Montrezl Harrell ranked 9th and below names like Tony Bradley and Isaiah Hartenstein. However, these rankings are specific to Charlotte’s key needs; rim protection, defensive rebounding and good size/length. My rankings also included some cost/benefit analysis of adding the player and it’s likely effect on the Hornets CAP sheet moving forward. Someone like Harrell is going to be looking for $10-15 per year, whereas someone like Isaiah Hartenstein will be looking at the $2-6 per year range. Finally, I disregarded some players due to their skillset not matching Charlotte’s need such as stretch bigs Mike Muscala and Daniel Theis. Others who ticked some of the boxes such as Whiteside and Len but were discounted as Charlotte has had multiple opportunities over the past two seasons to trade for or sign both players and have chosen not to, since then their value has only further dwindled so I’m working under the assumption they’re not interested.
A couple of key notes before Into deeper analysis of my top 10. Firstly, All measurements listed below were taken from the official pre-draft combine, height measurements are without shoes. Secondly the row of statistics next to each player are from CleaningTheGlass.com. For those who don’t understand how percentiles work, the easy way to understand the data is dark orange means they rank very highly in that category, dark blue means they very badly compared to the rest of NBA players at their position.
The Top 10
FA Richaun Holmes 27.6yo– Height 6’10” – Wingspan 7’1.5” – Standing Reach 9’
The belle of the ball for Charlotte this off-season, if this were a mock draft Holmes would be in a tier all by himself at the top of the class. Holmes’ measurables don’t rank fantastically on this list, but his strength and athleticism help make up for his shortcomings. Coming off a career year is always a scary time to sign someone to a Free Agency contract, but Holmes is an above average shot blocker, rebounder and is a good lob target around the rim. It’s hard when discussing Holmes not to also mention that he’s developed one of the best push shot floaters in the league which helps him finish in those in-between spaces. The concerns? Holmes was the “Defensive anchor” of the worst defensive team in NBA history last year, there’s also reports he is looking for $20 million per year which would be right at the tipping point of Charlotte’s CAP space.
FA Nerlens Noel 27.1yo– Height 6’11”- Wingspan 7’4” – Standing Reach 9’2”
Noel has been at the heart of one of the league’s best defences this year in New York covering most the year for the injured Mitchell Robinson. Noel is ELITE in the “Stocks” category, ranking as one of the best at forcing turnovers and blocking shots in the league. The main downside is his lack of strength when bodying up larger big men, his high foul rate and below average defensive rebounding. Noel hasn’t always been a sub par rebounder, he was above average earlier in his career but has really slipped the past three seasons. His passing and ball handling responsibilities have also dipped in recent years, I still hold out some hope in the right role he could display those as coming out of Kentcuky and in Philadelphia he displayed some promising playmaking and short roll decision making. Those who have followed me for a while will know I had Noel number one in my center targets in last summer’s free agency, you can count me as a fan.
FA Andre Drummond 27.7yo– Height 6’10” – Wingspan 7’6” Wingspan – Standing Reach 9’1.5”
It seems like Drummond has been linked to the Charlotte Hornets since the day he declared for the draft, I almost left him off this list entirely as part of me felt if Charlotte had any interest in Drummond they surely could have acquired him from the Cavs or Pistons who both wanted to move him on. However, you can’t forget that he had a $28 per year salary which made trade mechanics difficult, now he’s a free agent they could look to bring him on board at a reasonable price. Being honest the prospect of paying Andre Drummond terrifies me, he has a strange “I don’t give a ****” look on his face all the time. Every team he plays for struggles and ends up wanting to move him on, and he has resisted taking a role players mentality often taking ill-advised shots. Still, it’s hard to ignore that he would address some of Charlotte’s weaknesses, but we said the same thing about Dwight Howard in 2017 and look how that ended up. I don’t know what to do, but due to the lack of other proven options I think he has to be considered a top 3 target.
RFA Tony Bradley 23.4yo – Height 6’9.25 – Wingspan 7’5” – Standing Reach 9’4.5”
Will OKC extend qualifying offer to Bradley? I doubt it, after signing Moses Brown to a four year deal they obviously don’t view him as a long term piece, he was simply a throw in from the 76ers in the George Hill trade. Bradley’s foul rate halved after being traded to OKC, translation, he didn’t even care enough to foul anyone as OKC tried to tank the season away. Bradley is a UNC alumni who has a good athleticism for someone with his size, he’s not the tallest at under 6’10 but has the best wingspan and standing reach of anyone on his list. Bradley is strictly a lob/put back scorer with a limited offensive game, he also turns it over more than you’d like from someone who doesn’t handle the ball often. At just 23 years old there’s still optimism to think his best years are ahead of him.
