CHARLOTTE, NC — Steve Clifford is back in familiar surroundings as head coach of the Charlotte Hornets, except he needs a new apartment.
Clifford was introduced as the Hornets’ head coach on Tuesday, a little more than four years after general manager Mitch Kupchak fired him from that same position.
Clifford wasn’t Charlotte’s first choice.
Golden State assistant Kenny Atkinson had accepted the job but later dropped out after the Warriors won the NBA title for personal reasons. Clifford wasn’t even among the first round of candidates to initially interview for the job; Kupchak joked that he had taken over the lease on Clifford’s downtown Charlotte apartment just days after firing him in 2018.
“I was afraid that he would ask me to give him his apartment back,” Kupchak joked.
The general manager kept the apartment, but gave Clifford his old job back.
After he was fired, Clifford said he had a great relationship with Kupchak and owner Michael Jordan. The coach added that while he didn’t agree with the team’s decision, he understood it after the Hornets finished back-to-back losing seasons during his tenure.
He went on to coach the Orlando Magic for three seasons, making the playoffs twice, and feels better now than when he left.
“You want to evolve and get better at what you do,” Clifford said. “I’ve managed a lot more games than when I was here for the first time and worked with another team. You learn a lot from that.”
Clifford inherits a Hornets team that went 43-39 last season and that he believes has more talent than any he has had in his eight seasons as NBA coach, including the 2015-16 team that ended with 48-34 record before losing in seven games to the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs.
“One of the things you look for is the potential for growth as you watch the movie and I think this is a group that can get better and better,” Clifford said. “I see this team as well organized, they fit well together and they can play a style that fits with what they’re winning in this league right now.”
For Clifford, that means a fast pace with players sharing the ball.
While Clifford’s strength has been coaching defense (the Hornets finished in the top 12 defensively in his previous five seasons), he and this team could be a good fit.
Led by All-Star point guard LaMelo Ball, the Hornets want to push the ball down the floor and play fast.
Clifford plans to let Ball and company continue to do just that.
“We’re going to play offensively with a very similar emphasis that they’ve played in the last couple of years,” Clifford said. “Offense starts with playing through the strengths of your best players and Ball is a tremendous talent with a passion for the game and a gift for playing on the open floor and we want to build on that.”
But Clifford also knows he was hired to improve the defense for the Hornets, who finished 22nd in the league last year.
“We knew defensively we needed to improve a little bit,” Kupchak said. “…But we talked (during the interview process) about playing the way our fans like to see us play, with great pace. That’s fun and exciting. We see the game the same way and we saw the way that this team should move forward in the same way.
The biggest decision the Hornets will face this offseason will be the ability to re-sign restricted free agent Miles Bridges, who has improved his productivity each year and led the team in scoring last season.
Kupchak is not worried.
“We love Miles,” the general manager said. “We’re going to bring him back.”
The Hornets exercised the option on forward Jalen McDaniels’ contract, meaning the former second-round pick will earn $1.9 million this season.