The first thing about LaMelo Ball that caught Mitch Kupchak’s
eye was his size: 6-foot-7 with mad ball-handling skills. The thing
that caught his ear was hearing that Ball was a gym rat, a player
who stayed late after practice to get extra shots up, whether in
Ohio, Lithuania or Australia.
Kupchak now has the Rookie-of-the-Year favorite running the show
for a Charlotte Hornets team that will likely be in the NBA's
play-in tournament later this month. He also has an owner, Michael
Jordan, who has an itch to win that needs to be scratched.
Will that happen this season? Kupchak, the organization's
66-year-old president of basketball operations, believes that
remains to be seen.
“We did transition from a veteran team with large contracts to a
team that was building through the draft, and we finally had some
cap room," Kupchak told BasketballNews.com in an exclusive phone
interview. "So we were in a good position [last offseason]."
The Hornets lost for the third time in four games on Sunday
night, falling to the Miami Heat 121-111 to remain in eighth place
in the Eastern Conference. Charlotte is now two games below .500,
and the team still does not know when Hayward will return from a
foot injury (he recently shed a walking boot for the first time in
nearly a month). Oddsmakers have the Hornets listed at 250-1 to win
the Eastern Conference.
Few teams are spotlighted less than the Hornets despite their
iconic owner and their special rookie, and the season's strict
conditions are not allowing Jordan to be close to the team and his
“He was at our game [Saturday] night, but because of the testing
requirements, he couldn't even get down to the locker room and say
hello to anybody. But they did talk, and I know Michael gives him
tips, and I would guess that when we emerge from this COVID world,
Michael will spend time with him on the court, but I don't know
that [for sure],” Kupchak said. “Michael lives in Florida; he’s up
here quite a bit. He loves to come to practice and watch. He
doesn't interfere with the coaches. He doesn't know what the
coaches are teaching, so he doesn't want to get on the court and
teach something different. But I know he and LaMelo talk and text
all the time.”
Jordan has owned the Hornets since 2010 and has a mere three
playoff victories (vs. Miami in 2015-16) to show for it. Charlotte
has not been to the second round of the playoffs since 2001-02, and
Kupchak was tasked with ending that drought when he was hired 37
months ago. In back-to-back years, he added Terry Rozier and
Hayward in offseason sign-and-trades with the Celtics, and he
selected Ball with the third overall pick in last year's NBA
The team has spent the season hovering around the .500 mark,
never going more than three games over the break-even mark or four
games under. They defeated Boston, Milwaukee and Portland in April,
but went 6-10 for the month, and there is a discernable lack of
buzz surrounding a franchise that used to have people referring to
their home court as “The Hive.”
Still, the Hayward signing was one of the best offseason moves
made by any team in the NBA, and Rozier is shooting 45.6% – a
career-high – and averaging more than 20 points for the first time
in his six-year career. P.J. Washington is having a solid second
season, Miles Bridges is shooting much better in his third season
and seven players are averaging double-figure scoring. This season,
12 of the 17 players on the roster (including two-way players) are
25 years old or younger. There's still room to grow and the center
position could use an upgrade, but it seems the foundation is in
Jordan and Kupchak spent several hours speaking Saturday at
Hornets headquarters, talking basketball when they were not pausing
to watch the Kentucky Derby and the PGA Valspar Championship. Both
Jordan and Kupchak went to school at North Carolina, played for
Team USA and have had enormous success with other franchises –
Jordan with the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s, Kupchak while playing
for and while running the Los Angeles Lakers.
But their championship pedigrees came in eras much different
than what exists in today’s NBA. The Hornets do not have a single
superstar (although Ball has the potential to be one) and have gone
0-3 against Philadelphia and 1-2 against Brooklyn, their two most
likely first-round playoff opponents.
"I mean, I want to please him. I want to get him something he
desperately craves," Kupchak said of Jordan, who declined to be
interviewed for this article. "He wants to win and he tried to be
patient, but I think he's a little bit impatient, right? Which is
"I've known him since he was a freshman, but yeah, it was a
professional relationship. We said hello and talked or played golf
once or twice. But I never really got to know him that well. It’s
been great getting to know him on a personal basis. Like I said, I
never really knew him like that, but he’s from my years so to
speak, so we kind of speak the same language when it comes to
basketball. So there's a good feel between us and with Buzz
[Peterson] as well; the three of us have a great feel when we talk
to each other. We both kind of get it. And it's fun because I'm
getting to know him. But at the end of the day, he wants to win. I
can feel it. He wants to get this thing going in the right
The signings of Rozier and Hayward were criticized as overspends
in some NBA circles (and by the media), but Kupchak couldn't care
less. He has been working in the NBA for too long, in some of the
largest markets and smallest markets, to give a hoot whether
somebody is second-guessing him.
