BACK TO THE FUTURE: Hornets re-hire Steve Clifford as head coach

By Richard Walker

For the second time in Charlotte Hornets history, the franchise will be hiring a head coach for a second tenure as Steve Clifford has agreed to become the organization’s head coach.

Steve Clifford

Clifford will join Paul Silas as two-time Hornets’ head coaches in team history and hopes to guide the franchise back to the playoffs for the first time since his last tenure as franchise head coach.

The Friday decision first reported by ESPN and later confirmed by the Hornets comes one day after the 2022 NBA Draft and six days after reports began circulating that Golden State Warriors assistant coach Kenny Atkinson had withdrawn his name for consideration after previously agreeing in principle to a four-year contract.

Clifford, 60, was head coach for the Hornets from the 2013-14 to the 2017-18 seasons, guiding Charlotte to a 196-214 overall record and 3-8 record in first-round playoff losses in 2014 and 2016.

Clifford was let go after the 2017-18 season in one of current general manager Mitch Kupchak first decisions.

But after Clifford’s replacement, James Borrego, led Charlotte to a 138-163 record and back-to-back play-in tournament losses, Hornets management reportedly is confident Clifford’s defensive-minded strategies can help the team return to the playoffs.

“We are pleased to welcome Steve back to our franchise,” Kupchak said in a team news release. “We believe that his previous experience and coaching philosophy make him the best coach for our team. Steve has a proven track record of improving defenses and is detail oriented. He has a history of maximizing players’ talent and working with them to develop and expand their skill sets. Steve is committed to playing with the same offensive pace that our fans are accustomed to seeing the last few years. We are confident that he will be able to help our young players continue to grow as we look to take the next step as a team.”

According to ESPN, Clifford met with ownership and management in recent days and the team felt comfortable to re-hire him.

“I’m happy to be returning to Charlotte, and I want to thank Michael Jordan, Mitch Kupchak and Buzz Peterson for this opportunity,” Clifford said in a team news release. “This is an exciting young team with a lot of talented pieces. Charlotte is a great city and I know first-hand the passion that Hornets fans have for this franchise. I can’t wait to get back to town and start working with our players.”

Atkinson and veteran NBA coach Mike D’Antoni were the other two coaches who personally interviewed with Charlotte owner Michael Jordan since Borrego’s firing on April 22.

Considered by his peers to be a top defensive coach, Clifford will look to improve a defense that ranked in the bottom 10 of the NBA in three of the last four seasons; In Clifford’s five seasons as head coach, Charlotte was a top 10 NBA defense three time and his defenses ranked eighth once and 11th twice in his three seasons as Orlando Magic head coach.

Clifford, who has NBA assistant coaching experience with the New York Knicks, Houston Rockets, Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Lakers, led Orlando to a 96-131 record in his three seasons as head coach – with two first-round playoff losses – from 2018 to 2021.

Clifford’s 196 victories as Hornets’ head coach rank him second in team history behind Allan Bristow (207 from 1991 to 1996) and just ahead of Silas; Silas led the Hornets to 193 victories from 1999 to 2002 and 2010 to 2012.