Hornets coaching search heats up as the team prepares for pivotal offseason

By Chase Whitney

May 26, 2022

Photo: Charles Rex Arbogast / AP

After the Charlotte Hornets lost in blowout fashion both times they made the postseason under James Borrego, general manager Mitch Kupchack relieved him of his head coaching duties. Armed with an All-Star in LaMelo Ball and a roster mixed with veteran talent and rookie-deal building blocks, the Hornets are rolling into one of the most critical offseasons in franchise history.

On top of preparing for the 2022 NBA Draft on June 23, the newly re-signed Kupchak and his staff must hire a head coach. So far, Golden State assistant Kenny Atkinson and Milwaukee assistant Darvin Ham are publicly known to have gone in for a second interview, with New Orleans advisor Mike D’Antoni, former Portland head coach Terry Stotts, and Frank Vogel being among the popular veteran coaching options available. In his end-of-season Zoom press conference live from the NBA Combine in Chicago on May 19, Kupchak detailed the coaching search.

“It’s dragged out a little bit [due to the playoffs], but we’re pretty close to narrowing the group. I can’t give a timeline– certainly you’d like to have a coach in place by the draft, I would hope it would be much sooner– I can’t imagine it would be within the next week or so, but somewhere between two weeks and certainly, hopefully before the draft.”

Atkinson, along with Dallas assistant Sean Sweeney, have both interviewed for the job while their respective teams battle in the playoffs. The Sacramento Kings hired Mike Brown as head coach already, leaving the Hornets and Los Angeles Lakers as the remaining openings. Atkinson, Ham and Stotts have all been rumored as a “strong candidate” for the Lakers job as well, creating heavy overlap in the two searches and potentially slowing things up behind the scenes along with the playoffs.

Kupchak spoke about the necessity for the next head coach to build off of James Borrego’s performance over the last four seasons, and help take the next step, though he stopped short of saying Borrego’s blowout losses in the play-in tournament were the reasons for his dismissal.

“We’re looking for the coach that’s going to get us to that next step. I think the group did a great job this year winning 43 games, and under normal circumstances with 43 wins, you probably end up as the seventh or eighth seed,” Kuchak said. “Next year, we want to make a similar improvement, and it doesn’t mean we’re gonna do it with new players on the team.”

The Hornets undoubtedly improved on the court over the last four seasons, but were ultimately unable to get over the hump with Borrego as the leading voice in the locker room. Kupchak, highlighting the fact that making improvements doesn’t need to coincide with roster changes, implies he thought he handed Borrego a playoff-level roster last season. Borrego obviously didn’t meet the front office’s standard.

Fair or not, the next coach will be expected to help the Hornets take another step forward, and in large part, the 2022-23 roster is already in place. The only rostered players not under contract for the coming season are unrestricted free agents Montrezl Harrell and Isaiah Thomas, and restricted free agents Miles Bridges and Cody Martin. Bridges, the franchise’s second-most important building block behind LaMelo Ball, doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

“Miles is a restricted free agent, which means we can match any deal that anybody else brings to us. Our intention is to keep Miles long-term, he’s a big part of our future,” said Kupchak. 

Jalen McDaniels has a $1.9 million team option for the coming season that is almost certainly going to be picked up. McDaniels’ production is worth well above $1.9 million per year, he fits with the team, and holds value around the league. Nick Richards’ rookie deal runs through next season, but it’s not guaranteed– unfortunately for him, his $1.7 million salary could end up as a cap casualty.

With DeAndre Ayton and Rudy Gobert slowly appearing to be available for a trade this summer, the Hornets have a chance to go big game hunting. But, trading for high-salary bigs takes a matching salary to send out in the deal– enter Gordon Hayward. Hayward is owed $61 million over the next two seasons and though he’s still a good player, he’s missed both postseason games with injuries since arriving in Charlotte. If Kupchak is going to take a big swing on the trade market, Hayward’s contract will likely have to be included in a prospective deal. The routes to trading for Gobert are easier due to Ayton being a restricted free agent but anything is possible during the NBA offseason.

In his first season playing primarily a bench role in the 2021-22 season, PJ Washington’s numbers didn’t suffer much despite receiving fewer minutes as he established himself as one of the best all-around defenders on the roster. Washington is eligible for a rookie-scale contract extension this summer and becomes a restricted free agent after the 2022-23 season. If he shoots 60 percent on two-point field goals, 36.5 percent on 4.6 three-point attempts per game, and shows defensive versatility again next season, Washington is going to be paid handsomely. Once the free agency dust settles, it might be in Charlotte’s best interest to work out an extension and not wait for Washington to make another developmental leap and raise his value.

Armed with the 13th, 15th and 45th overall selections in next month’s draft, the Hornets could go in a multitude of different directions. Making all three picks would again give them one of the youngest rosters in the league, and some prospects available in the middle of the first round would fit well, but the picks could also be used in a draft night trade. 

“It gives us a lot of options… kind of a silver lining to the way our season ended. It’s currency, right? You can move up in the draft, you can trade it for a player, you can add it in with a player, you can use it, you can trade back… it gives us a lot of options to have two picks in the top-15.”

As the draft inches closer, more rumors will surface as to which prospects the Hornets are interested in, and whether they plan to use the draft capital in a trade. For now, many mainstream mock drafts, big boards and draft intel sources slot defensive-minded bigs to the Hornets at 13 and 15, which makes sense given their need for reinforcement in the interior. 

The Hornets will need to fill the head coaching vacancy before fans see any significant draft rumors surface, but Kupchak’s presser gave off the impression that it could be sooner rather than later. 

Over the last year, the Hornets have made strides in areas while lagging behind in some (mainly defense). It will be up to the next head coach to fulfill the desire for consistent playoff contention, and Kupchak to continue to fill out the roster with talent and manage the team’s trade assets. Thankfully, we’ve only got a few weeks before the offseason heats up and the immediate future of the Hornets becomes clearer. 

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