Tom Sorensen

Mitch Kupchak’s UNC pedigree an asset as Hornets GM. His 1st act might be a hard one.

Former Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak (top right, watching North Carolina at Spectrum Center last month) was introduced Tuesday as the Charlotte Hornets new president of  basketball operations and general manager.
Former Los Angeles Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak (top right, watching North Carolina at Spectrum Center last month) was introduced Tuesday as the Charlotte Hornets new president of basketball operations and general manager. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

If I own the Charlotte Hornets, Mitch Kupchak would not be my first choice for general manager. I like new. The beauty of new, of hiring an assistant GM whom you expect to be the NBA’s next managerial star, is that he hasn’t made mistakes. His bosses have.

Kupchak, 63, is not new. He moved into management before Hornets’ star Kemba Walker was born. Kupchak has made successful moves, as well as poor ones. Do a job more than 30 years, which he did for the Los Angeles Lakers, and you tend to do both.

Upon further review, I understand the hire. This is why. And if you can’t stand the North Carolina Tar Heels, bear with me for a moment.

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Kupchak is a North Carolina graduate and a former Tar Heels basketball star. He shares that UNC pedigree with Hornets’ owner Michael Jordan. So Kupchak is an insider, and being an insider ought to promote credibility. If Kupchak doesn’t have power, why take the job?

Some of us assume that Jordan influences draft choices and signings, the color of Charlotte’s uniforms and the media room cuisine. But I’ve never heard anybody say that Jordan insists on making basketball decisions – at least not anybody that would know.

I have no idea how much influence Jordan exerts. I assume he has veto power. It’s his team. But does he use it, and how frequently?

Even if Jordan’s veto is infrequent, telling the greatest player of all time what to do has to be daunting. Kupchak can stand his ground. He was a Tar Heel first.

Whatever his role, Kupchak will have one of the toughest management jobs in Charlotte. The Hornets are hamstrung by big contracts – except for their best player, Kemba Walker, who has by NBA standards a small contract. It expires at the end of next season.

If I’m Kupchak, my first act as general manager is to sit down with Walker. I don’t care if Walker is in Charlotte, his native New York or New Zealand. Kupchak has to understand what Walker thinks.

What if Kupchak decides that the only way the Hornets can get better is to temporarily get worse? What if the losing, which theoretically will deliver high draft picks, takes two seasons? Is Walker willing to wait? He turns 28 next month. He’s in his NBA All-Star prime. A prime is temporary.

As effective as Walker has been, his Hornets have yet to win a playoff series. In Walker’s six seasons before this one, Charlotte averaged 31.3 victories.

If, understandably, Walker says he can’t wait while the Hornets rebuild, Kupchak’s assignment becomes even more difficult. He can’t let Walker walk away when his contract expires a year from now and collect nothing in return.

I have no idea what Kupchak’s strategy will be. Again, he developed his management style and philosophy with the Lakers, one of the NBA’s most storied and successful franchises.

The Hornets are neither storied nor successful. Welcome to Charlotte.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Sign up for his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen

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