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Breaking down the current center rotation for the Hornets

What each big man provides and what the rotation will look like in the second half of the season

Memphis Grizzlies v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Brock Williams-Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

Before the NBA All-Star break, the Charlotte Hornets were free-falling. They were 1-9 in their last 10 games before the break and have fallen to 29-31, good for only ninth in the Eastern Conference. But the Atlanta Hawks are right there, tied with them in terms of win percentage in the 10th spot.

One of the biggest issues with the Hornets’ roster has been their center spot. This problem extends into last season when Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo held down the five position in Buzz City. And while they certainly have upgraded since then, their big man rotation is still far from ideal.

Despite their trade-deadline activity, adding Montrezl Harrell to bolster their center spot, they still lack a true paint presence on the defensive end of the floor. Harrell, an undersized, 6-7 center, may provide them with plenty of energy, but he’s not the true big man many Hornets fans have been begging for.

Oddly enough, however, the issue with the Hornets hasn’t been their defense - it’s been their offense. Over the last 10 games, they rank ninth in defensive rating (109.8) but 29th in offensive rating (103.3). So while fans have been clamoring for a defensive-minded center, that might not be what’s best for the team at the moment.

So while there’s a break in the action, let’s take a look at all of Charlotte’s center options, what they bring to the table, and who should be getting the most run down the stretch.

Mason Plumlee

Mason Plumlee has been the starting center for the Hornets all season, and in all likelihood, he’ll continue to play that role. The 31-year-old is the tallest, most defensive-minded center Charlotte has on their roster. That being said, there are some serious concerns with his defense as well.

Just like the rest of the Hornets’ roster, Plumlee suffers from constant defensive lapses. He’s often out of position and forced to play catchup when his man gets past him. Plus, he’s not nearly quick or versatile enough to get outside and guard the perimeter, meaning he almost always drops back in pick-n-roll coverage. Think Rudy Gobert in that sense, just without any of the Defensive Player of the Year characteristics in the paint.

The upside of Plumlee, simply put, is his size. At 6-11, he’s the second-tallest center on the roster behind Nick Richards. He may not be the best interior defender, but his size alone makes him Charlotte’s best option to throw at guys like Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Clint Capela.

Plumlee is also the most versatile offensive center the Hornets have at their disposal. He can’t stretch the floor, but he’s an above-average playmaker for the position and is shooting 63.1 percent from the field this year. His post-up abilities don’t hold a candle to Harrell’s, but his size alone makes him a threat in the pick-n-roll and from the dunker spot.

Montrezl Harrell

Harrell joined the Hornets at the deadline and has provided exactly what most people expected him to - energy and intensity. His ability to be a sparkplug off the bench has given Charlotte’s second unit a big-time jolt. Unfortunately, that hasn’t translated into winning just yet, as he’s gone 1-3 during his time in Charlotte.

On the offensive end, Harrell gives the Hornets a true paint presence with his ability to go get a bucket at virtually any time. They’ve employed the “dump the ball to Harrell and let him work” method multiple times, and it’s yielded solid results. His athleticism and ability to pick his spots on offense are light years ahead of any other big man on the roster. Just like Plumlee, however, Harrell doesn’t provide any semblance of floor spacing.

Defensively, while Harrell has built a reputation of being a below-average defender, he’s a lot better than most would think. He’s not great in the grand scheme of the NBA, but looking at Charlotte’s other center options, Harrell, at the very least, gives them a different look. While Plumlee constantly drops back in coverage, Harrell is willing and able to guard the perimeter. The fact that it is so quick and undersized gives him the ability to shift down and guard smaller opponents (for limited minutes).

James Borrego has experimented with playing Plumlee and Harrell together (with JT Thor), and while that has paid dividends on the defensive side of the floor, it’s seriously limited the Hornets’ offensive game plan.

PJ Washington

PJ Washington is the X-factor because he does the one thing their other options cannot do - space the floor. Washington is shooting 37.6 percent from behind the three-point line this season. And while Washington is definitely more of a power forward than a center, playing him at the five would allow the Hornets more versatility on the offensive end. Borrego would just have to use that lineup sparingly.

