The news wasn’t really shocking at all.
When the inevitable shoe dropped early Monday morning, and word trickled out that the Charlotte Hornets were going to make a change in the front office — with Mitch Kupchak moving into an advisory role — nary an eyebrow raised around many NBA offices.
For weeks, dating back as far as the summer, multiple league sources told the Observer that Kupchak’s days as the Hornets’ chief decision-maker were numbered. The chatter grew even louder leading into the trade deadline, with sources indicating the transition away from Kupchak running the show would take place once the first round of roster reshuffling was complete.
Buying out Kyle Lowry officially on Sunday was the final piece to that puzzle, opening the door for the Hornets to start interviewing prospective candidates for Kupchak’s successor, someone who can guide the franchise into yet another important offseason. And although Charlotte has struggled mightily to put a consistent winning product on the court, and boasts the league’s longest playoff drought, the Hornets’ general manager post is a coveted position.
“It’s a sleeping giant,” one high-ranking league executive told the Observer on Monday night, “as long as the owners let the people they hire do the work and not overstep.”
Per a source, the Hornets prefer a lead executive with previous experience and the early expectation is for the organization to hire a president as well as a general manager. The Observer has also learned New Orleans Pelicans GM Trajan Langdon and Philadelphia 76ers GM Elton Brand — who are no strangers to the Carolinas — are considered the early front-runners to replace Kupchak.
Here’s a look at five possible candidates to keep an eye on for the Hornets’ new GM:
Current position: Philadelphia 76ers GM
The skinny: Before his current role, the Duke product was the 76ers’ vice president of basketball operations and general manager of their G League team, the Delaware Blue Coats. That experience could provide him an upper hand in the interview process, given the Hornets’ penchant for utilizing the Greensboro Swarm as a developmental tool for their second-round draft picks and undrafted free agents.
He also can offer a player’s perspective, relying on what he learned during his 17-year playing career. The 44-year-old also is used to working with others in the front office hierarchy, having been tasked with building a team alongside 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey since 2020.
Current position: New Orleans Pelicans GM
The skinny: The one-time Duke standout doesn’t need much of an introduction to basketball fans in the Carolinas and he’s quickly climbed up the front office ranks. Since 2019, he’s been the No. 2 in New Orleans, reporting to Pelicans VP of basketball operations David Griffin. New Orleans is his second stop after learning the ropes in Brooklyn with the Nets.
As Brooklyn’s assistant GM, he was also in charge of the Nets’ G League affiliate on Long Island, handling the daily duties as the GM. He did the job well enough to earn the 2018-19 NBA G League Basketball Executive of the year honor. All those things make him a serious contender for the Hornets’ job because he has many of the qualities the new group is seeking.
Current position: Milwaukee Bucks assistant GM
The skinny: Not only does the native of the Virgin Islands have a wealth of front office experience, which is closing in on two decades, he has championship pedigree. He’s been around for the Bucks’ building of a title-contending roster, assisting assemble the cast that captured the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Newton also served as the GM of the Minnesota Timberwolves from 2013-2016, so he understands what it takes to run the day-to-day basketball operations. Before ascending into the upper reaches of NBA front offices, he began his career as a scout with the 76ers, which allows him to have an even better context when combing through prospects and talent evaluation.
Current position: Brooklyn Nets assistant GM
The skinny: For a while now, truly dating back to the summer, Peterson’s name has been mentioned by several sources to the Observer as a strong possibility to replace Kupchak. It’s partially because of the obvious ties he has to Hornets’ co-owner and team governor Rick Schnall, given the time they spent together in Atlanta. Peterson was a member of the Hawks’ organization, which is where Schnall was a part owner before getting a majority stake of the Hornets in August.
He held Atlanta’s assistant GM post for three years prior to joining the Nets under Sean Marks in 2019. He knows a few things about the game, too, thanks to a college career that saw him play at Iowa, Arkansas and Florida State. He’s widely regarded as playing a key role in getting Kyrie Irving and others to come to Brooklyn, and he’s considered a rising star among upcoming executives.
Current position: New York Knicks assistant GM
The skinny: Zanin possesses more than 22 years of NBA experience ranging in a variety of areas. He’s currently a key part of the Knicks front office that’s transformed the roster into a playoff team in all but one of his seasons with the franchise. He’s worked for Philadelphia and also Brooklyn, where he was the assistant GM under Billy King, and also had a lengthy stint in Oklahoma City learning from GM Sam Presti, who’s viewed as a top-level NBA executive and accumulated the assets and cap space to trade for Gordon Hayward and absorb the bulk of his contract to help the Thunder for a stretch run.
Zanin, who was brought in by Knicks president Leon Rose and has been with New York since 2020, had a relationship with Kobe Bryant just like Kupchak. Bryant pushed hard for him to get the gig with the Nets, even tweeting about it.