Six weeks after firing general manager Rich Cho, the Charlotte Hornets have “formally offered” the job to longtime former Los Angeles Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak, according to Marc Stein of the New York Times.
Owner Michael Jordan’s interest in bringing on Kupchak has been public knowledge for about two months. Yahoo Sports NBA insider Chris Mannix reported before the All-Star break that there’d been “rumblings” around the league suggesting Cho might soon be let go, with Kupchak considered the top option to take the reins of a franchise that has missed the playoffs three times in the past five seasons. Two weeks later, when Cho’s exit became official, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Jordan (who starred at the University of North Carolina) was “expected to pursue” Kupchak (who starred at the University of North Carolina) to team with assistant general manager Buzz Peterson (who roomed with Jordan at the University of North Carolina) in a remodeled Charlotte front office.
As recently as 2 1/2 weeks ago, Kupchak told the Charlotte Observer he’d had no contact at all with the Hornets about the opening. The team had also reportedly received permission to interview three other executives currently employed by NBA teams for the job. Evidently, though, the Hornets’ search for what vice chairman Curtis Polk told the Observer in February needed to be “a strong leader who is well respected in the organization and within the industry […] who can build on the tools Rich [provided]” wound up leading them back to Kupchak.
“That’s a good name,” Polk said when Rick Bonnell of the Observer referenced Kupchak during an interview after Cho’s ouster. “We don’t know specifically what his level of interest would be.”
According to Stein, the interest is high:
The Hornets, who are owned by Michael Jordan, are confident they will soon seal a new contract with Kupchak to take over their basketball operations and are progressing toward a deal, according to the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the negotiations publicly. […]
The Hornets have not responded to repeated requests for comment. Kupchak declined to comment on Monday.
Kupchak would bring to the position a wealth of experience with winning at the NBA’s highest level. He was part of three NBA championship teams during a 10-year playing career and seven more during his 30 years in the Lakers’ front office, including four as the team’s lead personnel executive after taking the reins from the legendary Jerry West in 2000. (As a fellow member of the UNC family, Kupchak would also, the thinking goes, bring the ability to tell Jordan “no” on matters that matter. We’ll see.)
Look at the résumé, though, and you’ll see some trouble spots. To wit: the shortcomings of the Gary Payton/Karl Malone and Dwight Howard/Steve Nash experiments; the departures, returns and aborted attempted final return of Phil Jackson; the end of the Shaq/Kobe era, the “Kobe demands you trade Andrew Bynum” saga; the failure to keep Dwight in L.A., despite all the love and billboards; Kobe’s final balloon payment; the repeated inability over the past few years to land big-fish free agents; the bloated 2016 deals for Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng; and an unrivaled run of franchise futility that saw L.A. go 84-220 between the start of the 2013-14 campaign and late February of 2017.
Those stumbles, combined with Jeanie Buss’ calculation that the time had long since come to remove her brother Jim from a basketball operations leadership position, helped spark the org-chart shake-up that resulted in Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka leading the Lakers into what all involved hope will be a new era of exciting and eventually title-contending basketball, perhaps led by a pair of signature “Showtime”-caliber stars.
But there were peaks, too. Chalk up the first two titles of his run in the big chair to West’s work in building the Shaq-Kobe dreadnaught if you want, but Kupchak swung the 2008 trade that imported Pau Gasol from Memphis at the cost of Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton, Aaron McKie, a pair of first-round draft picks that’d be used on Donte Greene and Greivis Vasquez … and, yes, sure, the rights to Pau’s brother Marc Gasol. Even so, that was a price well worth paying to restore Kobe to full commitment and kickstart a run to three straight NBA Finals, including back-to-back championships in 2009 and 2010.
The Payton/Malone and Dwight/Nash deals didn’t pan out the way everyone anticipated, but hindsight’s 20/20; Kupchak was largely lauded at the time for doing what needed to be done to reload star-studded Lakers teams to keep them in title contention. Thanks in part to trading away tomorrow’s picks for today’s vets, Kupchak and company didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory in the draft over the years. (Lakers fans had lots of “hey, maybe they’ve got something in this [INSERT MID-SECOND-ROUND PICK] here kid” conversations that never really panned out in the first part of this decade.) But he did draft Julius Randle, Larry Nance Jr. and Brandon Ingram, and hey, Magic and Rob don’t get Kyle Kuzma if Mitch didn’t draft D’Angelo Russell, right?
In nearly two decades in the big chair, Kupchak succeeded sometimes, and failed at others. Swings and misses, strikes and gutters — a mixed bag with some pretty shiny hardware inside.
There might be better, shinier places to look for a new executive to lead your extremely-capped-out and stuck-in-the-mud franchise to great new heights, but you can see why MJ would think there are worse ones, too. Given the reins of an organization that demanded bold moves for big names, Kupchak did his level best to fit the bill. Now we wait to find out whether he’ll accept the challenge of trying to do the same for an organization light on top-end talent and tantalizing prospects that seems to be in dire need of a big change to shake a stagnant status quo … and whether — without the drawing power of L.A. and a legacy of championship glory to sell — he’ll be able to successfully do so.
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