Mitch Kupchak has witnessed a little bit of everything in the NBA for six decades.
Perhaps that’s why it took the general manager of Charlotte Hornets about a nanosecond to recall another incident, similar to what he experienced last weekend when Kenny Atkinson turned them down to stay at Golden State eight days after agreeing with the Hornets for their head coach position.
“The first thing that comes to mind is that Steve Kerr was going to go to New York with Phil Jackson,” Kupchak said Thursday night, “and it seems he made a good decision, right? He decided to take the job at Golden State. So maybe Kenny talked to Steve, I don’t know. Maybe he said, ‘Hey, this will work out for you, right?’ I don’t know.”
Atkinson’s stunning turnaround forced the Hornets to look for a solution and they could turn to a familiar face. Steve Clifford is a serious candidate for the vacant head coach position, multiple NBA sources with direct knowledge told The Charlotte Observer.
According to league sources, Clifford met owner Michael Jordan and Kupchak this week to discuss the position. Jordan did the same with Mike D’Antoni, who was considered the runner-up to Atkinson.
But Clifford is in tune with the organization, putting together a record of 196-214 in his five seasons in Charlotte. He led the Hornets to a few playoff appearances before being fired in 2018 when a largely new front office headed by Kupchak was hired.
Clifford was replaced by James Borrego, who was sacked in April with two years left on his contract after failing to make the play-offs in his four seasons since taking over. Clifford, 60, left the organization on good terms and that could work in his favour. He was Orlando’s head coach from 2018-21 and served with the Brooklyn Nets as a coaching advisor last season.
Atkinson’s withdrawal sparked recent discussions among Hornets’ brass, led by Jordan.
“Our owner has been in town since Tuesday,” Kupchak said, referring to Jordan. “So of course we spoke on the phone when it happened. And we’ve spent a lot of time together since Tuesday and personally discussed the candidates that were interviewed, maybe some new candidates, to make sure we’re covering our base.
“We have not rushed this process. We never felt the need to rush it. We wanted to pick the right coach and we thought we did (in Atkinson). That said, we get a good coach. We’ll get a good coach.”
Kupchak offered no timetable for a decision. The NBA’s off-season merry-go-round is already in motion with the the completion of the concept and free agency starts in less than a week.
It would be beneficial for the Hornets to have their new coach on board before this Thursday starts at 6pm. That way, they can provide their input on potential roster moves and make suggestions on how the staff can fit into their offensive and defensive schedules.
With future determinations looming for the likes of restricted free agents Miles Bridges and Cody Martin, the current situation for the Hornets is far from ideal. But Kupchak stressed that they have a plan of attack ready to implement soon.
“We know what we want to do with our free agents,” he said. “That’s not going to change with a coach. That said, free agency starts in six days. Maybe we’ll have a coach in six days. Maybe we’ll go 10 days. So I’d like to have a coach.”
One thing’s for sure: it won’t be Atkinson at the end of their couch.
“Disappointed,” said Kupchak. “Disappointed and still feel like he would have been a good squad. I’ve known Kenny for a long time. He’s a guy from Long Island, where I’m from. So there’s the Long Island basketball mafia who really supported him. We differ a bit in age, but I’ve known him for a while. I think he would have been a good choice, but if he’s not comfortable I’d rather hear it now than a year from now.”