Can the Charlotte Hornets continue their advancement in the NBA playoffs without star rookie LaMelo Ball?
The Hornets announced Sunday that Ball, the third overall pick in this year’s draft, suffered a broken right wrist. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Ball is expected to miss the rest of the season with the injury, a huge disappointment given the fun he’s had to watch.
Led by newcomers Ball and Gordon Hayward and a career-long holdover Terry Rozier, Charlotte finds herself in the middle of a jam in the Eastern Conference playoffs. At 20-21, the Hornets are just 1.5 games out of fourth place in the East, but also 1.5 games away from slipping to 10th and having to win two road games to make the postseason.
How much will Ball’s injury affect Charlotte’s push to the playoffs? How should the Hornets approach Thursday’s trade deadline? And what does Ball’s absence mean for the Rookie of the Year race? Let’s take a look at the implications.
Ball’s production means winning
Last month, Mike Schmitz and I discussed how historic Ball’s productivity level has been for a 19-year-old rookie. Nothing has changed since then. If anything, Ball has gained traction since moving to Charlotte in early February. In 21 starts, he averaged 19.5 points, 6.2 assists and 5.8 rebounds per game.
Perhaps most importantly, Ball has compiled those numbers with remarkable efficiency for such a young player. His actual shooting percentage of .562 (TS%) is better than average point guard (.560) overall, and he has improved to .586 as a starter. Although Ball unsurprisingly has struggled with turnovers on occasion (he’s averaging 3.5 every 36 minutes), his scoring efficiency stands in stark contrast to that of No. 1 pick Anthony Edwards of the Minnesota Timberwolves, whose. 483 TS% is more typical of a developing adolescent.
As a result, Ball has been more than an exciting infusion of hope for a franchise that has yet to win a playoff series in 16 seasons since being reborn through expansion – he’s been a key part of bringing the Hornets back on the scene. of the playoffs. . They have been 11-10 since they promoted Ball to the starting lineup despite playing 10 of those games without starting starter Devonte ‘Graham, who has returned as a backup since the All-Star break.
On the bright side, a healthy Graham means Charlotte coach James Borrego can still put together a solid guard rotation in Ball’s absence. The Hornets will surely return with Graham and Rozier, who started together during the 2019-20 season and for the first month, more this year, with Malik Monk and the Martin twins as backup options.
According to advanced NBA statistics, the Graham-Rozier lineups without Ball have played almost even this season (net rating of minus 0.5), so Charlotte’s push to the playoffs is barely sinking. But the Hornets have little room for additional injury at point guard. Ball or Graham have been on the court for more than 90% of the team’s minutes this season, so Rozier will be asked to make more plays than he has all year. And Charlotte has no other traditional point guard besides rookie Grant Riller, so an injury to Graham or Rozier would force Borrego to rely on Hayward as a second-unit forward.
As noted, there is also little room in qualifying if the Hornets want to avoid a difficult entry road to the postseason. Before Ball’s injury, projections based on ESPN’s Basketball Power Index gave Charlotte a 27% chance of finishing with a top-six seed and avoiding play-in. With just a handful of games separating home-field advantage from last place in the play-in, a win or two away the rest of the way could have a huge impact on the Hornets’ positioning.
Help with the deadline for Charlotte?
Ball’s injury should affect how the Hornets approach the deadline. It was possible Charlotte would have used $ 4 million in remaining cap space along with veteran center Cody Zeller’s expiring $ 15.4 million salary to chase down another key player to drive the playoffs. That never made much sense for a team whose most promising player is a teenager, and it seems even more shortsighted with Ball out of the lineup.
Ideally, the Hornets would use their cap space to win back a contract from another team. Because rosters are limited to 15 players with full NBA contracts during the season, uneven deals in which a team recovers more players than it sends to match salary quickly get complicated. Charlotte can step in to add one of those players using an open spot on the roster while receiving cash compensation or with a second-round draft pick.
The Hornets may be able to use flexibility to help another team and add depth at point guard. For example, if the Golden State Warriors wanted to move Brad Wanamaker’s $ 2.25 million salary to cut his luxury tax bill, now that Nico Mannion has gotten ahead of him in their rotation, Charlotte would be a natural destination.
If not, he would call the Timberwolves on backup point guard Jordan McLaughlin, who has a two-way contract but has been productive whenever he has seen rotational minutes. If McLaughlin could be hired for a low-value second-round pick (the Hornets have second-round players this year from both the Brooklyn Nets and the LA Clippers), he would add valuable insurance behind Graham and Rozier.
Ball is still probably the best rookie
Although not as important as the shock to Charlotte, Ball’s injury opens the door for another player to win the Rookie of the Year award, an award that had apparently been locked away when he was healthy. At the same time, the Rookie of the Year hasn’t relied as much on good health compared to the MVP, who I spoke about Saturday after LeBron James sprained ankle.
In 2011-12, Kyrie Irving won the Rookie of the Year award while playing 77% of the games in the blocking shortened season (51 of 66), while Brandon Roy won in 2006-07 playing just 70% (57 of 82). And in 1985-86, Patrick Ewing was Rookie of the Year despite playing just 50 games (61%), not far from Ball’s 57% (41 of 72) if his season really ended.
With a smaller field of contenders and more variation in terms of on-court productivity, durability is inevitably a minor factor for Rookie of the Year. We saw voters put a lower limit on the number of games needed when Joel Embiid finished third in the vote in 2016-17, when he was clearly the most effective rookie but played only 31 games (38%).
Compared to 2016-17, when Malcolm Brogdon became the first player drafted in the second round to win Rookie of the Year since Woody Sauldsberry in 1957-58, the field looks deeper this season. Still, Ball had established a huge advantage in terms of statistical value. Consider Ball’s advantage in terms of wins over replacement (WAR) in ESPN’s real plus-minus.
Ball has produced nearly twice the WAR of any other rookie thus far, leading a group made up of players selected outside of the top 10 who have generally thrived in smaller roles. His lead over the other five top-five picks in generating the kind of per-game stats that normally translate to Rookie of the Year is even more dramatic. No one else in this group rates better than replacement level so far.
It’s too early to rule out the Rookie of the Year race, as it’s possible a contender could blow up in the final two months of the season. But Ball’s advantage will make it difficult to catch him.