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It’s time for the Hornets to make a change at the center position

The minutes distribution is not matching the productivity.

NBA: Washington Wizards at Charlotte Hornets Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve watched the Charlotte Hornets at all this season, you’ll know this isn’t an earth shattering take by any means, but I think it’s worth looking at with some depth. The Hornets have split the lion’s share of the center minutes between two players—Mason Plumlee and Nick Richards. Plumlee has gotten the bigger chunk of those minutes, and it’s about time that stopped.

Plumlee is averaging 27.1 minutes per game to Richards’ 19.7. The box score statistics overwhelmingly favor Richards. Credit Basketball Reference/Stathead:

Plumlee gets more assists and defensive rebounds, which definitely provide utility on the floor, but as we’ll see later, the impact of those numbers aren’t very tangible on a macro level. Richards dominates the rest of the box score stats, particularly in efficiency and offensive rebounding. And he fouls less, which was a common argument in favor of keeping Richards’ minutes down a bit.

On a larger scale, the Hornets are flat out better with Nick Richards on the floor as opposed to Mason Plumlee, and it’s not close. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Hornets offense is 2.9 points per 100 possessions better when Richards is on the floor compared to when he sits, and the defense is 7.7 points per 100 possessions better. Richards on/off difference of +10.6 is second on the team (behind Dennis Smith Jr.) and ranks in the 85th percentile league wide. Meanwhile, Plumlee’s -10.2 on/off rating puts him in the 16th percentile league wide.

Despite Plumlee’s assist contributions, the Hornets offense operates more efficiently with Richards on the floor. And despite Plumlee’s edge in individual defensive rebounding, there’s a negligible difference in team defensive rebounding regardless of the center (it’s always bad).

On top of the clear discrepancy in performance, Richards is 25 years old and entering restricted free agency. Plumlee is 32 and will surely have his free agent rights rescinded given his $17.3 million cap hold next season. Richards has a chance to be a part of this team’s future. Plumlee does not.

There are a few other considerations here though. If the Hornets want to try to salvage the season and win games, Richards makes sense on the bench. Lineups with he and Dennis Smith Jr. have dominated opponents with a +18.4 net rating thanks to a stifling 94.5 defensive rating (100th percentile among qualified lineups league wide according to Cleaning the Glass). Keeping those two paired as much as possible will make the Hornets bench unit a force. However, even if he’s still coming off the bench, Richards’ stretches of play should extend longer than Pumlee’s. He’s more of a presence around the basket and his ability to finish at the rim and actually make free throws makes the Hornets offense more potent.

On the other hand, this season has gone completely sideways with all of the injuries. If the Hornets want to subtly keep stacking the losses, leaning on Plumlee for more minutes might be the move.