Charles Lee has a tall task ahead. Here’s what awaits the Charlotte Hornets’ new coach

During a brief exchange last week, an inquiry cropped up regarding where things stood with the Charlotte Hornets’ search for Steve Clifford’s replacement.

“(They) hire Charles Lee yet?” one league executive wrote in a text message.

Nearly a week later, the answer is “yes.”

Lee, the Boston Celtics associate head coach, was pegged by The Observer as the front-runner to officially succeed Clifford when the Hornets began looking for a new lead voice on the bench last month, and throughout the past few weeks nothing changed. His hiring was announced on Thursday, checking off one of the first tasks on the Hornets’ offseason list.

Lee won’t start full-time or be formally introduced until the Celtics’ postseason run is over. But from the sounds of things, he’s eager to begin tackling some of the items piling up on his plate as he navigates his new position.

“It’s a talent-rich roster,” Lee said in an interview with the Hornets’ website. “I look at the young core that we have and it excites me, and all the potential that is there and all the growth opportunities there are there with the team.”

Particularly when it comes to LaMelo Ball and Brandon Miller.

“It does excite me and you watch these young guys right now and they are still trying to find their way of what they are in the NBA,” Lee said. “We just have to come with the right approach, that every day we have an opportunity to get better. And so whatever that consists of for every player, we have to attack it and be obsessed with daily improvement.

“And I think from what I’ve seen of those guys, that have that DNA. And that’s why the Hornets decided to draft Brandon, decided to draft LaMelo. They are the types of guys you want to continue to build around.”

Lee has hefty chore ahead as he searches for solutions to put the Hornets on the right track and end the NBA’s longest playoff drought before it reaches a decade. Here are three things he’ll have to attack once he’s fully on board and in the building daily with his new right-hand man, vice president of basketball operations Jeff Peterson.

Assemble a staff

This is the tough side of the business that people don’t always see and understand.

Each of Clifford’s assistants have been waiting for the Hornets to name a coach since fate is directly tied to it. In most situations, when a new coach comes, they typically assemble a different cast of assistants they are more comfortable with and share the same philosophies, putting those individuals in place to handle certain roles and challenging positions.

Those left over from the previous staff usually aren’t kept around unless they either have a good relationship with the new person or they’re so good at their job they are indispensable.

Marlon Garnett and Jay Hernandez were the only two holdovers from former coach James Borrego’s staff who also held posts under Clifford. Hernandez moved on to Brooklyn last summer, though, and was recently kept by new Nets coach Jordi Fernandez.

Besides those two, the majority of Borrego’s other coaches had to seek work elsewhere. And although things aren’t set in stone yet, there’s a good chance that will be the case again for the Hornets’ current crop of assistants.

There’s also been a growing expectation the Hornets will make some changes on their performance staff, too, retooling it so there’s better alignment and understanding of player injuries, such as treatment options and specific timetable for return to game action. It could include bringing in new faces in that department as well.

Figuring all that out is going to take weeks not days and it’s important for Lee to have input. Before the season, rival general managers labeled him among the top five of assistants who would good head coaches, and the Hornets need to let him do his thing and string together a comprehensive staff to give everyone the best chance to succeed.

And it will be on Lee and Peterson to fill those spots with knowledgeable people who can help push the Hornets in the right direction.

Get LaMelo Ball to the next level

As Ball goes, the Hornets go. And so far, there’s been more than a few delays in the star point guard’s travel itinerary.

Keeping Ball healthy has been an arduous task throughout his four seasons and Lee won’t be able to waive a magic wand and — voila! — Ball morphs into the league’s most durable player.

Lee’s main objective involves tapping into Ball’s skill set and pushing him to the next level, making him go beyond his comfort zone. Lee must ensure Ball understands when to turn it up and also is aware of the appropriate time to take the flare down a notch or two.

But most importantly, Lee’s biggest chore centers around convincing Ball to embrace becoming a two-way player, where he gets after it on the defensive side in the same fashion as he does when the ball is in his hands. Ball picks up the bulk of his fouls due to reaching, and it happens when he’s not in a good stance and allowing his man to beat him off the dribble.

Perhaps for reference, Lee can simply dial up some game footage of one of the players he worked with during his last two stops: Jrue Holiday.

If he can help Ball incrementally improve, it would go a long way in keeping Lee roaming the sidelines for the Hornets beyond the duration of his contract. He received a four-year deal, per a league source, and how long he sticks around will depend on the development and maturation process of Ball.

Fix the leaky defense

When Clifford was hired, one of the things the Hornets pointed to was ability to teach defense. It never worked out. Correcting the issues on that side of the ball are chief among Lee’s tasks in order for the Hornets improve dramatically.

Save for a stretch here or there, they haven’t consistently performed well on that side of the ball for years now, with things bottoming out in 2023-24. The Hornets finished second-to-last in defensive efficiency, posting a rating of 119.2. Only Utah (119.6) was worse.

Trying to outscore opponents won’t cut it for long in today’s NBA and the Hornets’ young core has to adapt more of a mindset similar to Cody Martin, who’s their best defender and doesn’t enjoy getting beat. It’s something Clifford tried hard to accomplish and now it’s Lee’s job to solve the puzzle.

“The biggest thing it’s always going to come down to, I think, is how competitive are we going to be?” Lee said. “And that’s mental competitiveness, a physical competitiveness and the component of, ‘How much are we going to do this for one another?’”