2023-24 Kia Season Preview

Q&A: Steve Clifford talks new & returning pieces of evolving core

The Hornets' coach believes that, if healthy, his team has the parts needed for success.

Hornets coach Steve Clifford is trying to guide Charlotte back from a rocky 2022-23 season.

Steve Clifford’s first season back in Charlotte offered another example of the difference between NBA basketball on paper and on hardwood. On paper, certainly as last season began, the Hornets had a lot of good pieces in place to take a step forward from what had been a 43-39 performance in 2021-22.

On hardwood? Not even close, not as Clifford’s players racked up 258 games lost to injuries. He had to use 26 different starting lineups, none more than 14 times. The leading scorer from the year before, Miles Bridges, wasn’t around at all, missing the season after a plea deal in his domestic violence case. Only one rotation player, P.J. Washington, logged more than guard Terry Rozier’s 63 appearances.

The results were no surprise: a 27-55 record, with the NBA’s least efficient offense (108.4 points per 100 possessions) and 20th-ranked defense (114.7). Heading into this pivotal season — for Clifford, for GM Mitch Kupchak, for the team under new owners Gabe Plotkin and Rick Schnall — there is much to improve, some presumably from simply showing up more than they did.

Clifford spoke with NBA.com during the National Basketball Coaches Association meetings in Chicago earlier this month about what will be the NBA’s 35th season in Charlotte.

Editor’s Note: The following 1-on-1 conversation has been condensed and edited.

NBA.com: Was this a good summer for the Hornets?   

Clifford: We’re thrilled with our offseason. Both with what we were able to do in the Draft with [Alabama wing] Brandon Miller and [Arkansas guard] Nick Smith and re-signing P.J. Washington and getting Miles Bridges back. And just as excited about the work the guys have done. We’ve had a lot of younger guys stay in Charlotte for the offseason and done a lot of work with our staff. Also, Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier, two of our veteran leaders, had a great summer, too.

What were you able to learn about Miller, the No. 2 pick overall, over the past few months?

He has a combination of size, skill and IQ that’s hard to find even in our league. Almost 6-foot-9. Very good decision maker. Great skill package. Better off the dribble than I realized. He has a big advantage in that he played for a terrific college coach [Alabama’s Nate Oats] where there’s a lot of structure. We could see it even in Summer League practices – he knows how to practice, everything is very serious, about doing his best. That’s the best for young guys to get up to speed quickly.

And Nick Smith [the 27th overall pick] is the same way. A-plus worker. Again, he played for a great college coach [Arkansas’ Eric Musselman]. He understands having the right intensity, the right concentration in practice so you get something out of it.

How will people know that they can feel good again about Bridges on and off the court? 

He’s been at our facility every day since we signed him. Part of it is, we’re trying to see. When you don’t play for a full year against NBA players, as talented as he is … he’s done a good job of working out in the gym to stay on top of his game. But it may take a little time to get his rhythm back.

As LaMelo Ball comes back from his right ankle fracture, what is his ceiling, factoring in the injuries he had?

Look, at his size, his quickness, his speed and just his creativity both as a shot maker and as a shot creator, is so exceptional. He also has a love for the game, a passion. He has spent a ton of time in the facility this summer, doing treatment, in the weight room and on the court. I just think he’s one of those guys who will get better and better as he gets older.

We spoke with Rick Carlisle about Tyrese Haliburton, and the Pacers coach marvels at how much better the other four guys around Haliburton play when he’s on the court. Same with Ball?

Before being sidelined with injury in 2022-23, LaMelo Ball displayed his flashy ball handling skills for the Charlotte Hornets.

Oh yeah. Yesterday I just watched a bunch of his pick-and-roll possessions from last season. He sees everything. Y’know, he’s 6-foot-7, so he has the ability to make plays from different angles. But again, it’s his passing, he puts pressure on the defense in many different ways.

Some of us are old enough to remember Magic Johnson at 6-foot-9 and how he was “going to revolutionize the game.” Yet we still don’t see a lot of tall point guards.

I didn’t see LaMelo growing up, but he spent an incredible amount of time in the gym to develop the skill package that he has. It’s his shot-making, too. He only played, I believe, 36 games but I think he was in the top seven in percentage off the dribble outside of 24 feet.

There was so much chatter about his father LaVar, how his big personality might be a nuisance for the teams on which his sons played. What have you seen so far?

To me, he’s great. He doesn’t step in. They have a super-close relationship but he doesn’t coach him, he doesn’t tell him how to play. I think he’s a dad. He’s supportive and obviously, he’s going to be part of his basketball life. I think that’s a big positive. And they have a very close relationship. I will say this: Melo, all three of the brothers [Lonzo, LiAngelo], they’re all coachable, they’re good people, they stand for the right things, they will work, they’re very respectful and they’re great teammates. Great qualities for all three of them.

Steve Clifford is confident Mark Williams (left) and Gordon Hayward will provide big things for the Hornets next season.

At 33, how much does Gordon Hayward have left in the tank?  

He has a lot left. This is his fourth offseason in Charlotte and it’s the first time he hasn’t been rehabbing from a significant injury. From talking to him you can tell he feels good about it. He’s always been an extremely hard worker, but I think he’s in a good place physically and mentally.

Mark Williams didn’t play early, but he had a big impact later — 16.8 points per 36 minutes, 13.2 rebounds, 2.0 blocks — particularly after Mason Plumlee was traded. What do you expect from him?

I’m projecting now, he’ll be our starting center. Coming from a historic college program and having an older sister [Elizabeth of the Washington Mystics] who’s had a very good career in the WNBA has been a real positive for him. He’s bright, he picks things up very quickly.

She’s a role model for him? Does she help him with basketball techniques, training?

When you talk to him sometimes, you can tell he understands some of the aspects of being a professional athlete that other people don’t who haven’t been around it. He will mention her influence, ‘Aw, my sister did this or that.’ He has great size and he has really good instincts at both ends of the floor. He’s gotten stronger – he worked hard on his body. He had a little bit of a thumb issue and had a procedure early in the summer, so he just got back to where he can play full contact.

Shooting hand?

Yeah, but he’s fine. Everything went real well. Now I look for him to have a really good year.

What is the feeling around the team in losing Michael Jordan as the primary owner and the prestige that gave the franchise? And what is your sense of the new owners’ expectations?

First of all, Michael still is part of the organization. And then Gabe and Rick have come in and you can tell they have a clear vision for what they want the franchise to be. They’re excited about the city. I don’t think a lot of people realize what a great sports town it is. So they have high aspirations.

They’re just starting so we’re just getting into this, but they have a very systematic approach to things. They’ve been in Charlotte a lot and they’re getting things organized, so it’s been a big plus so far.

Is there one area in which you want to see the Hornets definitely improve this season?

Offensively, obviously. The biggest part of it, to be honest with you, LaMelo played 36 games. Miles didn’t play, he was our leading scorer and rebounder the year before. Gordon played 50 games. Cody Martin played seven games. When I took the job, you would have said those were four of our best, say, seven players. When you lose guys like that, it makes it harder.

The thing I was proud, we hung in there and we did get a lot better as the year went on. We played our best later in the season [.500 over the final 24 games].

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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