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The long-term fit of PJ Washington and Miles Bridges, pt. 2

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Bridges flourished in multiple roles while Washington muscled through a hit-and-miss campaign, but both show promise for different reasons

Charlotte Hornets v Orlando Magic Photo by Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

During their respective tenures in Charlotte, Miles Bridges and PJ Washington have shown flashes that justify general manager Mitch Kupchak selecting them in the lottery of the 2018 and 2019 NBA drafts. Bridges burst onto the scene in the absence of Hornets’ crucial rotation members last April, while Washington had a stellar rookie season and followed that up by developing into the team’s best center at 6-foot-7.

The Bridges/Washington dynamic is something that’s been on my mind for a while — so long, in fact, that one of the first articles I wrote for this wonderful website after the pandemic set in was about the very same topic. Revisiting the points made in that article would be a fun exercise, I think, and hopefully you all agree.

The on-court fit

One of the conclusions that some fans jump towards with Bridges and Washington is that one player being good makes the other expendable (regardless of who it is). While that certainly could be true, they do bring different things to the table. Bridges is a budding shot-creator and capable half-court ball-handler with impressive playmaking flashes, and Washington is a stretch-forward/small-ball center hybrid that also flashes passing ability and ideal defensive versatility.

We saw last season that the two will share the floor often. The Bridges-Washington frontcourt played 1,532 possessions together in 2020-21 with a point differential of +5.1, landing that two-man combo in the 80th percentile per Cleaning The Glass.

Per BBall-Index, Charlotte’s second-best lineup in terms of their shot quality metric was the Bridges-Washington lineup plus Devonte’ Graham, Terry Rozier and Cody Martin — a lineup with four spacers, an athletic playmaker at forward (Bridges) and a versatile two-way big (Washington), and the non-spacing defensive specialist (Martin). Having two athletes that can dribble, pass and shoot in your frontcourt allows smaller players who don’t score or make plays as well to be on the floor for long stretches and take advantage of other skills.

Statistical comparison

To start, here’s a screenshot of Bridges and Washington’s 2020-21 seasons side-by-side via basketball-reference;

Apart from the best rookie in the league, Bridges was the darling of this Hornets’ season. As LaMelo Ball, Gordon Hayward and Malik Monk fell down like dominoes, Bridges picked up the slack on both ends of the floor. In April, he averaged 19.1 points per game shooting 46.7 percent from deep on 5.6 3PA per game with 2.3 of those attempts being pull-ups, of which he sank a blistering 50 percent.

Maintaining that level of volume and efficiency for over a month (he also averaged 22.3 points per night in four games in May) shows that a developmental leap has been made by Bridges as a ball-handler, shot-creator and shot-maker. Here’s an excerpt from the original article written on this topic back in April 2020 about what I though Bridges could improve upon offensively;

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.

Seriously, come on. Not to toot my own horn, but I crushed that one (apart from his mid-range game being “solid” — it still isn’t). He’s now able to break down some defenders and hit them with counters when they take away his first move, the consistency from 3-point land has improved (40 percent on 4.4 3PA per game), and he can play as both the roller and decision-maker in pick-and-rolls. The versatility he’s afforded himself beyond his unique athletic ability substantially raises his ceiling as a player.

Washington, on the other hand, had somewhat of a “sophomore slump” after making NBA All-Rookie second team after his first season. Perhaps he was jinxed by Kupchak’s “gold dust” comment during the minicamp last summer, but his performance on the season as a whole was solid despite it being stained by some poor stretches.

Only two players were able to provide rim protection and help defense while being legitimate floor-spacers offensively during the 2020-21 NBA regular season; Kevin Durant and PJ Washington.

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.

Another one! Not as accurate as the Bridges excerpt, but still on the right track. Washington was a shot-blocking presence this season, and when his health allowed him to play as hard as he can, he was far and away the best interior defender on the Hornets. His 2.1 block percentage and 1.5 steal percentage rank in the 68th and 75th percentiles respectively per Cleaning The Glass, and the defense was 5.5 points better with him on the floor, ranking in the 90th percentile among all NBA players.

In the month of April while Bridges was starring, Washington was quietly shooting 43 percent from 3-point range on 6.1 3PA per game. He fought his bouts of inconsistency and injury in a pandemic-shortened second season, but Washington deserves a lot more credit than he’s been given for the Hornets’ success, especially defensively. Charlotte finished 16th in defensive rating despite starting two 6-foot-1 guards for four months, and who was waiting at the rim all that time? PJ Washington.

Contract extension details

Before we get into the economics, we must remember that NBA teams make a lot of money, and using the luxury tax as a reason to not extend a young player is not something good teams do. Golden State Warriors owner Joe Lacob paid SIXTY-EIGHT MILLION DOLLARS in luxury taxes just to acquire KELLY OUBRE JR. Money is not an object in the NBA and it’s time for the boss to open his wallet and put some talent around Ball and the rest of the core.

This is where things get juicy. Bridges can sign a contract extension this off-season, and his performance over the last two months of the season raised his value tenfold. The NBA rookie-scale extension allows Bridges to earn up to $168M over five years, and though he’s not a “max player,” it’s likely that Bridges could be earning in the range of $80-$100M total if he signs for five years. It’s highly improbable that he signs an extension early this off-season due to the immediate contract situations of Graham and Monk and the team’s necessity to acquire a starting-caliber center, but I wouldn’t rule it out if the Hornets have some spare change lying around after the free agency dust settles in August.

Washington is a year further from the same type of extension that Bridges is currently looking at, and the same goes for him; a high-salary player that is also not near max-level. The benefit to that for the Hornets’ franchise is they have one more year of a low-cost asset outplaying their value, which could be helpful in a trade if the front office chooses to go that route, but trading Washington at this point would probably not be the best way to maximize value with him only having played 122 games for Charlotte.

In conclusion, my thoughts remain the same as they were last year; the Hornets will never need to choose between Bridges and Washington in a vacuum. Both are versatile, athletic, floor-spacing hybrid bigs with NBA athleticism and toughness. Bridges was relegated to a bench role for half of the season after starting his entire second season, and he took it in stride before taking a gargantuan developmental leap. Washington manned the middle on defense against much bigger players on a nightly basis while sprinkling in a career-high 42-point game and some incredible displays of perimeter shot-making from a big.

The Hornets roster could go in a lot of directions stylistically this off-season. Ball’s elite playmaking allows them to run in transition and run lots of ball-screen actions in the halfcourt, and there are no two better targets for his pinpoint one-handed passes than Bridges and Washington — the lineup versatility they afford head coach James Borrego is perhaps more important than any singular skill between the two of them.