Charlotte Hornets

As Hornets' GM, Mitch Kupchak would be on phone a lot. Rebuild can't be put on hold.

Out of the NBA since a shakeup in the Lakers front office, former Tar Heel Mitch Kupchak (center) wasn't far from basketball. In January, he attended a North Carolina vs. Boston College game at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill.
Out of the NBA since a shakeup in the Lakers front office, former Tar Heel Mitch Kupchak (center) wasn't far from basketball. In January, he attended a North Carolina vs. Boston College game at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill. rwillett@newsobserver.com

If you haven’t already, you’re going to hear a bunch of labels attached to Mitch Kupchak as the next general manager of the Charlotte Hornets: “Old school.” “Chapel Hill guy.” “Big-market GM.”

Here’s a label that could prove to be more important than any of that in projecting how Kupchak will work out here: “Connected.”

Kupchak worked in the Los Angeles Lakers’ front office from the mid-1980s until he was fired as that team’s general manager in February of 2017. From the little I’ve been around him, and more importantly from the conversations I’ve had with some of his peers, he is liked and respected by agents, players and other general managers.

You hear words such as “sensible,” “practical” and “collaborative.”

That will be important because the Hornets' GM job, at least in the short run, will be as much about what must be undone as what can be done.

Kupchak has been offered the Hornets’ general manager’s job, and a source close to the situation said Monday it’s pretty much down to paperwork getting him on board. Kupchak is 63 and, like Hornets owner Michael Jordan, played at North Carolina. He would replace Rich Cho, who was informed in February the team would not sign him to a new contract.

Differing skillsets

Cho was great with numbers, not as good with people. Part of a general manager’s job is to evaluate the roster and identify ways to improve. That job is also about networking; major-league sports are a bit odd, in that your competitors are also your direct business partners.

The Hornets made a bunch of trades on Cho’s watch, so obviously he got some business done. But Cho’s engineering background seemed more fitting to his personality than being a wheeler-dealer. I had plenty of interesting conversations with Cho, but I’d never call him a schmoozer.

When I think of Kupchak, I picture Piero’s, the historic Italian restaurant in Las Vegas where some scenes in the movie “Casino” were filmed. Piero’s is full of NBA executives during summer league, and I remember a night Kupchak and Washington Wizards counterpart Ernie Grunfeld were at a table in the middle of the place. Every NBA-type came by to chat in what looked like deep respect for those two.

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New Charlotte Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak, out of the NBA for more than a year after the Los Angeles Lakers fired him, might have to catch up on draft prospects, with the Hornets likely picking 11th overall in June. Associated Press

Job 1

Kupchak will be on the phone constantly in this role, and there is much digging-out to do. There is an expression on Wall Street called “unwinding the trade.” It essentially means getting out from under a heavy investment that hasn’t worked out. That’s pretty much the Hornets’ player-payroll.

The Hornets’ roster is expensive and aging. Jordan hoped this team could contend for home-court in the first round of the playoffs, and instead won’t reach the post-season. Six players on the roster have guaranteed salaries of $12 million or more next season. The Hornets are already dangerously close to the projected 2018-19 luxury-tax threshold of roughly $121 million.

Cho doesn’t deserve all the blame for that, by the way. Jordan signed off on everything, and coach Steve Clifford often says there’s not a player on the roster he didn’t have a role in acquiring.

But Kupchak’s first priority must be some sort of unwinding, and that will be painful. As ESPN’s Bobby Marks suggested to me, it might be something like trading Jeremy Lamb for a second-round pick, just to free up $7 million in cap space. Some change has to be on the horizon.

What Kupchak needs most

That’s why it’s important whoever gets this job has Jordan’s and vice chairman Curtis Polk’s confidence and some level of autonomy. Hopefully, the fact that Jordan has known Kupchak for so long makes for a frank business relationship.

Kupchak is going to have to decide whether Clifford should be back next season. They know each other from when Clifford was an assistant with the Lakers in the 2012-13 season.

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Beyond that, Kupchak will have to figure sooner than later how to plan for All-Star point guard Kemba Walker’s free-agency after next season. If they don’t believe they can or will re-sign him, it’s key they start looking for a way to get something in trade.

Part of Walker’s future in Charlotte is tied to the extent Kupchak will oversee a rebuild. It’s a huge job Kupchak will undertake and he’ll need every contact in his smart phone.

That’s what “Connected” is all about.

Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell

Mitch Kupchak bio

Age: 63

Playing career: After an All-American career at North Carolina in the early 1970s, the 6-9 Kupchak played a decade in the NBA with the then-Washington Wizards and Los Angeles Lakers.

Management career: Kupchak worked in the Lakers front office from his retirement as a player in 1986 through him being fired as general manager in 2017. The first portion of that stint he worked under Jerry West, then was at the top of the basketball operation starting in 2000.

Kupchak traded Shaquille O'Neal to the Miami Heat and later acquired now-Hornet Dwight Howard from the Orlando Magic. Probably the most successful transaction under Kupchak's watch was acquiring big man Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies in 2008, sending out several players and draft picks (one of which was Gasol's younger brother, Marc, now a multi-time All-Star for the Grizzlies).

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