Back in September new Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego said it was imperative the team do whatever it could to keep center Cody Zeller healthy.
Now, that sounds prescient. The Hornets are 18-17 in the games Zeller has played this season and 1-6 in the games he has missed. Zeller has been out the past six games after fracturing his right hand in a home victory over the Orlando Magic on Dec. 31. He could miss another month or more following hand surgery in New York.
That the Hornets wouldn’t fare well in Zeller’s absence isn’t new: The Hornets were 27-42 without Zeller in the three seasons prior to this one. Some of that has been attributed to rough patches of the schedule coinciding with Zeller’s various injuries, but it’s clear this team has a hard time winning without him.
Probably Zeller’s best NBA skill is setting precise screens both in angle and timing. That might not be the sexiest trait, but it makes offense easier for all of his teammates. Also, there is nothing in basketball where he is particularly deficient.
The Hornets have three other centers on the roster — Willy Hernangomez, Bismack Biyombo and Frank Kaminsky — and Borrego has used power forward Marvin Williams often as a small-ball center this season. Initially, Borrego started Hernangomez in Zeller’s absence, then switched to Biyombo the last three games. Neither has really filled the gap in Zeller’s absence, which comes as no surprise.
“You know how we have fared in the past when Cody has not been in uniform,” Williams said when Zeller was injured New Year’s Eve. “We all know how important he is to this team.”
Big games, tepid record
So far this season, Hornets star point guard Kemba Walker’s biggest scoring games haven’t resulted in a great record.
Saturday in Sacramento was the 12th game this season in which Walker has scored 30 or more points. The Hornets’ record in those games is 5-7. That’s a .416 winning percentage, which is slightly lower than the Hornets’ overall winning percentage (.452) this season. The Hornets have lost their past three games when Walker scores 30 or more (35 points versus Brooklyn, 47 versus Washington and 31 versus Sacramento).
A lot of factors could weigh in that, including how much of the fourth quarter (and potentially overtime) Walker plays based on situation. But it also reflects the Hornets’ challenge finding a long-term second scoring option to complement Walker’s All-Star abilities.
Monday night marks the first time in Tony Parker’s 18 NBA seasons that he plays in San Antonio without being a member of the Spurs. Parker signed with the Hornets over the summer, in part to help longtime Spurs assistant Borrego establish a program with the Hornets.
Parker was a huge factor in the Spurs winning five NBA titles with him on the roster, paired with retired former Wake Forest star Tim Duncan and Manu Ginoibili, who is still playing for the Spurs. He was a six-time All-Star and a former NBA Finals Most Valuable Player.
Parker could have re-signed with the Spurs in a reduced role and also drew interest from the Denver Nuggets. Two years removed from a ruptured left quadriceps tendon (an injury serious enough it could have resulted in retirement), Parker has been very effective as Walker’s backup at 36.
The hope was Parker could average 15 minutes per game this season. He’s exceeded that, averaging 18.6 minutes, 9.4 points and 3.8 assists.
He has occasionally been spectacular still, with four games of 20 or more points. Borrego has often closed games this season with Walker and Parker paired in the backcourt. Parker has missed five of the Hornets’ 42 games this season, but only one of those was because of an injury (rib contusion). The other four were Borrego choosing to rest him, including Saturday’s loss to the Kings.
Parker is remarkably cost-effective this season, with a $5 million salary. The Hornets have a team option for $5.25 million next season if Parker chooses to keep playing. The Hornets are grooming a rookie point guard in Devonte Graham, and Graham’s early results are promising.
Parker has never missed the playoffs in his NBA career, and he frequently reminds Hornets teammates not to break that streak this season. The Spurs will no doubt have some sort of honor for Parker Monday night at AT&T Center, likely involving a video montage.
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