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Charlotte Hornets have a new starting center. It’s not ideal, but he’s the best choice

Rick Bonnell
·4 min read

A 6-foot-7, P.J. Washington will never be a prototype NBA center.

However, coach James Borrego is sending strong signals that Washington is the Charlotte Hornets’ best alternative at center the rest of this season.

Washington entered this season as a power forward who could switch to a small-ball center. Borrego said Tuesday that Washington’s “best minutes” this season have come at center. Lately, center has been where Washington has played the vast majority of his minutes.

“For us this season — based on our roster, based on what we need — he’s been more efficient for us, more effective, at the ‘5’ (i.e. center). Driving the fives (to the rim), stretching them (with 3-point range), running them — there seem to be advantages,” playing Washington at center, Borrego said.

“That doesn’t say he can’ t play (power forward) if the right combination is around him.”

What’s around Washington is to a large degree the problem: He plays so much center because that is the Hornets’ weakest position.

Neither of the two veterans — Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo — have played well enough to establish himself as a starter. Rookie center Vernon Carey flashed some potential by scoring 21 points against the Brooklyn Nets, but for now Carey is a defensive liability who fouls a lot.

The 28-29 Hornets are scrambling over these last 15 regular-season games to at least qualify for the NBA’s play-in tournament before playoffs begin. They are still missing three of their top offensive players. It’s unclear when LaMelo Ball, Gordon Hayward and Malik Monk will return from various injuries.

Borrego is trying to conjure up enough offense until those three return to win a few games. Six times in the last 13 games, the Hornets have scored 97 or fewer points, and they lost all six of those games.

Borrego’s best of limited options right now appears to be Washington at center and Miles Bridges at power forward. Borrego made Bridges a starter after Hayward was hurt (foot sprain April 2 that will have him out a month or more), but the Hornets’ coach did so reluctantly for how that would weaken Charlotte’s second unit.

Numbers say Washington-Bridges

NBA statistics for two-man combinations bear out that Washington at center and Bridges at power forward is generally the Hornets’ best front court, even if it means starting two 6-foot-7 players at the interior positions.

Based on the NBA’s statistics database, when Bridges and Washington play together (626 minutes this season), the Hornets outscore their opponents by 5.8 points per 100 possessions.

Compare that to Washington (at power forward) with Zeller and Biyombo:

Biyombo and Washington have played 464 minutes together, and the Hornets have been outscored in those minutes by 7.1 points per 100 possessions.

Zeller and Washington have played 308 minutes together, and the Hornets have outscored opponents by 3.9 points per 100 possessions.

Making this work for now

Washington has scored 23 and 26 points in his last two games, playing primarily center.

He has said repeatedly he has no strong preference between power forward or center. He does say the two positions are different, and not just because he generally has to defend larger players at center.

He’s more involved offensively as a center, and in different actions.

“When I’m at (center), I’m in a lot more ball screens, I’m in a lot more DHO (dribble hand-offs),” Washington said earlier this month. “I have the ball in my hands a lot more than I do” playing power forward.

A significant aspect of this is Bridges having his best of three NBA seasons, particularly as a shooter. He has thrived, partially because he’s playing more power forward than small forward this season. Borrego recently called Bridges “a really special piece” in an Observer profile.

The complication is match-ups, particularly when the Hornets face a team like the Philadelphia 76ers, with a huge, skilled center like Joel Embiid. That’s when Borrego will go more with 7-footer Zeller and play Washington more at power forward.

But for now — at least until the injuries heal, providing more scorers — this is the trade-off Borrego accepts.

“For us this year, his advantage — his best minutes — have come at the ‘5,’ Borrego said of Washington. “We’ll continue looking at that for the rest of the season.”