It’s not quite time to sound the alarm in Charlotte, but the Hornets are in a rough spot. Four losses in five games have dropped them down to the sixth seed in the East, and a number of injuries across the roster have kept the training staff busy. And now, with Nicolas Batum listed as day-to-day with a knee injury, things aren’t exactly looking as if they’ll turn around quickly.
Batum is vital to the Hornets’ success, and his absence certainly didn’t help the team in their 102-85 blowout loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Saturday. While Batum has been on the court this season, the Hornets have played at a top-ten level on both sides. When he sits, however, both ratings plummet: their offensive rating with Batum off the floor of 100.7 would be third-worst in the league, and the defensive rating of 105.0 would tie them with the Indiana Pacers for 15th place. There’s some noise in those numbers — units without Batum are often backup-heavy, for example — but it still shows a certain level of value in the Frenchman’s play.
It’s hard to replace a player as versatile and important as Batum, too. His replacement in the starting lineup has been Jeremy Lamb, and it’s not gone very well. Lamb isn’t nearly the ball handler or passer Batum is, and it allows defenses to focus more fully on Kemba Walker. And even though Lamb was a career 33.6% three-point shooter coming into the season, he’s only hit 23% from behind the arc this year. Without the ability to spread the floor or set up his teammates, Lamb has been a net negative on the offensive end. The numbers back that up: with Lamb on the bench, the Hornets have an offensive rating of 106.6. While he plays, that drops to 102.6.
If Lamb is such an offensive liability, it would be tempting to look for other options on the bench to start alongside Walker in the backcourt. Marco Belinelli would be an obvious choice – he’s been a reliable scorer off the bench and has the ability to nail threes and play as the team’s primary ballhandler. That sounds good, but it presents a whole new set of problems. First, it would disrupt the bench unit by removing its most consistent scorer. That would leave those duties to Lamb and Frank Kaminsky, neither of whom have inspired confidence in their ability to score consistently.
The other issue with starting Belinelli would be that he’s an absolute disaster on the defensive end. Batum is prone to the occasional mental lapse, but he’s still a very capable defender. Similarly, Lamb is not without his issues on that end – even the slightest hint of a pump fake seems to fool him, and he’ll jump for a block and allow his man an easy path to the basket. Still, the Hornets have a better defense with either player on the floor than they do without, and it’s because they’re both long, athletic players with defensive tools. Meanwhile, Belinelli is an absolute disaster, and opposing teams immediately target him defensively. Even with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist helping him, it’s asking for trouble to start him.
Batum should be back in two weeks, but it’ll likely be a while until he’s completely healthy. If the Hornets want to save their season before it completely falls apart, they need him back in the lineup and playing at 100% as soon as possible.