"It’s kind of hard to shake me up, you know? There might have
been some criticism; I didn't follow it that closely at the time,"
Kupchak said. "But you’ve got to weigh everything: the draft,
free-agent signings, trades. You really have to wait four or five
years to look back on it and that's when you know really whether
you made a mistake or you didn't make a mistake. So at the time, I
didn't get the feeling that there was this uproar about overpaying
somebody. Maybe there was, but it didn't really bother me."
When asked about the Rozier signing, he explained his thought
"We believed in a kid. We saw a great opportunity when we were
losing Kemba [Walker], who we wanted to keep. And then, for some
reason, that made Terry available to do a double sign-and-trade; I
think it was the first one that was ever done. It was just a unique
opportunity for us to get a young talent. Now, he does continue to
get better, and he is a much harder worker than I thought on both
sides of the ball. But I'm not surprised that he's productive. But
let’s wait a couple more years and we'll look back on it, but we're
happy with the signing and it worked out. That's all."
With Hayward, Kupchak was surprised that the Hornets were able
to land him.
"That was unique," he said. "We never thought, going into free
agency, that Gordon Hayward would opt out of his $34.2 million
[deal]. I didn’t think he would opt out of that and want to leave
Boston. That doesn't happen very often so when that was happening,
even at the very end, even though we tried and we did everything we
could do -- and it was a good feeling that he was going to come to
Charlotte -- there was a big part of me that said, 'This just
doesn't happen very often, that a player of this caliber will go to
a small market.' So I wasn't really sure until we got his signature
that he was going to come... That just kind of happened. We did
have a way to create room, so we were ready, but I didn't think
that he would opt out and all of a sudden become available and not
only that, but want to come to Charlotte.
"Now, when players are here, they stay in this town. They love
it here. Okay, but we’ve got to get them here for them to realize
that. And now that Gordon’s here, I wouldn’t be surprised if he
lived here for the rest of his life. Players like it here. This is
a great city."
Having won three titles as a player (with the Bullets and
Lakers) and seven as an executive (all with the Lakers), Kupchak is
not the type to obsess over whether someone is trolling him on
Twitter or Instagram. His focus is on the long-term, and when it
comes to Ball, what he wants to see this offseason is a commitment
to lifting weights and getting stronger, and a focus on becoming a
“He has bounced around quite a bit... He’s never had a great run
with a coach that could, over the course of two or three years,
spend a lot of time on the defensive side of the ball. I’m sure in
Lithuania there was a language barrier, then he went to high school
in Ohio, then he went to Australia for three months, and then he
didn’t play," said Kupchak, who traveled to Australia in November
of 2019 to watch Ball play in person and also attended one of
Ball's pre-draft workouts last summer in California. He also
listened to what he was hearing from his son, Maxx, who plays for
UC Santa Barbara and played AAU with LaMelo in Southern
"So that would probably be an area that he needs to improve in,
but there's no reason why he can’t be a great defender."
Ball, 19, returned on Saturday after a
six-week absence following surgery for a fractured left wrist.
He committed five turnovers on Saturday against Detroit and five
more on Sunday against Miami, missing 6-7 three-point attempts.
Still, he leads all rookies in assists (6.1) and steals (1.63), is
second in scoring (15.7) and rebounding (5.9) and is fifth in
minutes played (28.7).
Kupchak discussed the rookie's long-term prospects and what
stood out about Ball while scouting him.
“You never really know. They’re young, they're 19. Usually when
you're drafting top-three or four, you're looking at a kid who is
19, and you're trying to project out like three or four years. To
say this was a no-brainer kind of encounter, I'm not sure anybody
can say that. I think the last guy that was kind of like that was
maybe LeBron," Kupchak said. "But I guess there are a couple of
things [that stood out]. In practice, it looked like he had a joy
of playing, like he was having fun. He stayed late after practice;
the people we spoke to over there said he loved the game, he loved
to work. So those are the good things you like to hear when you’re
trying to look out three or four years. He had great size for a
ball-handling guard. That jumps out at you, right? Somebody who’s
6-foot-7 and a ball-handling guard, that’s very unique.
"And he definitely had a flair, he’s fun to watch -- which
sometimes doesn’t mean much to a general manager; you’d rather have
the great player than somebody who’s fun to watch, but he was fun
to watch. He had a flair about him. His size, his vision. It’s
tough. When you’re 19, it’s tough, but it doesn’t really hurt that
he’s a gym rat... This kid loves to play. He’s most comfortable in
a gym, which is kind of unique. Sometimes you grow up and you’re
forced to play and you don’t want to play, but everybody else in
your family wants you to so you feel like you have to. But not with
this kid. He’s a gym rat, I'm hoping it stays that way."
The biggest judgment on the Hornets will come early in the
postseason. If they play in the No. 7 vs. No. 8 game and win, they
get the 7-seed. If they lose the 7-8 game, they will play the
winner of the No. 9 vs. No. 10 game. Lose both, and it is another
lost season in Charlotte.
But if they get in, anything can happen. We all learned that
with the Miami Heat last season, and the one constant from year to
year in the NBA is that whoever enters the playoffs healthy, happy
and with chemistry can survive and advance.