RFA Jarred Vanderbilt 22.1yo– Height 6’9” – Wingspan 7’1” – Standing Reach 8’10”
Yes he is an NBA player, he was drafted in the second round in 2018 but was injured early in his career and then buried on the bench in Denver, a trade to the Timberwolves at the 2020 trade deadline gave him a new opportunity. Vanderbilt only played 25% of his minutes at center this year, he is a little undersized at 6’9, however, he’s not a drop coverage big like most of this list, yhe’s as switchable as any big in the league. He doesn’t have an offensive game outside of running the floor and catching lobs, but for the Hornets that’s okay, he plays with a high energy level and does a good job causing turnovers with his active hands. If Vanderbilt had played more time at center and proven he could anchor a defense I might have him even higher. The main issue with Vanderbilt is he’s a restricted free agent so Minnesota will have matching rights, the likelihood of that will depend on how the draft goes.
FA Gorgui Dieng 31.3yo– Height 6’9.75” – Wingspan 7’3.5” – Standing Reach 9’3.5”
Charlotte were reportedly interested in Dieng following his buyout with Memphis, only for him to sign with the Spurs. Dieng has had a strange career, whenever he’s received steady minutes he’s been productive, he can protect the rim, pass and has really improved as a shooter jumping up to 48% this year, but I’d suggest that number isn’t accurate, his career percentage of 36% feels about right. Despite an intriguing two way skill set he’s never held down a rotational spot for long. On the wrong side of 30 Dieng isn’t a long term option, but I think he would be a serviceable backup who would likely be available for a low price. I get the sense from the exit interviews that Charlotte would like to add some veterans, someone like Dieng might be preferred for that reason over the likes of Bradley & Vanderbilt above.
PO Isaiah Hartenstein 23yo – Height 7’0.5” – Wingspan 7’2.25” – Standing Reach 9’1”
Perhaps surprisingly Hartenstein is the biggest player on this list in terms of height, the only true 7 footer without shoes. Hartenstein has struggled for playing time since being selected in the 2nd round of the 2018 draft and was traded to Cleveland along with two second round picks for McGee. Now the fact the Nuggets felt that bad about Hartenstein they had two throw two picks in isn’t a great endorsement. However, when I’ve watched him play he’s always had good energy, played really hard and intrigued with his skillset. He’s clearly unproven and hasn’t managed to hold down a rotation spot in the league yet, but he’s still young enough to believe there is some untapped potential. Hartenstein ranks as one of the best rim protectors on this list and his improved his defensive rebounding, two big needs for Charlotte. In his brief stint in Cleveland he showed some playmaking flashes not seen previously in Houston or Denver. Will Hartenstein opt into his player option? I assume he would only do that if his agent had canvassed the league and found no better offer than his $1.8 million player option.
FA Cody Zeller 28.6yo – Height 6’10.75” – Wingspan 6’10.75” – Standing Reach 8’10”
Yes Cody Zeller is only 28. Despite not having the rim protection, defensive rebounding or length of anyone on this list Zeller still has value defensively. He switches better than most his size onto guards and has a great skill of regularly getting hit in the face and drawing offensive fouls. Zeller’s limited playing time this year was a surprise, before the season it seemed he would be the starting center throughout the season but Borrego clearly wasn’t satisfied. There will be a comfort factor with Cody, he’s a great teammate, a veteran leader and Charlotte know what they’re going to get from him. If they strike out on some of the names above Zeller makes sense as a backup or stop game until they can address the need further down the line.
PO Montrezl Harrell 27.3– Height 6’7” – Wingspan 7’4.25” – Standing Reach 9’1”
Here we go again, flashback to last offseason where Charlotte were linked to Harrell extensively, in fact there was even the report that Harrell turned down more money from Charlotte to join LA. Harrell has a player option, depending how the playoffs go and how much time Harrell gets in LA will likely effect if he opts in or not. However, if he were to be back on the market you think Charlotte would go back in for Harrell, they could even get his former college teammate Terry Rozier to help recruit. For a lot of teams Harrell will be a top three center in free agency, but for this Charlotte team I just don’t see it. He’s undersized, is a poor defensive rebounder and average rim protector, he’s not what this roster needs. Don’t get me wrong he would be an upgrade on Zeller and Biz, but for what price? If he’s opting out of his $9.7 player option he will likely be looking for something in the $10-15 per year range, I’d much prefer Bradley, Hartenstein or Dieng for a fraction of that cost.
FA Khem Birch 28.6yo – Height 6’7.25” – Wingspan7’1” – Standing Reach 8’11”
The Hornet killer Khem Birch, he has always seemed to light up Charlotte during his time in Orlando. Birch is a respectable backup big, he’s a great offensive rebounder and that’s really his calling card. However, he’s become a much better positional defender over the past few seasons not just looking to block shots. Charlotte had the chance to trade for Birch at the deadline before he was waived and released but chose not to, so I don’t imagine they’re going to be going gaga over him. However, if they’re looking for a veteran big to play the Biyombo role with a higher level of on court production they could do worse.
Next up in Part 2 of the series I’ll be previewing potential trade targets for the center position.