In the preseason, Hornets head coach James Borrego forecasted that his freshly-drafted point guard LaMelo Ball would spend time on the court with the two incumbent starting guards in Devonte’ Graham and Terry Rozier.
It’s unlikely, though, that he predicted that trio to be starting nearly two months later. A mixture of injuries and unexpected success with Ball, Rozier and Graham on the court has led Borrego to turn to that lineup with increasing regularity this season, including starting it on multiple occasions including in Friday’s win over the Timberwolves.
The results have been overwhelmingly positive. In 93 minutes together, the trio has a net rating of 21.7 this season.
“I think it’s that simple,” Borrego said of what’s made that lineup successful. “They can all create. They look for each other. They can all get downhill. It’s just having multiple playmakers on the floor that can catch-and-shoot, that can get to the rim and create for others. All three are comfortable in pick and roll. All three are comfortable in transition as well.
“They’ve done really good and I’d like to get some more with them as well. We’ll have to stagger the rotation to do that a little bit but that’s a good group for us.”
Various aspects of each player’s individual game have made the lineups work this season. Defensively, the lineup’s rating of 100.0 is the seventh-best of any Hornets 3-man lineup with at least 90 minutes together.
Individually, Graham is second on the team in defensive rating among rotation players, helping make up the deficit with Ball and Rozier ranking among the worst on the team.
But it’s the offensive side of the Ball where each player has pointed out the reason for its success. The 121.7 offensive rating when the trio shares the court is the fourth-best of any 3-man grouping with at least 90 minutes together for Charlotte.
“Oh, yeah, I love the lineup,” Ball added. “I mean, I feel like it’s hard to defend when you’ve got three guards like that that can always just go and get a bucket. And then even when Gordon (Hayward) right there, so yeah, I feel like it’s a nice starting five.”
As Ball notes, the pace the Hornets play at increases when that trio shares the court, jumping from 100.11 to 102.42. While it appears minimal, it’s the difference between being fourth in the league in pace and 14th.
“I think because we run and gun, we keep the defense on their toes,” Rozier said. “All three of us can get hot at any given moment. We just rebound and push. The three-guard lineup, there’s really no point guard, two and three. We just play. I feel like all three of us complement each other very well.”
Rozier’s shooting has certainly helped the lineup this season as well. Not only is he shooting a career-best 45.0% from the 3-point line, his catch-and-shoot percentage of 52.9% this season ranks in the 98th percentile, per Synergy. Only 27 players in the league have taken at least 100 catch-and-shoot jumpers this season and Rozier ranks first in the league.
Ball’s rebounding also helps the Hornets overcome some of the natural obstacles of playing three guards together. On the season, Ball has a rebound percentage of 10.4%. When he shares the floor with Rozier and Graham, that jumps to 14.9%.
“I feel like we can just play faster,” Graham said. “(We can) find guys for open shots. You got three playmakers and then if Gordon’s out there with us, you have four guys who really have to show a lot of attention on. On ball screens, a lot of teams do different things with different guys on ball screens so I think it kind of messes (them) up. Some teams might be up, might be back on Gordon or whatever the case may be but we run so many screens in a possession, it gets people confused and we find guys for open shots and we just have fun playing together like that.”
With that trio on the court together, the Hornets shoot significantly better with their true shooting percentage jumping from 56.6% on the season as a whole to 65.7% with that lineup on the court. From three, the Hornets shoot 45.9% with that trio on the court, over seven percent higher than their season average.
The introduction of Cody Zeller, who missed 13 games to start the season after suffering a broken hand in the opener, has further unlocked the trio of Graham, Ball and Rozier. When that trio shares the floor with Zeller, the Hornets have a 144.0 offensive rating and a 107.7 defensive rating.
Injuries to Rozier and Graham in recent weeks have limited how much the Hornets can use their 3-guard starting lineup with Gordon Hayward serving as the fifth member. The limited sample size certainly paints an optimistic future for the Hornets, though.
In 21 minutes across four games, that five-man lineup has an offensive rating of 141.9, a defensive rating of 102.3 and a net rating of 39.5. No other lineup with at least 20 minutes together for Charlotte this season has a better net rating.
For now, with P.J. Washington likely remaining out due to Health and Safety Protocols, the choice has been taken out of Charlotte’s hands. However, once he returns, Borrego will certainly have a difficult decision as to what starting lineup to roll with moving forward.