Mike Dunlap lasted a single season with the Charlotte Bobcats. He was fired Tuesday with a 21-61 record as an NBA head coach.
President of basketball operations Rod Higgins and general manager Rich Cho made that call, with the blessing of owner Michael Jordan, after conducting exit interviews with the 15 players.
Sources said several of the players gave negative feedback on Dunlap’s prospects of succeeding long-term. The process was reminiscent of Sam Vincent’s firing following a single Bobcats season in 2007-08.
Higgins said player feedback “was part of the process, but not the only indicator” that a change was justified.
Dunlap, 55, was an out-of-the-box hire, coming from St. John’s, where he was an assistant who filled in as acting coach while Steve Lavin recovered from cancer-related surgery. The Bobcats hired him over nine other candidates because he seemed strong in player-development, a teacher of fundamentals.
He had some success in that regard, particularly in developing Kemba Walker into a starting NBA point guard.
But he had only two years of NBA experience, as a Denver Nuggets assistant, and his stern style caused friction, particularly with more veteran players. Dunlap and nine-season pro Ben Gordon had a verbal altercation at a pre-game shootaround in February that drew national attention.
Dunlap was quick to bench people for weeks at a time when he was displeased with their performance. Bobcats management gave Dunlap complete control over playing time and sometimes he seemed heavy-handed in distributing minutes.
Asked if Dunlap struggled to reinvent himself as an NBA coach, Higgins said, “There were times where that could be perceived. We knew when we hired Mike there were going to be some uncharted waters, so to speak.”
The Bobcats made Higgins and Cho available to discuss the decision. Jordan did not provide a comment on the firing.
Tuesday evening, Dunlap released a brief statement through his agent: “I want to thank Michael Jordan and the entire Bobcats organization for the opportunity they provided me. I would also like to express my appreciation to the fans of Charlotte for their terrific support. I am very proud of the effort and hard work that the players demonstrated throughout the season. I am looking forward to the next chapter in my coaching career.”
In a lengthy interview in Saturday’s Observer, Dunlap acknowledged mistakes from which he said he learned. He said he initially overcoached during games and overvalued practice versus rest in managing an 82-game schedule.
Asked the difference between coaching college kids and pros, Dunlap said: “Whether it’s Kemba Walker (in his second season) or Brendan Haywood (in his 12th), they appreciate what you don’t say when the game is being played. In college you can literally yell across the floor and direct traffic with a player and it’s perfectly acceptable. Here the pro player can’t stand that.”
Dunlap has one season remaining on his contract, for which he’ll be paid by the Bobcats. It’s unknown how much Dunlap’s contract with the team was worth.
Higgins said Dunlap reacted to the firing “very professionally and thanked us for the opportunity.”
It’s unclear if any of the assistants will be retained. However Stephen Silas, a carryover from Paul Silas’s staff, has time remaining on his contract with the Bobcats, according to a source.
Now the Bobcats will conduct their fourth head-coach hire in six years, all on Jordan’s watch.
Is Higgins surprised to be hiring a coach again this quickly?
“It’s the NBA; you’re not surprised by a lot,” Higgins said. “It’s the business, and we’re preparing for what tomorrow brings.”
The Bobcats have abundant assets that could make the coaching job more appealing this time around. They can create up to $21 million in room under the salary cap this summer to recruit free agents and make trades. They will have a top-five pick in the 2013 draft and might have three first-rounders (their own, plus picks from Portland and Detroit) in 2014.
An agent for one of the current Bobcats, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, said the Bobcats might have found Dunlap a negative in recruitment of free agents. Higgins said he doubts that would have been an issue.
“Players want opportunities – meaning financial gain, playing time, probably the third (factor) would be a winning scenario,” Higgins said. “That’s what we’re planning to be – a winning team.”
Higgins and Cho have begun compiling a list of potential candidates. Higgins said his and Cho’s phones “blew up” with coaches making themselves available Tuesday. They said they are not under any time pressure to make a hire.
What are they looking for this time?
“A great leader, and the player-development aspect is still vitally important to us because of our youth,” Higgins said. “Obviously you want a fantastic X-and-O coach, someone who can make our players better and help us win games.”
Asked if experience is a priority after the Dunlap and Vincent experiences, Cho said not necessarily.
“We don’t want to limit ourselves to a model,” Cho said. “We’re pretty open-minded.”
Higgins didn’t address any specific names as potential targets. There are a number of experienced head coaches available, including Jeff Van Gundy, Stan Van Gundy, Byron Scott and Alvin Gentry.