The Hornets Need Cody Zeller

The Charlotte Hornets struggle to win consistently when fully healthy and seem to fall apart completely without Cody Zeller. What is it about the Indiana product that makes the team work?

The Charlotte Hornets don’t have much margin for error. Over the past few years, they’ve been mediocre at best – 172-195 since the beginning of the 2014-15 season. Over the course of a normal 82-game season, that winning percentage of.469 would translate to a 38-44 record. The team hovers around the bottom of the playoff scene in the weaker Eastern Conference, and while it's more forgiving than the West, it still doesn't leave much wiggle room for a team with postseason aspiration.

When news broke in early January that Cody Zeller would miss significant time after having surgery on his right hand, that margin got even smaller. 

As a role player on a small market team, Zeller largely flies under the radar. Despite the lack of national attention, the 26-year-old Indiana product has established himself as a vital piece in Charlotte. He’s not the second star that the team desperately needs to establish next to Kemba Walker, but Zeller might just be the team’s most important player outside of the All-Star guard.

Just look at team performance in games Zeller plays compared to when he sits out with an injury. The former fourth overall pick established himself as a starter and major player in his second year, the 2014-15 season. Since then, the Hornets have gone 134-131 (.506) when he plays and just 38-64 (.373) when he sits. Over the course of a full season, that’s the difference between 31 and 41 wins – enough to bring a surefire lottery team to the cusp of the playoffs.

It’s not just the end result that proves the big man’s worth. Even when he’s not sitting out with injuries, his absence affects the team. In every season since his rookie year, the team’s net rating has improved while he plays and drops whenever he heads back to the bench. This season, for example, Charlotte outscores opponents by 4.1 points per 100 possessions when the Big Handsome is in the lineup and is outscored by 1.4 points per every 100 that he sits. The only player on the team with a higher differential so far this season is Marvin Williams. Both players are helped by virtue of playing with the starters on a team that struggles with depth – especially at their positions – but the former is clearly a vital piece of the Hornets’ team.

What is it about Zeller, an oft-injured player whose best season came two years ago when he averaged 10.3 points and 6.5 rebounds per game (both career highs) that makes Charlotte tick?

In past years, it's primarily been his defense. The seven-footer is by no means an elite shot-blocker, and has never averaged even a block per game. NBA.com’s player tracking stats aren’t exactly eye-popping, either: opposing players shoot 57.8 percent at the rim against Zeller. That number is almost exactly in the middle among centers averaging at least 20 minutes per game (though he is above noted shot-blockers Anthony Davis and Jarrett Allen, to be fair).

But even without being a particularly imposing figure at the rim, Zeller’s quickness and smarts have made him an important piece in slowing down the opposition: in each of his first five years in the league, the Hornets’ defense improved while he was on the court. This year, the number is virtually the same regardless of if Zeller plays or sits, and is pretty dreadful either way. A lot of that is likely due to the loss of former head coach Steve Clifford, whose schemes made a squad short on elite defensive personnel consistently one of the better teams in the league on that side of the ball. And while his defense might not be making the same difference it has in years past, his offensive influence is picking up the slack.

While Zeller’s offensive numbers don’t exactly jump off the page, the impact he’s had on the team is undeniable. While he plays, the team’s offense performs at a level on par with the high-scoring Denver Nuggets; when he sits, it drops to the bottom third of the league, just above the likes of the Pistons and Knicks. And though improved shooting at the rim and the line certainly help the offense, the real difference-maker has been the big man’s effect on the team’s dynamic point guard.

Zeller’s ability to set screens, boundless energy, and solid hands help to fully unlock Walker’s game. The point guard’s raw field goal and three-point percentages increase when he plays alongside his starting center, as do his effective field goal and true shooting numbers. In fact, the former UConn star shoots better from every distance on the floor when he shares it with Zeller. The chemistry between the two players is a major reason why James Borrego has managed to put together a top-10 offense without a consistently reliable scorer outside of his point guard. 

It’s clear that Walker is the heart of the team and the main reason it stays competitive, and there’s one statistic that helps show how important Zeller is to Walker: when Walker is on the floor without Zeller, the team is outscored by 2.5 points per 100 possessions. When the two play together, that net rating jumps to 3.3 in their favor, a 5.8-point swing. That’s not to imply that Zeller is more valuable than a soon-to-be three-time All-Star, of course. But it helps illustrate that if Walker is the engine that drives the team, Zeller is something like a mechanic, doing work to ensure that everything runs smoothly.

Of course, part of the reason the team performs so much better with their starting big man in is the simple fact that he’s much better than his backups. Willy Hernangomez, Bismack Biyombo and Frank Kaminsky – the three reserves seeing time at center – are all relatively young at 26 and under, but none inspire much confidence. Part of Zeller’s value for the Hornets is simply that he isn’t one of those three. 

And that’s really the heart of the issue with this team: as vital and underrated as he is, Zeller is not good enough to be arguably the second- or third-best player on a great team. The ceiling of a team that relies this heavily on him is just about where the Hornets have settled over the past few seasons. To truly compete near the top of the conference, Charlotte desperately needs more help. But to stay afloat in the playoff picture, even in a weaker conference, the team could do much worse than Cody Zeller.

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