A few days had elapsed once the Charlotte Hornets’ season ended in Atlanta in the play-in tournament and the team’s brass assembled in the Sunshine State.
General manager Mitch Kupchak, along with assistant GM Buzz Peterson, visited with owner Michael Jordan to chat about the team’s direction and assess what the next move should be.
“We had a long discussion and we got to a point where I said, ‘OK, I’ll decide tomorrow morning,’ ” Kupchak said Thursday. “So Buzz and I flew back and a lot was discussed. Ultimately, it’s my decision. I had Michael’s support and Buzz’s support.
“It’s kind of the way I am a little bit sometimes. I do think I take too much time but I want to think things through (so) at least I give it all the thought possible.”
The next morning, exactly nine days after the Hornets’ season concluded against the Hawks, Kupchak dialed up Jordan and told him he was firing James Borrego, electing to move the head-coaching duties in another direction after four years. Jordan didn’t disagree.
“He was completely on board,” Kupchak said.
Kupchak summoned Borrego into his office to inform him they were severing ties. This even though the Hornets totaled 43 wins — a number Kupchak admitted would typically have earned them a seven or eight seed in years past — and despite the contract extension Borrego signed last August not officially kicking in yet.
The moment is right, Kupckak said, for a new voice.
“It’s just a feel a general manager gets,” Kupchak said. “I’ve been doing this a real long time and you are not always right. And this was particularly a hard decision to make. And although I’ve released coaches in the past, this was probably the toughest conversation I’ve ever had and none of them ever go well, OK?”
Searching for Borrego’s successor is well underway. Kupchak said they’ve interviewed “probably close to 8-10 candidates and most of them have been in person.” He didn’t have a specific timeline for when he will officially have a hire, but suggested he preferred it didn’t drag out beyond the next two weeks.
At worst, though, a new coach should be in place by the June 23 draft. Whoever that is will be tasked with bigger expectations.
“Someone that will bring us that next step,” Kupchak said. “I think with this team, under Coach Borrego’s coaching, we made improvements every year. And I don’t want us to get to the point where we stick somewhere too long and we don’t make that improvement that I think this team is ready to make. There are so many moving parts.
“We didn’t want to be in a position where we make a decision maybe a year too late. So looking for that coach that’s going to get us that next step.”
Plenty has transpired since Kupchak last spoke to the media in February the day after the trade deadline. Via Zoom from his hotel room in Chicago where he’s attending the NBA Draft Combine scouting talent, Kupchak addressed a number of subjects.
Among them was his future status. The contract Kupchak signed in April of 2018 expires next month and, as The Charlotte Observer has reported, there were no indications he was going anywhere since he’s been conducting the search for Borrego’s replacement. Kupchak said he’s staying on board after coming to terms on a multiyear extension.
“Yeah, I will be here for the foreseeable future,” he said. “I’ve agreed with the Hornets to continue to work for years to come. … For better or worse, I’ll be here over the next couple of years.”
Kupchak also reiterated the Hornets are committed to keeping Miles Bridges. He’s expressed to The Observer on multiple occasions that he wants to stay with the franchise his entire career.
“Miles is a restricted free agent, which means that we can match any deal that anybody else brings to us,” Kupchak said. “Our intention is to keep Miles long term. Yes, he’s a big part of our future.”
Besides Bridges, the Hornets have plenty of other roster decisions to make. Plus PJ Washington is on track for a possible extension.
“Cody Martin’s a free agent,” Kupchak said. “Montrezl Harrell’s a free agent. Isaiah Thomas is a free agent. PJ Washington’s eligible for an extension. I don’t want to go down that road. We’ve got time on everybody that I just mentioned. In fact, the extension discussion can continue into the fall with PJ, so that right now is put, I guess, on the back burner. We’ve got the draft and then trade possibilities leading into July 1st.
“But I will say this: I thought PJ took a big step this year. He fit into any role that we laid out there for him. Whether it was off the bench or starting. And I thought he became more dependable. And even now, the last three or four weeks here, he’s been coming to the building and working out every morning. For a young player, I think he’s taking that next step in becoming a professional.”
As for the offseason in general, Kupchak indicated the Hornets don’t intend to do anything that could set them back. Knee-jerk personnel decisions have gotten them in trouble in the past, and they don’t want to be in a similar situation.
“The other thing we have to be careful about is thinking that we’re better than we really are,” Kupchak said. “We are not a team that’s going to get into the Finals. Although Atlanta got into the conference finals a year ago, I don’t know how realistic that is. What I’d like to do with this team I’d like to get us in the playoffs and wouldn’t be great to win a round and then anything after that would probably be gravy.
“So you have to be careful you don’t make moves to try to mosey the progress along quicker than is realistic. And that might mean bringing in veterans that really you are not ready for. We are still looking, in my opinion, to inject talent into this team.”
Which could happen in a number of ways.
“We’ve got the 13th pick in the draft and the 15th pick in the draft,” Kupchak said. “We also have the 45th pick in the draft, so we can do it again. That’s not to say we are not going to use all those picks in the draft. You can use those picks to make a trade. Our roster with our free agents is starting to get a little cluttered, too. So there is a lot that goes into it.
“But I think the key is, yes we do want to make a step. I think making the playoffs, hopefully win a round is realistic. And we have to be careful we don’t try to push too much and get ourselves in a position where we are not as good as we thought we would be.”