Mike D’Antoni emerges as serious candidate for Hornets’ coaching vacancy

The longtime NBA coach is known for his explosive offense and taking star players to the next level

With Mike D’Antoni emerging as a lead candidate for the Hornets' coaching vacancy, many are wondering if he can have the same impact on Charlotte point guard LaMelo Ball as he had on two-time MVP Steve Nash. (Matt York / AP Photo)

CHARLOTTE — Although James Borrego’s successor as Charlotte Hornets head coach has not yet been announced, one name seems to be leading the pack.

According to Substack reporter Marc Stein, Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak has targeted ex-Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni as a frontrunner for the job in Charlotte. Stein reported the 71-year-old is in “a strong position” based on an “ongoing buzz in league coaching circles.”

After suffering a demoralizing 132-103 loss to the Atlanta Hawks in the Play-In Tournament on April 13 — Charlotte’s second blowout in a must-win situation in back-to-back seasons — the Hornets fired Borrego, who had been with the team since the 2018-19 season.

The search for the coach to take the Hornets to a new level — one centered around young talents LaMelo Ball and Miles Bridges — began in earnest.

Charlotte has reportedly finished the first round of the search, according to league sources, having met with several candidates in person. Former Lakers coach Frank Vogel is among the team’s list of interviewed candidates that includes D’Antoni, Kenny Atkinson, Darvin Ham, Charles Lee, David Vanterpool and Sean Sweeney.

If D’Antoni lands the job in Charlotte, it will be his sixth NBA head coaching opportunity. He has previously spent time with the Denver Nuggets, Phoenix Suns, New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets. The coach has taken both Phoenix and Houston to the Western Conference Finals but has never reached the NBA Finals.

D’Antoni has a lifetime coaching record of 672 wins and 527 losses. He spent 2020-21 as an assistant coach with the Brooklyn Nets before he stepped down at the season’s end; his last head coaching stint was the 2019-20 season where Houston ended up with a 44-28 record.

During his time with the Suns, he coined the “seven seconds or less” offense — a philosophy of getting a good shot as quickly as possible, thus creating a rapid offensive pace and defensive breakdowns because the opponents’ defense cannot recover in time.

While the possible hiring of D’Antoni could do wonders for Ball’s growing reputation as a stellar floor general at the point guard position, it’s unclear how D’Antoni would address the Hornets’ perpetual defensive woes. He has built his reputation on being an offensive-minded coach, but Charlotte is desperate for defense right now.

Even for a team that contains many solid NBA players, it could be argued that not a single member of Charlotte’s roster provided great rim-stopping ability last season — only five teams in the league allowed more points than the Hornets (114.9). It wasn’t just one specific flaw either. Time and time again, opposing teams had no trouble lighting up the Hornets from behind the arc or down in the paint.

The Hornets finished 23rd, 25th, 16th and 22nd in scoring defense in the past four seasons under Borrego. In the past, D’Antoni’s teams have only finished in the top half of the league in defensive rating on four occasions, including the 2011-12 season when he resigned following an 18-24 start.

Still, his history with players such as Steve Nash and James Harden showcases what D’Antoni could do to unleash Charlotte’s powerful-yet-inconsistent offense and take Ball’s game to the next level.

In Phoenix, D’Antoni’s offensive game plan centered around pick-and-rolls and 3-pointers, and Nash won two MVP awards. Under D’Antoni in Houston, Harden notched an MVP award while leading the league in scoring three times and assists once.

After two successful seasons in the league, Ball is on the cusp of superstardom and has publicly admitted he wants to take a larger role in the offense.

“When they really put them keys in my hand, I feel like it’s gonna be a whole new situation. But until then, I’m gonna keep doing what I need to do, just try to get these wins,” Ball said in an interview with SLAM magazine in March. “I ain’t gonna lie, every game I feel like I can do more than what I’m doing. It’s just [about] reading the whole game and reading the whole situation.”