Only 28 coaches in the history of basketball can say they are the all-time wins leader for an NBA organization. Now, Steve Clifford has officially become a member of this exclusive club following the Charlotte Hornets’ 122-117 triumph in Houston on Wednesday night.
This victory was Clifford’s 208th with the Hornets, breaking a tie with Allan Bristow for the franchise’s all-time lead. He is now the sixth active NBA coach to be the all-time wins leader for an NBA franchise, joining Gregg Popovich, Erik Spoelstra, Doc Rivers, Rick Carlisle and Dwane Casey. Both now retired, Phil Jackson (Chicago and the Los Angeles Lakers) and Lenny Wilkens (Cleveland and Seattle/Oklahoma City) are the winningest coaches of two different franchises, hence why 28 hold this particular title and not 30.
Of course, Clifford will be the first to point out (he literally did so after the win in Houston) that having the most wins in franchise history is a natural byproduct of coaching the most games, now at 456 and counting. But by no means should that devalue the significance of this historical achievement in any way, shape or form. An extremely tiny, almost incalculable, percentage of basketball coaches ever reach the NBA, let alone become a franchise’s all-time wins leader.
A native of Mattawamkeag, Maine, a small northern town with only about 600 residents according to the most recent census, Clifford spent a majority of his youth living in Vermont. Following a four-year collegiate career at the University of Maine at Farmington that ended in 1983, the first two decades of Clifford’s coaching career were in the high school and college ranks, primarily in and around the New England area.
He landed an advanced scouting position with the New York Knicks in 2000, then one year later, was promoted to an assistant under Head Coach Jeff Van Gundy. Climbing the coaching ladder eventually took Clifford to Houston, then Orlando with Stan Van Gundy followed by a one-year stint with the Los Angeles Lakers under Mike Brown and Mike D’Antoni. Over his first 13 years in the league, Clifford learned the in’s and out’s of the NBA and worked with all-time greats like Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Steve Nash, Pau Gasol, Yao Ming and Dwight Howard.
Finally, after more than 30 years on the sidelines, Clifford became a first-time NBA Head Coach in Charlotte in 2013. Over nine seasons at the helm of the Hornets and Orlando Magic, Clifford has totaled 304 regular season wins, led his teams to four playoff appearances and three times finished in the top-6 for NBA Coach of the Year Voting.
One of the sport’s ultimate lifers, Clifford’s basketball brilliance has become almost a routine daily display. Whether it’s recalling a 10-play sequence from a game that just ended or calculating the average points per possession for a layup compared to a 3-point attempt, his array of basketball smarts and experience knows very little, if any, boundaries. And that vast expertise combined with over four decades of dedication to his craft is why Steve Clifford now stands alone at the top of the Charlotte Hornets’ all-time wins leaderboard.