Unless James Borrego plans on deploying a 10-man rotation in a single-elimination play-in tournament, someone on the Charlotte Hornets will find themselves on the bench against the Atlanta Hawks more than they’ve perhaps gotten used to.
Last week, Borrego told the media that he’d shown the lay of the land to his team, saying that he thinks that “giving the guys some clarity on roles and rotations will help them play at a higher level” (per The Charlotte Observer’s Rod Boone) as the postseason rolls around. However, that was before Gordon Hayward was ruled out for at least two weeks, and at the time it was apparent that Jalen McDaniels and Isaiah Thomas would be the casualties as Hayward ramped it back up.
As James Plowright and I will discuss on the next At The Hive Live episode, the Hawks are a good matchup for the Hornets. Charlotte is deep on the wing with players that have athleticism and length, LaMelo Ball’s size poses trouble for a smaller Trae Young, and they have just as many shooters — if not more — that can heat up in an instant and seal the game.
Let’s assume two players will receive normal minutes; Cody Martin and Montrezl Harrell. Martin’s point-of-attack defense is frustrating for lead ball-handlers and he’s big enough to defend wings like Bogdan Bogdanović and Kevin Huerter. Harrell put up 20-6 off the bench the last time out against Atlanta — his vocal leadership also counts for something, even if his role could diminish if the Hornets advance into a first-round playoff series (we’ll cross that bridge when we get there).
That leaves McDaniels, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Thomas.
Oubre is an extreme wild card in a single-elimination game; if early-season Oubre reappears and cans a handful of threes off the bench, the Hornets are likely going to be in position to win. If he comes out cold and his focus wanes defensively, he could be quickly taking a seat on the bench. A fast-paced game would suit him well so he can get going with easy dunks or wide-open triples. Of these three, Oubre’s play is the most volatile, and volatility is not a friend in the play-in.
After shaking off post-injury rust, McDaniels has been excellent. In five games in April, he shot 60 percent from the field and 55.6 percent (7-11) from deep, averaging nearly a block (0.8) and a steal (1.3) per game. The versatility and security he provides as an off-ball defender is valuable for a Hornets team that lacks a true rim protector; players that get in passing lanes, get deflections, dig in to bother drivers, and roam around looking to cause trouble are necessary for this roster, and McDaniels is one of them.
Lastly, we’ve got the most proven playoff performer on the team in Thomas, though it was in the distant past. A couple of big losses to Philadelphia and Miami boosted his playing time before he played garbage time minutes against Orlando and Chicago. A 14-point third-quarter explosion that turned the game for the Hornets in their final outing helps his case, but even during his peak with Boston, offenses were able to seek him out defensively and take him one-on-one or punish the switch. Size could be an issue, but with Atlanta also having a couple of small guards in Lou Williams (if he’s healthy) and Young, another postseason heater from Thomas remains possible.
The DNP-CD that Harrell received against Miami seems to be a one-off now that Hayward is officially ruled out. It’s certainly possible that a lackluster defensive performance coupled with effective small-ball minutes limits him, but he’s at least going to get a shot to impact the game as Ball’s forceful partner in the pick-and-roll.
To answer the question posed in the headline; I’m not really sure! But that’s the fun part. Analyzing and scheming for postseason matchups is significantly more interesting than doing so on a cold night in December. Borrego letting a 10-man rotation ride is possible, but the best players on the team need to, and will be playing extensive minutes. It’ll be harder to do that the more players he includes in the rotation. We’ll see how it goes at 7:00 p.m. Wednesday night on ESPN. Job’s not finished.