Charlotte Bobcats’ firing of Mike Dunlap begs question: Why was he hired?

Mike Dunlap is clearly brilliant about basketball, but even close friends say that causes him to talk over people’s heads.

rbonnell@charlotteobserver.comApril 24, 2013 

They wanted a teacher: Someone to raise young players’ skill levels and invoke a more disciplined, high-energy approach to the Charlotte Bobcats.

That’s exactly what they got in Mike Dunlap, and the day they introduced him as coach to Charlotte media last June that’s all team officials could talk about.

“We have a plan and a strategy, and to get to the next step we need a teacher,” Bobcats vice-chairman Curtis Polk told the Observer that day.

“This guy is going to be able to relate to young guys, and we’ll continue to be young. This is the guy to put that structure, that culture, in place and get the guys to buy into it. He will be a mentor.”

If you judge Dunlap’s job performance exclusively by that narrow focus, then he succeeded in his only season in this job. He did improve Kemba Walker’s skill set, and to a lesser degree those of young players Bismack Biyombo and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. He did work this team harder than predecessor Paul Silas, and he never shied away from conflict in holding players accountable.

That’s what they told him to do up front and, according to Dunlap last Friday, what owner Michael Jordan constantly reminded him to do. Asked by the Observer what advice Jordan offered, Dunlap repeated, “Be more aggressive, demand more of the players.”

So then you must ask why Dunlap lasted a single season before being fired Tuesday. He won 14 more games than the previous, lockout-shortened 7-59 season, he worked as hard as any of the five head coaches in Bobcats history, and he was devoted to the player-development agenda set out by front-office executives Rod Higgins and Rich Cho.

Except that doesn’t tell the whole story. Dunlap’s sometimes-frosty personality, his micro-managing style and his unpredictable player rotations left some players – particularly veterans – confused and frustrated with their roles. Dunlap is clearly brilliant about basketball, but even close friends say that causes him to talk over people’s heads.

Over the two months of last spring’s coach search – when a list of 40 candidates was whittled down to 10 interviews, then one job offer – was Dunlap sufficiently vetted? Because what he presented during his season with the Bobcats, both good and bad, seemed predictable and in character to the basketball coach Dunlap has always been.

A college guy

Higgins took notice of Dunlap in the fall of 2011, when Dunlap was the top assistant at St. John’s. Higgins was on campus to scout Mo Harkless, a freshman who would be selected 15thth overall in the 2012 draft.

Dunlap was acting head coach while Steve Lavin recovered from cancer-related surgery. Dunlap was running 6 a.m. practices and Higgins was impressed by the laser-like attention he demanded from players in that setting. It was the sort of jolt Higgins thought the Bobcats needed following the decision not to bring back Paul Silas as coach.

Dunlap emerged from a field of 10 candidates to get the Bobcats job. There were natural questions about how Dunlap would transition from the college dynamic to the NBA with just two seasons in Denver as an NBA assistant.

His boss with the Nuggets, George Karl, raved about Dunlap’s brilliance and work ethic. But Karl also acknowledged Dunlap’s scholarly persona and the challenge of adapting the authority college coaches come to expect to overseeing millionaire pros.

“NBA basketball is a different breed,’’ Karl said in December when the Bobcats were in Denver. “But the sense of discipline is on every team. The hard thing is to do that on a losing team because there is such a sense of breakage, so much disconnect. Losing is a bad teacher and a bad coach.’’

Karl told a story that night about Dunlap’s habit of talking over people’s heads.

“For the first six months every meeting I was in, he’d say a word I didn’t understand. Finally I brought a dictionary one day.’’

Dunlap was scholarly and innovative; the drag screens he ran as the basis for the Bobcats’ offense were just the thing to turn Walker back into the asset he was to Connecticut in winning the 2011 national championship.

But he seemed indifferent to the veterans he inherited. He and shooting guard Ben Gordon clashed often over playing time. That situation boiled over in February when they had a verbal altercation at a game-day shootaround, drawing national attention.

Tyrus Thomas, Brendan Haywood and the since-departed Hakim Warrick fell out of favor in ways that seemed more punitive than strategic:

• There was a December game in Milwaukee when Haywood was pulled in the first half for missing a defensive assignment. He played just nine minutes that night and never started again. Dunlap gave Haywood such a look of disgust along the sideline that night that a scout from another team sought out a Charlotte media member to ask what happened.

Warrick appeared to miss a rebound in a midseason game when he was a fill-in starter at power forward. The next game Warrick was on the bench, and he totaled eight minutes over his remaining 10 games as a Bobcat.

Thomas, one of the Bobcats’ highest-paid players, was all but removed from the team in February and March. The night after the trade that brought Josh McRoberts to Charlotte – before McRoberts had even practiced as a Bobcat – he, and not Thomas, went on the active roster. A few weeks later the Bobcats told Thomas to stay home from a four-game West Coast trip.

The front office gave Dunlap complete control over playing time. Dunlap applauded that hands-off policy in his post-season interview with the Observer. But if tension with the players was such that exit interviews contributed to Dunlap’s demise, then shouldn’t Higgins and Cho have intervened, particularly during the 18-game losing streak?

Switching coaches

Instead, as Dunlap described last Friday, Jordan urged him to be “more aggressive, demand more of the players.’’

That makes sense when you consider Jordan’s history. Arguably the best basketball player ever, he’s always espoused that if he could do all the extra work, then why shouldn’t lesser talents? On those rare occasions when Jordan speaks publicly, it’s clear he sees today’s athletes as pampered and soft.

However, it’s a fine line in the NBA between a coach asserting his authority and losing the players’ respect and attention. It’s an economic reality that most players make more money and have longer contracts than their coaches. All the more so for Dunlap, who got just a two-year contract in Charlotte.

The Bobcats will now replace their head coach for the fifth time since 2007, all under Jordan’s watch. None of the four – Sam Vincent, Larry Brown, Silas and Dunlap – lasted a full three seasons. Vincent, like Dunlap, never got a second season.

The parallel between Vincent and Dunlap is neither had substantial experience as an NBA assistant, much less been a head coach at that level.

In the one season Dunlap coached, Walker improved dramatically. Biyombo and Kidd-Gilchrist – young core pieces that cost the Bobcats lottery picks to draft – have improved but are still well short of being players who would impact a playoff series. Biyombo and Walker are about to play for their third coach in as many NBA seasons, hardly a route to success.

The Bobcats have some advantages going forward: As much as $21 million in room under the salary cap to sign free agents or make trades. A top-5 pick in June’s draft and perhaps three first-rounders (their own, Detroit’s and Portland’s) in 2014. But they also have huge challenges: Last summer they were turned down by power forwards Antawn Jamison and Kris Humphries so those free agents could instead be in Los Angeles and New York respectively.

So it’s a tall order to find a coach who can teach the kids, manage the veterans and keep the whole locker room organized and harmonious, even in a league with only 30 such jobs.

Tuesday Higgins and Cho met with the Observer and The Associated Press to discuss the Dunlap firing. Very little detail was provided as to why the decision was made. Finally Cho said the following:

“I just don’t think he was a great fit; probably best that we go in a different direction.’’

Which begs the question, is that the fault of the coach, or the men who hired him?

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