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An initial shortlist of Charlotte Hornets head coaching candidates

The first names that come to mind when looking at the Hornets’ upcoming search for a new head coach

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Brooklyn Nets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

After getting blown out in the Play-In Tournament for the second year in a row, the Charlotte Hornets decided to make a drastic change to their organization. As first reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, and subsequently confirmed by the team, the Hornets have relieved head coach James Borrego of his duties.

Borrego spent four years with the team and, after the departure of former franchise star Kemba Walker, improved in each of the latter three seasons. He led the team to two straight Play-In berths, but as mentioned, Charlotte was blown out in each one of them.

Inklings of a disconnect between Borrego and the players were littered throughout the team’s exit interviews. Montrezl Harrell said he wasn’t quite happy with his role, Kelly Oubre Jr. talked about the need for more confidence toward the bottom of the depth chart, and Miles Bridges criticized the team’s defense. Plus, on March 31, LaMelo Ball talked to SLAM Magazine about wanting the ball in his hands more:

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. 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. And everybody being on the same page. The consistency part. Once all that clears, I feel like we’ll be straight.

The team choosing to let Borrego go leads one to believe that there may have been some issues brewing between him and the team. Borrego was renowned for his player development in Charlotte, but now that the team is competing for a playoff spot, it’s clear that they felt the need to go in a separate direction.

With the move, Charlotte will now have a new primary focus this offseason - finding a new head coach. There are plenty of quality options out there, and they all fit into their own categories. Over the next few weeks, it’s inevitable that some candidates will rise above the rest, but for now, let’s put together a brief initial list. (List is in ABC order.)

Kenny Atkinson - Golden State Warriors Assistant

Most known for his time with the Brooklyn Nets, Atkinson has bounced around in the two years since then. He spent one year with the LA Clippers as an assistant under Ty Lue and is now coaching under Steve Kerr for the Golden State Warriors. Fans will remember Atkinson for the transformation job he completed in Brooklyn. After the Nets spent years as the laughing stock of the NBA, Atkinson took a D’Angelo Russell-led Nets squad to the postseason. That’s the sort of player development and team advancement the Hornets could use. And with his time in LA and Golden State, he has experience with successful defensive units. At 54 years old, Atkinson is getting up there, but he’s not too old to be out of the realm of consideration for the job.

Tony Bennett - Virginia Head Coach

The Hornets got outscored in the Play-In two years in a row, so why not bring in a guy with an elite defensive reputation? Maybe because the Hornets would probably only average 80 points a night (and that’s being generous). In all seriousness, Bennett’s style of play just doesn’t seem like it would translate well to the NBA. However, it would be pretty cool to see a former Hornets player be in consideration for the head coaching position. At 52 years old and in a comfortable position at Virginia, this move seems unlikely.

Mike Brown - Golden State Warriors Assistant

After a successful stint with Team Nigeria at the Olympics last offseason, Brown’s name became a fairly popular one when discussing head-coaching positions. He serves on the same staff as Atkinson as an assistant with the Warriors. Brown has prior head coaching experience, too, as he spent time with the Los Angeles Lakers and Cleveland Cavaliers. Based on those experiences, Brown has spent plenty of time coaching superstars. And based on his time with Team Nigeria, he can coach a well-rounded team, too. The only question is, do the Hornets believe he can coach an NBA team with an odd balance of both of those things? They have the stars, they have some depth, but it would be up to the 52-year-old to bring it all together.

Sam Cassell - Philadelphia 76ers Assistant

Last offseason, Cassell interviewed for a ton of head-coaching positions. However, after failing to land any of those jobs, he landed back with the Philadelphia 76ers. Philadelphia is his third stop as a coach, as Cassell spent time with both the Washington Wizards and Clippers beforehand. He was Bradley Beal’s first choice for the Wizards’ opening last season, as he spent time there early in Beal’s career as an assistant. Cassell is also widely recognized for helping John Wall become one of the league’s best point guards. As a former player, Cassell is widely respected throughout the league. This sort of respect and team-building could be what helps the 52-year-old land a head coaching gig.

Mike D’Antoni - New Orleans Pelicans Coaching Advisor

Ignore the title. We all know who D’Antoni is. And the only reason he’s on this list is because he’s a name that’s been thrown around on Twitter. Let’s just keep it short and sweet. Is D’Antoni a brilliant offensive mind? Absolutely. Would he help Ball, Bridges, and the rest of the Hornets improve on that side of the floor? Most certainly. Is he anywhere close to the defensive coach that the Hornets desperately need? Nope. Is he the aforementioned young, hungry coach that Charlotte should look for? Also nope. (70 years old) This just doesn’t make sense, people.

Darvin Ham - Milwaukee Bucks Assistant

For the past few seasons, Ham’s name has been continuously brought up in head coaching conversations. He has an elite pedigree of coaching excellence and experience. He has spent nearly his entire career working under head coach Mike Budenholzer, a long-term direct descendent of the Gregg Popovich coaching tree. Ham started his career with the Lakers, but after just two years, moved to the Atlanta Hawks. He then followed Budenholzer to the Milwaukee Bucks. When describing Ham, most turn to his leadership skills and relationship building as the top traits that make him so special. For a young Hornets team searching for a true identity, getting a leader like Ham could be just what they need. And with his experience working with Milwaukee’s great defense, he could help instill some defensive chops as well. At 48 years old, he’s got the perfect mix of youth and assistant-coaching experience.

