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.”
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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.
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.
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.
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.