Hornets GM: Atkinson reneging on agreement 'disappointing'

Charlotte Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak. (Chuck Burton/AP)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — While Charlotte Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak views Kenny Atkinson's decision last week to renege on his four-year agreement to coach the team as "disappointing,'' in some ways he's grateful it happened when it did.

"I think he would have been a good pick, but if he's not comfortable here I would rather find out now than a year from now," Kupchak said Thursday night during the NBA draft.

Atkinson's decision has left the Hornets scrambling to find a replacement.

Team owner Michael Jordan met Wednesday with a familiar face — former Hornets head coach Steve Clifford — about the vacancy, said a person familiar with the situation. The person spoke to The Associated Press Friday on condition of anonymity because the team has not made its list of candidates public.

The 60-year-old Clifford spent five seasons coaching the Hornets, compiling a 196-214 record with a team that included Kemba Walker. He led the Hornets to two playoff appearances prior to being fired in 2018 when Kupchak arrived. He coached the Magic from 2018-21 and worked last season as a coaching consultant for the Brooklyn Nets.

The Hornets finished 6th, 10th, 9th, 17th, and 17th in defensive rating during Clifford's five seasons. Charlotte was 22nd in the NBA this past season under James Borrego, who was fired in April.

The Hornets gave up 132 points in a 29-point loss to the Hawks in the play-in elimination game last season.

Kupchak gave no timetable as to when the Hornets will have a new coach in place, emphasizing the team is in no hurry and could open the search to include new candidates. Jordan has been in Charlotte since Tuesday, working with Kupchak to make a hire.

Mike D'Antoni and Terry Stotts had multiple interviews with the Hornets before the job was offered to Atkinson, and both could factor into the team's decision.

"We have spent a lot of time going over candidates, maybe some new candidates and making sure we cover our bases," Kupchak said. "We have never felt the need to rush this process. We want to pick the right coach — and we thought we did."

Kupchak added that in the NBA he feels "the roster is really what wins games,'' not necessarily the head coach.

"A good coach is going to help with the roster, but the most important thing is to get the roster together," Kupchak said. "We will get a good coach and we will be in good shape."

The Hornets entered the NBA draft without a head coach in the war room and Kupchak calling the shots. The team traded its 13th overall pick to the New York Knicks for a future first round pick and four second round picks and then took Duke center Mark Williams at No. 15. Charlotte added Nebraska guard Bryce McGowens in the second round after Kupchak made another trade.

Kupchak had hoped to have a coach in place before the NBA draft.

"We're moving on it," Kupchak said. "I can't give you a when. I don't want to say a week or two weeks or two days. I don't want to say that."

Kupchak didn't say much about the coaching search, though joked about the challenging situation the Hornets are in.

The general manager said Atkinson's decision reminded him of when Steve Kerr turned down the New York Knicks coaching job, only to go to Golden State where he's won four NBA titles.

"It looks like (Kerr) make a good decision to take the job at Golden State," Kupchak said with a laugh. "So maybe Kenny spoke to Steve, and Steve said, 'hey maybe things will work out this way for you.' I don't know."

Kupchak also pointed out NFL coach Bill Belichick abruptly resigning before his introductory news conference with the New York Jets in 2000. Belichick went on to coach the New England Patriots and win six Super Bowls.

"That was a good decision, too. So maybe Kenny is on to something," Kupchak quipped.

Atkinson has not responded to interview requests from The Associated Press seeking comment about his decision to back out of the agreement. However, Kerr told NBC Sports that Atkinson turned down the job because he didn't want to uproot his family again.

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