CHARLOTTE — Above a doorway in the Charlotte Hornets’ locker room inside Spectrum Center is a photograph of the box score from the team’s 144-117 loss to Indiana in the Play-In Tournament last May.
The picture hung there during the 2021-22 campaign, designed to inspire the team after a disappointing end to last season. The memories of that defeat now have some company after the Hornets suffered another crushing loss in a win-or-go-home Play-In appearance, this time falling 132-103 to the Atlanta Hawks on April 13.
Just nine days later, Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak announced that coach James Borrego had been fired after his fourth year with the team.
“We will begin the search for our new head coach immediately,” Kupchak noted in an official statement.
The firing drew myriad responses from the fan base and around the NBA as some questioned whether the decision was justified given the team’s progression with Borrego at the helm.
This past season’s 43-39 record was a 10-win improvement over the previous year and the Hornets’ best finish in Borrego’s four seasons in Charlotte. Additionally, the Hornets had just signed Borrego to a multiyear contract extension in August 2021.
Conversely, the Hornets have lost their two Play-In game appearances by a combined 56 points, and it’s never a good look for a coach to follow up a terrible loss in the biggest game of the season with an even worse loss in a similar scenario the following season.
Although Borrego — a longtime protege of San Antonio coaching great Gregg Popovich — developed a reputation of being a likable and classy representative of an NBA franchise, his Hornets never reached the playoffs in a league where postseason victories mean everything. It’s an understatement to say there are still a lot of unmet expectations for a franchise led by talented young players like LaMelo Ball and Miles Bridges.
While Borrego could make the argument that Kupchak and team owner Michael Jordan did little to address the team’s hole at the center position and the lack of defensive rim-stoppers, Charlotte now joins the Los Angeles Lakers and Sacramento Kings as teams with a coaching vacancy.
At this point, the Hornets have not been officially linked to any potential candidates as the team’s search for its 12th coach in franchise history begins. Kupchak and Jordan will likely try to fill their vacancy with someone who has head coaching experience, and the rumor mill has already churned out some names.
Former Los Angeles Lakers head coach Frank Vogel has been popping up as a possible target. Vogel, 48, was fired by the Lakers earlier this month after the team’s disappointing 33-49 season. The defensive-minded coach led the Lakers to an NBA championship in 2020 and has a lifetime 431-389 record in 11 combined seasons with Indiana, Orlando and L.A.
Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder is another possible name in the running. The 55-year-old has taken the Jazz to the playoffs in six of his eight years in Salt Lake City, and while it’s not guaranteed Utah would part ways with him following the Jazz’s postseason run, he would certainly be a good option for the Hornets. He’s also familiar with North Carolina, playing collegiately at Duke from 1985-89 and serving as an assistant under former Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski from 1995-99.
Former Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson, former Portland Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts, current New Orleans Pelicans coaching adviser Mike D’Antoni and current Golden State Warriors assistant Mike Brown all have previous head coaching experience and are possibilities.
With the Hornets in a win-now mode, it seems unlikely the team will follow Borrego with another first-time coach. If Charlotte does decide to go that route, there are a wealth of current NBA assistants who are on the rise, such as Kenny Atkinson (Golden State), Jay Larranaga (LA Clippers), Sam Cassell (Philadelphia), Darvin Ham (Milwaukee) and Sean Sweeney (Dallas).
Where the Hornets decide to go from here is a mystery. Even college coaching legends Krzyzewski and Jay Wright — newly retired from Duke and Villanova, respectfully — have been floated as pie-in-the-sky saviors from desperate Hornets fans hoping for some semblance of success.
One thing is certain: Charlotte’s head coaching position is a more attractive landing spot than it has been in a long time. With the right leadership and a committed approach to defense, the Hornets have a chance to finally get over the hump and earn their way into the postseason.