Al Jefferson injury pushes Hornets closer to a lost season
A year that began with high expectations is cratering with the news that Jefferson will miss several weeks due to injury.
This was supposed to be a big season for the newly branded Charlotte Hornets, an opportunity for the franchise to reintroduce itself to the region as a competitive, exciting outfit in the NBA landscape. Instead, the team is likely heading for a wasted season after announcing that star big man Al Jefferson would miss at least four weeks due to a groin injury.
After a rough start to the season under the new Hornets branding, the team had already dug itself a deep hole even in the weak Eastern Conference. This news doesn’t totally sink the team’s chances of competing for a playoff spot come the spring, but it puts a dent in some already slim odds.
Charlotte is currently 12th in the East with a 10-22 record, four games behind the Miami Heat for the eighth and final postseason spot. The team is indeed as bad as its record indicates — 25th overall in winning percentage (.313) and overall net rating (minus-5.2) — and that’s before considering the absence of arguably its best player.
In a season full of problems for the Hornets, ranging from a massive decline on defense to the discord with Lance Stephenson, Jefferson was supposed to be the steady rock in the middle. Now that he’s expected to miss a sizable chunk of the season, what can Charlotte do from here?
While Jefferson is sidelined by the groin strain, fourth-year big man Bismack Biyombo will likely take his place in the starting lineup. Biyombo, 22, was the team’s primary starting center back in 2012-13, but has been held back by a raw offensive game and the need to polish his defensive instincts.
Biyombo has seen a more limited role this season, playing just 14 minutes a night, and now gets a chance to show his improvement. The former No. 7 overall pick in the 2011 draft has been as efficient as ever this season, with a career-high 15.5 PER, but he’ll be asked to do a lot more with Jefferson no longer in front of him.
Luckily, there’s reason to believe Biyombo might be able to make a positive impact. While there are the usual caveats with sample size and quality of competition, the Hornets are outscoring opponents by 5.1 points per 100 possessions with Biyombo on the floor. He’s the only player on the team with a positive net rating, and seems to be showing improvement after years of NBA coaching.
That makes this a massive opportunity for Biyombo, who is set for restricted free agency this summer and needs to prove he can be a steady contributor in a bigger role. Given his age and athleticism, someone would surely take a shot on him regardless, but this could be a chance for him to show he’s more than a decent defensive-minded reserve.
The other names that are likely to benefit from Jefferson’s absence are Cody Zeller and Noah Vonleh, the team’s past two first-round picks. Zeller has been splitting starting duties with Marvin Williams this season, while Vonleh missed the beginning of the season due to injury and was recently recalled from the D-League. Both guys figure to get bumped up the depth chart with the news.
Like Biyombo, Zeller has had his chances in Charlotte, but this may be his best one yet. If he can prove to be a potent mid-range scorer and rebounder like he was projected out of college, the Hornets may have a tolerable stopgap situation between him and Biyombo, even if replacing Jefferson’s double-double production is near impossible.
The Hornets were already in a tough position before Jefferson’s injury, so it’s reasonable to assume a trip to the lottery is in order. That’s disappointing for a franchise that thought it was close to taking a major step in the other direction, but it doesn’t necessarily sink the team’s future.
Jefferson has a player option for next season, and the young frontcourt guys like Biyombo, Zeller, Vonleh and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will presumably play larger roles in the meantime. There’s always a chance this allows one or more of those guys to emerge and exceed expectations.
However, this puts the Hornets a step back in their desire to be a competitive team sooner rather than later. Jefferson was a big part of the surprising breakout for Charlotte last season, and it’ll be hard for the team to compete at a high level soon without him.
The Hornets thought their rebuilding process was over, with moves like the Stephenson signing designed to put the team over the top. Now that timeline doesn’t look so certain, and Charlotte’s leadership will have to figure out how to adjust from here.