Malik Monk had a perfect description for the Chicago Bulls sweeping the Charlotte Hornets this season.
“They’re big!” Monk said following a 120-99 home loss. “Every time we try to get a little run, we try to box somebody out and they reach over us and get the rebound. Kick it out for a 3, and go back up 10.”
The Hornets look puny playing the Bulls. This was a night when Charlotte was closing in on clinching at least the play-in tournament. The Bulls are five victories worse than the Hornets, yet they won three head-to-head matchups this season by an average of 17 points.
The Bulls expose what is the Hornets’ biggest flaw, has been the Hornets’ biggest flaw and might continue to be the greatest flaw next season: Center.
Nikola Vucevic is an All-Star at center who the Bulls acquired in trade with the Orlando Magic. He finished with 29 points and 14 rebounds. The Hornets’ two centers Thursday, Bismack Biyombo and Cody Zeller, combined for 13 points and 11 rebounds.
This isn’t new. Coach James Borrego said as much following a recent blowout loss to the Celtics in Boston.
“It’s been like that for three years,” Borrego said of the center weakness. “It may be another three years that we continue to look like that, actually ...
“Just trying to piece it together.”
Thursday it unraveled. The Bulls have so much size that it wasn’t realistic for Borrego to play power forward P.J. Washington much at center. Also, the Hornets lose a lot of energy and physicality without forward Miles Bridges, who is in COVID-10 related protocol.
But that doesn’t excuse giving up 15 offensive rebounds to the Bulls, resulting in 19 Chicago second-chance points.
The Hornets aspire to qualify for the playoffs. They would certainly face playoff teams with the size and physicality to do what a 27-39 Bulls team did to them Thursday.
“We didn’t fight defensively,” said Washington, who finished with 24 points and six rebounds. “They were getting anything they wanted at that end of the floor. This is about defense for us, at the end of the day.”
Are the Charlotte Hornets soft?
This was the second recent game when the Hornets got pushed around — “bullied,” as Monk described — after a home loss Sunday to the Miami Heat.
The Bulls wore on rookie LaMelo Ball hard, and the effect was obvious: Ball shot 1 of 10 from the field (although he did pass out nine assists).
Similar to Sunday, several Hornets became preoccupied with the referees Thursday, rather than match the Bulls’ physicality. This isn’t good, particularly knowing the playoffs are innately more physical than most regular-season games.
“They just punked us from the get-go every game,” Monk said of the pattern the Bulls established. “They had way more energy and were way more physical than us.”
Center must be the top offseason priority
Not much can change the rest of this season beyond Bridges, Gordon Hayward (sprained foot) and Devonte Graham (right knee discomfort) getting healthy. But general manager Mitch Kupchak absolutely must address center in the offseason.
The Hornets finished last in defensive-rebound percentage last season and are 28th among 30 teams this season. Charlotte has little rim protection, even with Biyombo providing what he can 10 seasons into his career.
Washington has survived as a 6-foot-7 part-time center this season, but that gimmick is no long-term solution.
It made sense for Kupchak to draft point guard Ball to upgrade the talent and to use up last summer’s salary-cap room to add small forward Hayward.
But going another offseason without significantly addressing this hole in the middle would just be irresponsible. Maybe it’s signing a Richaun Holmes away from Sacramento. Maybe it’s working out a trade with the Indiana Pacers for a Myles Turner.
But this building plan is effectively in idle until Kupchak does something about the gaping hole at center.