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Mike Dunlap’s firing raises questions for drifting Bobcats

By Scott Fowler
sfowler@charlotteobserver.com

The first time I heard Mike Dunlap had conducted a four-hour practice with the Charlotte Bobcats I wondered if he was really cut out for an NBA head-coaching job.

Turns out he isn't – at least not according to the team that hired him only 10 months ago. The Bobcats on Tuesday consigned Dunlap to the embarrassing corner where Sam Vincent's NBA head-coaching career ended up, firing him after a single season.

A source close to the team told me that in the team's annual season-ending exit interviews that Dunlap received a number of negative evaluations from current Bobcat players – not only for those occasional long practices but for his general demeanor. Dunlap was a demanding guy who tended toward the negative. He was smart with Xs and Os and didn’t mind letting you know that, but he was also snappish and hard to relate to. He was, simply, a boss who many of the players didn't like.

Has that style worked for some other basketball coaches? Sure. You could name dozens who weren't warm and cuddly but still won a lot and kept their jobs – although most of them on the list would be college coaches, a place where Dunlap’s personality more naturally fits.

Still, if Dunlap's only Bobcats team had done a lot better than 21-61 – the NBA's second-worst record in 2012-13 – he would still have a job. But if you're going to micro-manage and not get along that well with your players in today’s NBA, you better win. Dunlap’s coaching style was a little like Larry Brown without the hall of fame credentials, and even Brown lasted fewer than three seasons with the Bobcats.

To be fair, Phil Jackson wouldn’t have gotten these Bobcats to the playoffs. For the past two years, the team has had one of the worst rosters in recent NBA history.

And so owner Michael Jordan and the Bobcats find themselves once again on Limbo Island. It’s a place where they have lived so often in their team history that they have decided to buy a three-bedroom house there and set up a residence instead of simply renting a place each summer.

The Bobcats have no head coach and are about to have to hire their sixth one (for a team that only began playing in 2004). They have a lot of cap room but no all-star on the roster. They have another high draft pick coming up but no guarantee he will work out any better than the previous ones.

The Bobcats have made the playoffs only once in their nine-year history and have never won a playoff game. And they aren't even sure whether they will be the Bobcats or return to the "Charlotte Hornets" nickname for the long term (they should become the "Hornets" and sprint away from this sad history).

The Bobcats have been a mess for much of their existence, and they are still a mess. I would agree that Dunlap showed he wasn't the right guy to clean it up, so Tuesday’s decision makes a certain amount of sense.

But the decision where they decided to hire Dunlap originally? That one – as the Bobcats have now admitted by firing him after one season – was a serious mistake.

It was only 10 months ago that Rod Higgins, the Bobcats’ president of basketball operations, said in a statement: “Mike Dunlap embodies the characteristics we were seeking in a head coach. He is renowned in basketball circles as a teacher, developer of talent, communicator and collaborator. His energy and work ethic are endless, and we are excited to have him in charge of our team.”

Then on Tuesday, this from Higgins: “As an organization, it was decided that we needed to make a change with the head coach position. We want to thank Mike for his contribution and wish him the best in his future endeavors.”

That’s awfully quick.

And it also raises the question as to whether the people responsible for hiring Dunlap in the first place really should be the ones in charge of hiring the next guy, too.

Scott Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler
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