Mitch Kupchak is a leading candidate for the Charlotte Hornets general manager job. He’s going to get an interview soon. And from what I am told, the job would most likely be his if he wants it.
But even if things somehow go sour and Kupchak, 63, does not end up getting hired, he represents the sort of GM this team needs – a strong personality who is well-respected throughout the league and who has enough clout that, when needed, he can tell everyone else to butt out and let him do his job.
Rich Cho just wasn’t that guy.
Cho didn’t have the clout. He was a fine numbers guy and pleasant enough, but by nature he was a very smart introvert – a former Boeing engineer who also held a law degree. He’s well-suited for being an NBA salary-cap guru somewhere, but he’s not a great networker.
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Cho’s other weakness turned out to be talent evaluation. Cho swung and missed several times in the NBA draft for Charlotte, and other times he hit only a single when the Hornets badly needed a home run.
It was time for Cho to go.
But if the Charlotte Hornets parted ways with Cho on Tuesday just to pretend to their fan base like they are doing something, then they messed up yet again.
The next GM has to have something close to the gravitas of a Kupchak – who has a remarkable 10 NBA championship rings from his 40 years in the league as a player and front-office man. If not, then the new GM will again be trampled too often by all the big personalities in the Hornets’ front office (up to and especially including owner Michael Jordan).
Telling Jordan ‘no’
Cho wasn’t part of the Jordan family tree, of course, and that was perceived to be a strength when Charlotte hired him in 2011. Kupchak is a part of the extended Jordan family, given that he and Jordan both starred at North Carolina about a decade apart. That light blue line also extends to Buzz Peterson, another UNC alum who is now the Hornets’ assistant GM and will serve as Charlotte’s GM now on an interim basis.
Could too much light blue be a problem? Sure it could. But at least both Kupchak and Peterson have the confidence to tell Jordan “no” – Kupchak because he actually owns more NBA rings than MJ does, and Peterson because he’s been one of Jordan’s best friends for more than 35 years.
Before he became an NBA GM, Kupchak’s college and pro career both were plagued by injury. Dean Smith once told me of Kupchak: “Mitch had to be one of the most courageous players we ever had here.”
Although personally unassuming and a self-described “grinder,” Kupchak is not afraid of bold moves. He presided over the Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant soap opera and ultimately traded Shaq. He tried to hire both Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski at one time or another to coach the Lakers – examples of out-of-the-box thinking that didn’t work out as neither came. Kupchak told me a few years ago that whenever I used that anecdote to “make sure to note I offered the job to Roy first.”
Will Clifford stay?
Kupchak also built the Lakers teams that won back-to-back NBA championships in 2009 and 2010 before finally getting fired (as all GMs do) in 2017 after serving 36 years in the Lakers organization.
The good thing about Kupchak being unemployed at the moment is he could be interviewed and conceivably hired right now. The Hornets would like to have someone in place by the late April if possible, although they will have to wait to interview other teams’ current employees until after those franchise’s seasons end. For a potential GM working for a contender, that could be as late as June, and the Hornets don’t really want to wait that long.
As the Los Angeles Lakers GM, Mitch Kupchak tried to hire both Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski to coach the team on different occasions.
It is also questionable whether the new GM will retain coach Steve Clifford – or will even have the option one way or the other. Clifford’s current deal runs through the 2018-19 season, so the Hornets would have to pay him for another year if they fire him after this one.
Certainly Cho won’t be the only domino to fall. When you have a team with a payroll in the top half of the league putting out a lackadaisical performance that ranks in the bottom half, some people are going to get a pink slip.
That’s business. The key thing is what you do after that.