The Charlotte Hornets finally have their next head coach and low and behold, there’s a very familiar face returning to Buzz City.
Steve Clifford, who coached the team from 2013-18 and is currently the second-winningest coach in franchise history and tied for the most games coached, is back for a second stint with the organization. Since departing Charlotte, Clifford was at the helm of the Orlando Magic for three seasons and most recently served as a consultant for the Brooklyn Nets.
Oddities notwithstanding, the fit makes perfect sense for the Hornets, who in order to get back to the postseason, need to make significant strides in a few key areas that Clifford is incredibly well-versed in. During his first five years with the organization, Clifford accounted for three top-10 defenses, two top-10 offenses, two playoff berths and a 48-win campaign in 2015-16, which is still the franchise’s highest single-season victory total since 2000.
His first year in Orlando, Clifford guided the Magic back to the postseason for the first time since 2012 and finished eighth in defense. Following another trip to the playoffs fueled by the 11th-ranked defense in 2019-20, injuries devastated the early part of Orlando’s ensuing season. Nikola Vučević, Evan Fournier and Aaron Gordon were all traded at the deadline, signifying the start of an extensive rebuild and leading to the eventual mutual parting of ways with Clifford.
It’s uncommon to let go of a coach and then rehire him again a few years later, but it has happened before. The most notable example is Hall-of-Famer Don Nelson, who coached Golden State from 1988-95, resigned and was then brought back from 2006-10. During his second run with the team, the eighth-seeded “We Believe” Warriors famously upset MVP Dirk Nowitzki and the heavily-favored 67-win Dallas Mavericks in the first round of the 2007 NBA Playoffs. For what it’s worth, the Warriors missed the postseason every year between 1993-94 and 2006-07.
The conclusion of Charlotte’s coaching search might be unconventional, but it’s a somewhat fitting end to the entire process in itself. Golden State assistant Kenny Atkinson was originally offered and accepted the position before electing to stay in the Bay Area because of family reasons. Hornets President of Basketball Operations and General Manager Mitch Kupchak spoke about the situation on draft night, stating he was “disappointed” with Atkinson’s decision, but would rather know his intentions now than a year from now.
As for Clifford, defense is his primary calling card and the expectation is that he can shore up a Charlotte unit that finished just 22nd last year. There might be some understandable trepidation about tinkering too much with the team’s eighth-best offense, but Kupchak and Clifford are committed to utilizing the same high-tempo, pass-heavy style on that end of the floor. It took Clifford just three years to raise Charlotte’s then-28th-ranked offense up to ninth when he first took the Hornets job in 2013.
The defensive glass is also an area that the Hornets struggled with last season, as they ranked 29th in both this category and second-chance points surrendered. The organization was top-3 in defensive rebounding percentage every season from 2013-18 – which includes three first-place finishes – with the Magic posting top-8 rankings three times under Clifford.
Attention to detail and avoiding self-inflicted mistakes are other notable staples of Clifford-coached teams. Charlotte finished first in turnover percentage every season from 2013-14 to 2016-17 and then second in 2017-18, while Orlando went sixth, fourth and fifth in this category. Despite operating at the fifth-fastest pace with heavy ball movement, the Hornets finished ninth last year and it’s possible this strength could become even stronger moving forward.
Clifford has been on the staff of eight playoff teams – including an NBA Finals squad in 2009 – as a 12-year assistant coach with New York, Houston, Orlando and the Los Angeles Lakers. While most of the teams Clifford has been a head coach for have been veteran-laden, many instances of player development still exist. Kemba Walker, Al Jefferson, Nic Batum, Jeremy Lin and Marvin Williams all played their best basketball under Clifford in Charlotte, with Walker eventually becoming a four-time All-Star and Jefferson making All-NBA. Vučević, Fournier, Gordon and Terrence Ross all had career years playing for Clifford on the Magic, as well.
With all due respect to his previous teams though, Clifford has never had the amount of young talent at his disposal as he currently does with this current crop of Hornets. LaMelo Ball is already an All-Star at age 20 and Miles Bridges is a borderline All-Star who averaged over 20 points per game last season. The likes of Terry Rozier, PJ Washington, Cody Martin and Jalen McDaniels have all steadily improved, plus there’s established veterans in Gordon Hayward, Mason Plumlee and Kelly Oubre Jr. and plenty of second-year and rookie talent to tap into.
Kupchak and Hornets’ ownership should be commended for their outside-the-box approach in bringing Clifford back and not letting any potential optics factor into making the best possible decision for the organization.Over and over, Clifford has always gotten the most out of his teams, regardless of the talent level. A major priority will be can he not only raise the organization’s floor, but also its ceiling?
Having knocked on the postseason door each of the past two seasons, the short-term goal for the Hornets is to most certainly break through into the top-8 next year. After that, it’s about advancing further and further, while building something that’s continuously sustainable. And right now, it’s become Steve Clifford’s job to help make it all happen.