We don’t know who the next Charlotte Hornets coach will be, but we sure know this:
That coach will be judged as much by what he accomplishes in August as what he does in April.
That was the adamant view of Hornets managing partner Curtis Polk, in a wide-ranging conversation with the Observer Tuesday. Polk is owner Michael Jordan’s eyes in Charlotte, for both the business and the basketball sides of Charlotte’s NBA franchise.
New general manager Mitch Kupchak hasn’t talked publicly in any detail about what he’s looking for in replacing fired coach Steve Clifford. So at the top of this interview, Polk was asked for the biggest priority in this key hire.
Q. What quality do you most want to see in the next coach?
A. In today’s NBA, one of the important things particularly in a market like Charlotte (which can’t live off free agency) is player development: getting those draft picks and developing them. We have the G-League team in Greensboro. We have to use all those resources. I can remember when I first got involved in basketball (in the late 1980s) it was a seven months (a year) business. Not to say people took off, but it wasn’t as intense. Now it’s an 11-month business. Maybe at some point if you’re out of the playoffs, or after free agency, you have sort of a slow month, but this is 11 months of high-intensity work where you have to pay attention to what your players are doing in the offseason. Make sure they are following a training program so that they don’t come into training camp out of shape or picked up any bad habits. It’s really something that has become a premium: What are the players doing in the off-season? That is going to become a very important quality to our coaching hires - that they came from an environment where there was a big premium on player development, and where they’re able to articulate to Mitch what sort of program they plan to put in place with us.
Q. You’ve made a lot of changes in basketball operations staff (trainers, strength-and-conditioing coaches, scouting) that go beyond replacing the general manager and coach. Why have you changed so many people in so many roles?
A. We have to have the culture aligned from top to bottom on the basketball operations side. We asked Mitch to take a hard look at all the basketball roles. To not feel that we have any situation that we can’t change if that’s important to get this right.
Q. How far or close to where you feel you need to be are you, after two 36-victory seasons?
A. I’ll answer that two ways:
To be in the middle of the pack in the NBA is not a great situation to be in. Either you make the playoffs and lose in the first round or you’re sort of ninth in the East or West, and not getting one of those top-4 draft picks, which is the most impactful looking at history. So, you either need to look at more of a long-term conscientious plan on how you’re going to rebuild – and years ago, that’s what we went through in 2011 – and it paid off. We got to 48 wins in 2016. It was very respectable.
The rules, with the increase of the cap (due to the sudden influx of national television money in the summer of 2016), hurt us a little bit. There was a flood of money chasing free agents and we happened to have a lot of free agents. It sort of caught us by surprise. No one had ever seen the cap spike so much (in a single summer).
So today, we know about the salary-cap issues – we’re up against the (luxury) tax line – I think we’ll figure out to gain some flexibility.
To specifically answer your question, I think a change here or there, maybe looking at how we get balanced offensively and defensively again with our new coaching staff. We won 36 games. There were a lot of close games that we lost. I feel like (by) putting a priority on developing young talent – that’s really key for us in developing a pipeline of players who after a few years can be significant contributors – I think we’ll be fine.
Q. What will be the decision-making process going forward, whether it be a draft pick or trade or free-agent move?
A. Mitch is our guy. Mitch has the authority to make all the decisions relative to basketball. When I say decisions, he’ll go through a process, just like he is right now with the coach. He will bring to ownership the decision he wants to make. But for the most part, I can’t imagine we’ll disagree with the things he recommends, based on the fact that he’s doing quite a bit of homework and we keep abreast of the process.
I think Michael and I fully want to support his decisions. We might ask him some questions, but for the most part, it’s for him to put together a plan to get us back on track.
Q. To the average fan, how would you describe your role in the organization?
A. I’m an owner, with Michael. I’ve been around basketball (first as a player agent) since 1989. I’d like to think my involvement is more strategic, that I could give a view from afar. I don’t want to be micro-managing. We have people where this is all they do all day long. If you hired these people, and you’ve trusted them with this responsibility, you need to give them the leeway to operate within that role.
We, as a group, we don’t feel we should be in there day-after-day to second guess the decisions they want to make. We want to be advised of what’s going on. We’re more than happy to meet prospective coaching candidates. To meet free agents. To look at video of players we might consider to draft. Occasionally, we go to draft workouts. I’m trying to stay aware, to be a resource. It’s more of a strategic role: how we’re going to manage long-term the economics of not only the cap but also the business.
Q. You’ve been in the quadrant of finishing roughly seventh to 11th in the East again and again. How do you break out of that treadmill?
A. Sometimes there is a lot of luck involved. Sometimes it’s injuries. We’ve had our fair share of missed games by starters over the past three years. You can’t be complacent. You always have to look at how we can build on what we have now? You also can’t get in the business of constantly tearing things apart every couple of years. That doesn’t do you any good.
I think some of the basic foundations we live upon: We want to be balanced (between offense and defense). We want to be a fun team to watch. That’s important for the entertainment value for our fans to watch. We want to have high-character players that the community can be proud of. And we want hard workers. We need to give our players the resources to condition themselves all year round and improve their games wherever they and the coaches think those (improvements) have to be made.
Q. Can you picture the Hornets doing something similar to the "Process" (a five-year rebuild) that the Philadelphia 76ers did?
A. I think there are times when everybody goes through some version of that. That seems to be an extreme example. I can’t think of another one that extreme. In 2011, we went through our own little version of that for two seasons. It’s more of a (matter of) degrees. Right now, Mitch is still getting his arms around everything and we still don’t have a coach in place. I’m hopeful we won’t have to make dramatic changes to get this thing back on track.
Q What most attracted you to hiring Kupchak?
A. He’s been there. He’s a proven winner with one of the top organizations (the Los Angeles Lakers) over the (past) 30 years. He has great respect around the league and that network is important. For a team like Charlotte, we have traditionally gotten better through trades. We need to get better through trades and through the draft.
For the most part, the guy who goes ninth, versus the guy who goes 11th, there’s not that much difference in talent. What ends up happening (in regard to success) is which team developed that talent better and more quickly. That’s what we have to get really good at.
Q. What’s it like for this organization to have Michael Jordan at the top, as opposed to someone who isn’t as high-profile?
A. Two things: First off, this is his key business. He has his Nike relationship, but that’s not every day he has something to be decided or done. This is his biggest time commitment from a business standpoint.
Secondly, he has a great body of knowledge. He can pull something from 20 or 25 years ago, and relate it to today. Even though the game has changed a lot – the (prohibition of) hand-checking or 3-point shooting – his mind has evolved very much over the last five years to study the current game and make great observations or connections to when he played that are very valuable to us when we’re talking about drafting or free agency.