At 28-24, the Charlotte Hornets have been a pleasant surprise. Much of that can be attributed to the continuous rise of second-year superstar LaMelo Ball.
The 20-year-old Ball is must-see TV, but he’s more than just flashy highlights. Wednesday night, the young point guard dropped a career-best 38 points against the Boston Celtics. However, Charlotte was unable to capitalize with a win.
Thanks in large part to LaMelo, the Hornets are in the thick of a tight Eastern Conference playoff race. But in order to take the next step, Charlotte needs to scour the market to provide its star with some more help.
The Hornets wasted LaMelo Ball’s magical night
Ball is proving that last season’s Rookie of the Year award was no fluke. The future All-Star is averaging 19.9 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 7.7 assists for a Hornets team in search of their first playoff berth since 2015-16.
LaMelo entered Wednesday with four consecutive outings of 20-or-more points. Not only would he extend the streak to five, but he would score a career-high 38 points on 50.0% shooting. The youngest Ball brother also added nine assists, six rebounds, and a pair of steals to his stat sheet.
Ball was brilliant, scoring 21 of those 38 points in the second half. But his teammates were unable to deliver him the win. While Terry Rozier had 23 points, Miles Bridges had a puny six points in the contest. Sixth man Kelly Oubre Jr. also had just five second-half points as the Hornets fell 113-107 at TD Garden.
Although Charlotte still controls the seven-seed and trails the top-seed Chicago Bulls by just five games, the basketball in the Queen City has been far from exemplary of late. With their six-point loss to Boston, the Hornets have now dropped four of their last six contests, three of which were by double figures.
Charlotte needs to make some defensive upgrades at the trade deadline
While Wednesday might not have served as the best example, Charlotte’s supporting cast has been pretty solid all season. Bridges is tied with Ball for the team lead in points per game in his contract season. In total, five Hornets are averaging 16.6 points or more, resulting in the highest-scoring offense in the NBA.
But Charlotte’s issues lie on the defensive side, where LaMelo and company just aren’t getting the job done.
After Wednesday’s loss, Charlotte’s defensive rating is now 26th in the NBA. Its league-best 114.3 points per game are canceled out by the 114.6 it gives up. And with a gauntlet of Eastern Conference contenders on deck, including the Miami Heat and one-seed Bulls, the Hornets are in danger of falling out of the seven-seed in a hurry.
Although he’s not a plus defender yet, Ball is tied for the best defensive rating among rotational players with 111. Meanwhile, solid scorers like Rozier and Gordon Hayward are at 115, the second-worst in Charlotte.
So even though Melo has plenty to work with on the offensive end, he’s being hung out to dry on defense. That must be Charlotte’s primary focus heading into the trade deadline.
Pairing LaMelo Ball with a better center would be a huge upgrade for the Hornets
One look at Charlotte’s starting lineup will reveal a weak spot. Ball and Rozier are locked in as the starting backcourt pair, while Bridges and Hayward are holding it down at forward. But veteran journeyman Mason Plumlee is starting at the five. The big man is averaging 6.8 points through 43 games and registering a below-league-average 14.3 PER.
Needless to say, the Hornets should be in the market for a center.
“So if the Hornets are going to vault themselves into the postseason and make the kind of noise they want by having the ability to pull off a first-round upset, they would be much stronger if Plumlee was their positional backup instead,” wrote Roderick Boone of the Charlotte Observer earlier this week. “Going externally for a solution is their only answer.”
Luckily, the Hornets have many viable options to explore on the trade market. Some centers that might be available include the Indiana Pacers’ Myles Turner, Portland Trail Blazers’ Jusef Nurkic, Houston Rockets’ Christian Wood, or Sacramento Kings’ Richaun Holmes. Any of the four would be a massive upgrade over the below-average Plumlee on both sides of the ball.
Best of all, the Hornets won’t have to gut their roster in a deal. Charlotte has a plethora of young players it could use in a deal, like rookie bigs Kai Jones and JT Thor or third-year forward Jalen McDaniels. While moving those youngsters would eat into the team’s depth, it would give the Hornets a more well-rounded starting five ahead of the playoffs.
Charlotte can’t afford to waste many more career nights from Ball. Hopefully, this is the kick in the pants needed to make a deal happen.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference.