Woj: Celtics assistant Charles Lee will be candidate for Hornets head coach

Woj: Celtics assistant Charles Lee will be candidate for Hornets head coach

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Adrian Wojnarowski reported on Wednesday that the Charlotte Hornets will consider Celtics assistant head coach Charles Lee for their head coaching job once they part ways with Steve Clifford this summer. Clifford will move into a front office role.

Mitch Kupchak also stepped aside as Charlotte’s general manager last month while Michael Jordan sold his controlling share of the team to Rick Schnall and Gabe Plotkin, who hired Jeff Peterson from the Nets among finalists that included Celtics executive Austin Ainge. Alongside Lee, Peterson will assess Kings assistant Jordi Fernandez, Heat coach Chris Quinn and Suns No. 2 Kevin Young, all popular candidates for previous openings vying for their first opportunity.

Lee, an NBA coach since 2014, who got his start under Mike Budenholzer after unsuccessfully trying out for the Spurs during Budenholzer’s tenure there, took a winding path through Atlanta and Milwaukee. They won the 2021 championship together, culminating in Lee emerging as a candidate for the Celtics’ open coaching job when Brad Stevens stepped aside to become president. Ime Udoka landed the position over Lee, Chauncey Billups and other candidates. Lee returned to the Bucks for two seasons before narrowly missing out on the Pistons’ head coaching position. Monty Williams stepped in to win that race late over Lee and Kevin Ollie.

Milwaukee had fired Budenholzer following his first round defeat last year and Adrian Griffin received priority as a reported Giannis Antetokounmpo favorite, casting off Lee, who Boston targeted to take over Joe Mazzulla’s bench after nearly the entirety of Udoka’s former staff departed over two years. Sam Cassell and Lee returned some stability to the unit, with Jrue Holiday’s arrival and his existing relationship with Al Horford from Atlanta all making his arrival a smooth transition. He also boasted a loud and personable demeanor that some have compared to former Celtic coach Doc Rivers.

“(Lee’s) leadership has been great,” Horford said on Wednesday. “He’s just a guy that cares about winning. He transmits that to the team and he’s been a big part of what we’ve done here … I think it’s been pretty seamless, he speaks his mind, he’s given us some great input. He always has good perspective. Has a good feel for the game … he’s fit in with the group, him, Joe and the coaching staff. Those guys are pretty connected. I don’t ever feel a disconnect from the beginning, from September since we’ve all been here, it felt like he’s been working with us for a few years. That’s how good it’s been.”

The job he’d enter with the Hornets weighs equally promising and daunting. Charlotte will pick in the top-five again in all probability after scoring one of the best players in last year’s class in Brandon Miller, who will likely finish third in Rookie of the Year voting. LaMelo Ball’s potential remains strong, despite injuries over the last two seasons where he combined to play 58 games. Miles Bridges becomes an unrestricted free agent this offseason. Building blocks become hard to find on the roster after them, but Mark Williams is an intriguing young center and Grant Williams has proved capable as a depth big upon arrival in February.

Clifford coached them to a 45-102 record over the past two years, returning as a stop gap between James Borrego and whoever is next. Charlotte had made two runs to the Play-In under Borrego before their recent downturn. Drafting woes going back one decade, most recently taking James Bouknight No. 11 overall in 2021, have hurt the franchise’s sustainability. Bridges’ ghastly domestic violence charges in 2022 derailed his budding career.

Lee makes sense in a small market, coaching a young team and getting the benefit of utilizing cap space alongside a first time GM. Quinn, a long-time Erik Spoelstra understudy, feels inevitable as the choice to fill some team’s upcoming opening. Fernandez almost landed the Toronto Raptors job. Young drew consideration to step into Williams’ shoes in Phoenix before Frank Vogel became available.

Washington and Brooklyn will likely search for new head coaches this offseason too, after moving on from Wes Unseld Jr. and Jacque Vaughn mid-season. Portland and Chicago are worth watching, but will probably stand pat with Billups and Billy Donovan. It’ll be intriguing to see if Cassell, also a past head coaching candidate elsewhere, draws interest from any of those teams given Boston’s success. DJ MacLeay and Tony Dobbins have also won over multiple years on this Celtics staff now, too.

The Milwaukee situation could become interesting as well. If their unsteady play continues, hiring a fourth head coach in three years seems improbable with all their dead money owed out. Lee is familiar with that franchise.

“It’s not secret that (Lee) is one of those guys,” Horford said. “It’s just a matter of time when he’s gonna in a position to get a head coaching job. He’s been great with us and we’re enjoying every step of the season with him. He’s just brought a lot to our group, a lot of experience and he gives us a lot of confidence.”

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