Becky Hammon - San Antonio Spurs Assistant

There’s a very small chance that Hammon even applies for this position, as she just recently accepted the job to be the next head coach of the Las Vegas Aces. However, if Hammon still has her eyes on being the first head coach in NBA history, the Hornets could be the place for it. A direct descendant of Popovich, Hammon’s style would likely emulate the NBA legend’s - tough, hard-nosed, no-nonsense basketball. And at 45 years old, she fits right into the sweet spot of the up-and-coming coach Charlotte should be looking for. And she knows how to win, that much is for sure. But again, after previously accepting a position in the WNBA, it’s unlikely that she backtracks.

Will Hardy - Boston Celtics Assistant

It was just announced that Hardy is on the Sacramento Kings’ shortlist of head-coaching candidates, so if the Hornets want him, they would have to act fast. Hardy coached under Popovich for years with the San Antonio Spurs before following Ime Udoka to the Boston Celtics. This season, the Celtics’ have been a generational defense, and while Udoka deserves a ton of credit for that, Hardy played a big part as well. For a Charlotte team desperate to improve on that side of the ball, Hardy could bring some of his knowledge. Having studied under Popovich for five years as an assistant, and five more years before that as the team’s video coordinator, Hardy has earned his rank as an assistant. And after helping Boston’s defense become of the best in recent memory, the Hornets could give the 33-year-old a chance. However, while the idea of a young coach may seem ideal, 33 could be just a bit too youthful for the young Hornets.

Jay Hernandez/Jay Triano - Charlotte Hornets Assistants

The following thought process applies to the majority of Charlotte’s assistant coaches. While the Hornets have continiuously improved, it’s clear that something has not worked. This isn’t the case of the Clippers or Hawks where it was a case of a new face being needed. While that may be a part of the problem, Charlotte’s issues go way deeper than that. A fresh face is what this team needs. A new defensive mentality, a revamped offense, and a new leader will likely only come from the outside. Although, it wouldn’t hurt to give these guys a look.

Jay Larranaga - LA Clippers Assistant

After spending nine years in Boston, Larranaga joined the Clippers’ coaching staff this past offseason when Udoka decided to clean house a bit. Over the year, the 47-year-old has taken on a balanced approach to his coaching style. He’s a solid coach on both ends of the floor and someone that the Hornets have shown previous interest in. Larranaga was interviewed twice as a finalist to be the head coach in Charlotte (thanks for the interesting tidbit, James), and there’s no reason he shouldn’t be this time around as well.

Shaka Smart - Marquette Head Coach

This is my sleeper pick. After bouncing around from VCU to Texas and now to Marquette, Smart seems like an intriguing option for the Hornets to pursue. At 45 years old, he’s just old enough to have the necessary experience, yet young enough to lead the Hornets into the future. Smart is most well-known for his teams’ “havoc” style of defense, which involves a crazed full-court press. During his time at VCU, they constantly had one of the most annoying, yet effective, defenses in the nation. While it may seem unconventional, Smart could obviously adapt the style to the NBA. Smart has bounced around the college coaching scene since 1999 and has been a head coach since 2009. A fast-paced, hungry team like the Hornets could be the perfect place for him to take the leap to the big leagues.

Quin Snyder - Utah Jazz Head Coach

There’s no guarantee that Snyder gets let go by the Utah Jazz at the end of the season, but with how poorly they’re performing in the playoffs, it’s not all that unlikely. The 55-year-old has been the head coach in Utah for eight seasons and has reached the postseason six times. Throughout his tenure, the Jazz have been one of the best regular-season teams, dominating both on offense and defense. Their biggest weakness, however, has been the inability to progress any further than the second round of the postseason. That would be a big-time bump he would have to overcome in Charlotte as the Hornets’ young core continues to strive for postseason success. (But if their main goal is to get there, which it should be, for now, Snyder would certainly help with that.) Big thanks to James for this idea.

Terry Stotts - Former Portland Trail Blazers Head Coach

The Portland Trail Blazers parted ways with Stotts last offseason after he spent nine full seasons with the team. He made the playoffs in eight of those nine seasons, reaching the Western Conference Finals once. When it comes to building a successful offensive good enough to reach the playoffs, Stotts has proven success. He could help take Ball’s game to the next level on that end. However, the Blazers were, and still are, infamous for their poor defense. Seeing as that’s one of Charlotte’s biggest weaknesses, that could be a potential downside in hiring Stotts. In addition, the 63-year-old isn’t exactly the young, hungry coach that would seemingly fit the style of this squad.

Jay Wright - Former Villanova Head Coach

This one’s for you, Chase. Wright just recently retired after spending 21 years as the head coach at Villanova. Wright took home two NCAA Championships during his reign and was named Naismith Coach of the Year twice. He also has experience coaching NBA stars, as he served as an assistant under Popovich for Team USA. He established a strong reputation on both sides of the ball at Villanova, but at 60 years old and having just announced his retirement, it seems unlikely that Wright breaks out the clipboard again.

Again, this is just a shortlist. There are certainly plenty of potential candidates who were left off this list. In all likelihood, the next head coach of the Hornets wasn’t even listed here. Be sure to drop your thoughts in the comments and let me know if there are any candidates that I missed.

Thanks to Chase Whitney, James Plowright (totally ripped off your tweet), Zach Brown, and Jonathan DeLong for helping me brainstorm ideas. (I promise, Jay Wright was Chase’s idea.)