CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Not since Lane Kiffin was hired in Oakland from offensive coordinator at USC has a head coaching decision left more people scratching their head at their newest coach’s qualifications than Bobcats fans a year ago. And just like the Kiffin-Raiders marriage, Dunlap’s tenure was short lived in Charlotte, coming to an abrupt close Tuesday just 10 months after it started.
There were definitive signs that things were heading in the right direction in Dunlap’s first year in Charlotte. Dunlap did earn 14 more wins, the Bobcats didn’t finish last in the league and guards Kemba Walker and Gerald Henderson were two of the more improved players in the league. He was even in the discussion for Coach of the Year after his Bobcats started 7-5, matching their win total from a season prior.
It proved to be a brief anomaly, though, and behind closed doors, the improvement was muddled by a rocky relationship with the team’s veterans.
It’s not a secret that Dunlap didn’t get along with the teams’ vets — a group that hasn’t been the easiest to get along with for any coach, to be fair. But if you’re not going to be a player’s coach, you had better win. Dunlap did neither, and the players never seemed as effusive with praise when speaking with the media as they often are about their coaches and teammates. Even their praise seemed guarded or came with a caveat when discussing Dunlap.
There’s no question that Dunlap inherited one of the tougher situations in recent memory. Any team where productive veterans have to sit in favor of younger players’ developments is a difficult situation for a coach to walk into. It’s bound to cause discontent in a locker room, too — even more so in a losing season. Dunlap’s demanding micromanagement only served to exacerbate that sentiment with the veterans, though.
Therefore, Jordan’s decision should have come only as a surprise to people looking at the win column.
One could even argue that firing a coach who won 14 more games than before he got there sets a dangerous precedent and makes an already difficult sell all the more difficult. It won’t help that the new coach will inherit a roster whose highest-scoring post player averaged 10.6 points on 38.5 percent shooting on a team that lacks perimeter shooting.
However, there’s a lot to sell that the Bobcats didn’t have in their pitch arsenal a season ago: salary cap flexibility, a second-consecutive guaranteed top-four pick (albeit in a weak NBA Draft), and a rapidly improving young point guard that’s a jump shot away from making a significant leap forward. Having seven players who are either free agents or restricted free agents also allows the new coach the freedom to help retool the roster with players that fit his offensive system and style of play.
In Jordan’s three coaching hires thus far as owner of the Bobcats, he’s gone with an up-and-coming player’s coach (Sam Vincent), a sage veteran off the NBA unemployment line (Paul Silas) and an out-of-left field hire known for his work developing players (Dunlap). Which way Jordans turns with the Bobcats’ sixth hire in seven years is anybody’s guess, but don’t let Phil Jackson, Jerry Sloan, Stan Van Gundy or Jeff Van Gundy cross your mind.
Pacers assistant coach Brian Shaw is a hot commodity but turned the job down a season ago. Former Lakers assistant coach Quin Snyder, who was in contention a year ago, is now an assistant coach with CSKA Moscow and it’s hard to see the Bobcats hiring another assistant coach from an inferior league.
One of the better options on the table was Mike Brown, but he is on his way back to Cleveland. A summer ago the Bobcats interviewed Golden State assistant coach Mike Malone, who should be one of the hottest assistants on the market, and you have to believe he’s on the front-runner list. But he could end up with a better option. Orlando Magic assistant coach Patrick Ewing got an interview a year ago, but never got a sniff for the job and the Magic were worse than the Bobcats this season. Would Jordan turn to another buddy after the failed Sam Vincent experiment? Does Jordan think Washington Wizards assistant Sam Cassell or Brooklyn Nets assistant Mario Elie are ready?
Where Charlotte should turn is Mike Budenholzer, who, after spending 18 years alongside Greg Popovich, would bring proven experience in a culture of winning. The Spurs’ front office frequently gets raided to accomplish this same mission, and the Bobcats would be prudent to do the same with their coaching search.
Of course, there’s always NBA retreads like former Trail Blazers coach Nate McMillan, former Cavs coach Byron Scott, Flip Saunders or any coach let go this offseason — Mike D’Antoni, perhaps – but those options come across as bland with a fan base desperate for a source of offseason excitement.
So, lastly, do they make a run at a college coach like Iowa State’s Fred Hoiberg, who is highly respected in NBA circles after spending years in the league as a player, coach and front office executive before returning to his alma mater? Would Hoiberg even leave a place where he’s affectionately referred to as “The Mayor?”
If last summer serves as any primer, it may be none of the above