His shooting at the five spot would allow Charlotte to run a lineup of five guys that can space the floor. For example, a lineup of LaMelo Ball, Terry Rozier, Kelly Oubre Jr., Gordon Hayward, and Washington would make it so opposing defenses would need to guard the perimeter at all times. At the same time, though, that would pose certain defensive issues, as they would be playing without a true center.

Washington isn’t a bad defender by any means. In fact, he’s quietly been one of Charlotte’s best interior defenders. He’s averaging nearly a block a night. But at 6-7, he just isn’t big enough to bang down low with some of the beefier centers in the league. That’s where Charlotte chooses to employ the services of Plumlee.

Playing Washington at the five would certainly help out Charlotte on the offensive end, but it also limits what they are able to accomplish on defense. Borrego’s Plumlee-Harrell-Thor lineup worked wonders for Charlotte on defense, but they suffered offensively. There needs to be a balance put in place, and Washington is a huge part of finding that balance.

JT Thor

JT Thor is by far the most intriguing big man option Borrego has to play with. When it comes to pure defenders on the roster, Thor is easily the most talented. He has the potential to be a scary defender in the NBA. The tools are there, the IQ is there, and the physical skillset is there. He just needs time.

But for now, as mentioned, Borrego has been experimenting with putting Thor in a three-big-man lineup with Plumlee and Harrell. And as previously stated, while this has worked wonders in defense, the Hornets’ offense struggles. Thor has shown flashes of being able to space the floor, but other than that, his offensive game is a project, to say the least.

And while his defense has the potential to be elite, the biggest thing holding him back right now is simply his muscle mass. Thor clocks in at a measly 203 lbs, making him the fifth-skinniest player in the NBA that’s at least 6-9. This makes him a defensive liability when forced to match up with players like Embiid or Capela. Once he puts on a few pounds (hopefully this offseason), then he’ll be a much scarier presence down low.

This doesn’t mean that Thor shouldn’t be getting DNPs right now, though. In fact, he’s probably one of the best options Borrego has at his disposal. While Charlotte’s defense has been solid, a big reason behind that has been the presence of Thor alongside Charlotte’s other big men. Playing them all at the same time may be dangerous, but allowing Thor to play and grow will do wonders for him down the line. Plus, he’s been hitting his threes in the G-League, so who’s to say he can’t start nailing them with the main squad? Keep a very close eye on Thor throughout the season.

Nick Richards/Kai Jones

And now we’ve reached the land of the forgotten. There was a point in time where Richards was getting serious minutes for the Hornets, and there was also a time where people saw Kai Jones as the answer at center for Charlotte. While neither of those statements is reality anymore, these two guys are still options.

Richards is the biggest body the Hornets have, and Jones is the most athletic. That being said, both are still very raw prospects that just can’t quite compete consistently at the NBA level just yet. Jones is a rookie, so maybe he’ll begin to pan out more next year, but the clock is ticking with Richards. Don’t expect these two guys to get many minutes this year, barring any injuries.

Rotation

So keeping all that in mind, what’s the rotation going to look like moving forward? Discounting any sort of unexpected leap from Thor, Plumlee will remain the starting center in Charlotte. Harrell is a sixth man at heart, and it’s highly unlikely that Borrego chooses to take him out of that role. Washington will be played mainly as a four, but there are some schemes where he could work at the five as well.

Expect Harrell to get the bulk of the center minutes after coming in off the bench. After that, playing time will largely depend on the matchup. Plumlee will get more run when the Hornets are playing against big, lumbering centers. Thor will see his minutes increase when they play versatile, small-ball lineups. And Washington will earn some center minutes if the opposing team doesn’t have a true center on the floor.

Combining all of the centers’ talents, Borrego has a lot of talent to work with. But none of them do the perfect amount of everything to warrant getting significant minutes over the others. Harrell is the closest to doing, but his lack of size deters him from being Charlotte’s true go-to guy.

This offseason is when things will get really interesting, but until then, this is how the center position looks in Buzz City. For better or for worse.