These reverberations emanating from Charlotte and bouncing around the NBA over the past few days are a modern take on Morse code.
Switching gears last week and dropping the hammer on James Borrego after four seasons at the helm as the head coach signals something with the Charlotte Hornets. Except that a translator is not necessarily necessary to decipher the message that the movement sends to the masses.
The bottom line is this: the franchise is apparently going all-in to reach that next level.
In case anyone forgot, watching the documentary “The Last Dance” should have been a stark reminder that owner Michael Jordan doesn’t like to lose. And with the Hornets having posted just three seasons with a winning record over the past 12 years, flaring up in back-to-back play-off appearances and unable to earn a ticket to the eight-team real field, he is apparently determined to fix this.
That easily makes it the franchise’s biggest offseason in years.
Given the extreme magnitude of getting that perfectly fine hire, understanding that the franchise could very easily be delayed and the building blocks that have been established erode, there are only two types of candidates acceptable to Hornets. He’s either someone who’s played in the NBA and has that level of experience, or he’s a seasoned coach with high-profile playoff success and a championship-like pedigree.
That’s it. There is no other alternative after cutting ties with Borrego after a 43-win season and gradual improvement over the past three years. Putting a damper on Borrego’s tenure is a clear indication that Jordan yearns for more and wants another voice at the end of the Hornets bench.
But landing the right person isn’t going to be painless for several reasons.
Currently, Los Angeles and Sacramento are also looking for new coaches after the respective layoffs of Frank Vogel and Shelby native Alvin Gentry. So, the Hornets might not exactly have their top pick to themselves.
Cutting Borrego 10 months after giving him a contract extension also means that Jordan must also pay Borrego the two years owed to him plus the salary of whoever he appoints as his successor as coach. It’s a pretty safe assumption that if the Hornets go with someone with a knowledgeable roster, that person will be paid a decent salary and will likely have at least three years to try to work their magic for those reasons alone.
But in that time frame comes the possibility of LaMelo Ball hitting restricted free agency, making it imperative that the Hornets also find someone the All-Star point guard can thrive under. A laborious and defensive scheme does not benefit his assets. So the Hornets mine for a coach who will employ some of the same uptempo concepts that propelled their offense to be among the best in the league all season.
By lining up all the candidates there will be a checklist and since the Hornets need to do everything they can to make sure they don’t make any missteps that could cost them in various ways in the months and years to come, a methodical approach is a distinct probability.
That’s why they have to get out of their comfort zone to get their new voice. The last two coaches they appointed to lead them were assistants, although Borrego had a 30-game stint as interim head coach at Orlando. If the Hornets are looking for something different from what Borrego brought, that suggests they won’t be looking for someone whose strength is centered around player development.
But if they plan to go back the assistant coach route to select their candidate pool, ideally the search should focus on those who score in the most vital boxes. Among them should be Darvin Ham of Milwaukee, ESPN analyst Mark Jackson and Sam Cassell of Philadelphia.
Ham, some may recall, was in charge as interim head coach during the Bucks’ two-game stint against the Hornets in January. Although he only posted a 1-3 mark while Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer was out due to health and safety protocols, that’s partly because the Hornets had the best of them in successive games in Charlotte.
Jackson, who coached Steph Curry from Charlotte to Golden State for three seasons, would be on the Lakers’ radar. And according to The Sacramento Bee, he is among the people the Kings will tell about their vacancy.
Cassell, who served as Doc Rivers’ senior staff assistant in Philadelphia, knows all about the point guard position and was also instrumental in Ben Simmons’ development. He helped foster John Wall’s growth during his coaching days in Washington before first joining Rivers’ staff in Los Angeles.
Going with former players like those who hold the clipboard and make game plans is becoming a trend. Take a look at the seven coaches hired in 2021. Three of them – Jason Kidd from Dallas, Willie Green from New Orleans and Chauncey Billups from Portland – were players. Kidd and Green had instant impact, engineering schemes that maxed out their rosters and propelled them to playoff berths.
Kidd tapped into the same kind of early success he had in his first two head coaching stops in Brooklyn and Milwaukee and put the Mavericks in the Western Conference semifinals – even though Luka Dončić missed. the first three games of their series with Utah.
Green guided the Pelicans without Zion Williamson to a pair of qualifying tournament victories to propel New Orleans into the Western Conference quarterfinals, and the Pelicans hung on to Phoenix, the team with the best record of the league before the playoffs, before succumbing in six games.
Surely that must be the inspiration for the Hornets. It’s the kind of roadmap they should follow now that they’re trying to get the franchise out of the development phase. They need a decorated voice that can possibly appear in a music video of himself on the floor in an NBA game, appealing to players’ similarly shared experiences.
An unmistakably juicy atmosphere reigned throughout the Spectrum Center for most of the season, bringing a different level of excitement to the games that had been missing for years. The Hornets are on the cusp of a new era in which their star player’s jersey number is scattered around opposing arenas and he appears as a pitcher in national advertisements.
They can’t blow this or there may be long-term ramifications, taking years to reverse and regain the trust of a hungry fan base desperate for lasting success.
This story was originally published May 1, 2022 6:10 a.m.