Time to pay rent: Hornets’ Clifford has his old job back, but must succeed quickly

·5 min read

It’s one thing to say Steve Clifford didn’t burn any bridges when he got fired as the Charlotte Hornets’ coach in 2018, and that has helped him return to the exact same job four years later.

It’s quite another to realize how far that “no bridges burned” concept went. An example given in Clifford’s introductory — well, re-introductory — press conference Tuesday brought it home.

When the Hornets hired Mitch Kupchak as their new general manager in April 2018, one of the very first things he did was to fire Clifford. Kupchak tried to let him down gently — he knew Clifford from the time the two had worked together for the L.A. Lakers. But still, he fired the coach within a few days of getting to Charlotte.

Only 48 hours after the pink slip, Kupchak and Clifford went out to eat.

“Sounds a little unusual, right?” Kupchak said. “Let somebody go and then two nights later, you’re having dinner together.”

But Clifford is like that. He’s not much for holding grudges, especially against people he considers friends. And he’s also smart enough to know the NBA is a circular business, with a lot of the same characters popping up in different roles around the league.

While at that dinner, Clifford asked Kupchak where he was going to live, since the GM was just moving to Charlotte himself. I’m not sure, Kupchak said.

Well, Clifford said, I’ve got a nice place I don’t have much use for anymore.

Kupchak took a look at Clifford’s uptown apartment, which was very close to the Hornets’ home arena, and said he’d take it. So for the past four years, he’s lived in Clifford’s old space.

Clifford wasn’t exactly his landlord — “not unless he owns the building,” Kupchak joked — but Kupchak assumed Clifford’s lease and moved in.

New Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford, left, and Charlotte Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak react to a question during media conference at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, N.C., Tuesday, June 28, 2022.
New Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford, left, and Charlotte Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak react to a question during media conference at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, N.C., Tuesday, June 28, 2022.

That apartment ended up sticking around longer than James Borrego, who Kupchak hired to replace Clifford. Borrego produced a 43-win team this past season, but went 0-for-4 making the playoffs. The Hornets decided that wasn’t good enough and fired him.

Kupchak thought he had Borrego replaced once, but Golden State assistant coach Kenny Atkinson took the Hornets’ job, then had a change of heart and turned it down. Kupchak ended up hiring Clifford to replace Borrego, the very man who had replaced Clifford, 63 days after the coaching search began.

It was odd, to say the least. And, as Kupchak said of Clifford: “I was afraid that he might ask for his apartment back.”

Kupchak is staying, though. Clifford has to find a new place to live, as he tries to get the Hornets back to the playoffs for the first time since 2016.

The Hornets’ hiring process seemed like a mess, and in several ways it was. But Kupchak could have done a lot worse than hiring Clifford, given the weird circumstances. (My favorite choice was South Carolina women’s coach Dawn Staley, but that’s another story.) Clifford is a defensive-minded grinder, which is what the Hornets need.

And make no mistake, this was Kupchak’s hire. It won’t surprise you that Clifford has stayed in touch with Hornets owner Michael Jordan in the past four years since he was fired, although apparently no real-estate transactions were involved.

But, Kupchak said: “Michael always defers the basketball decisions to me.”

Another big decision looms, as the Hornets have to keep restricted free agent Miles Bridges. Kupchak left little doubt that would happen on Tuesday, saying: “We love Miles. We are going to bring him back.”

So Clifford should have All-Star point guard LaMelo Ball and Bridges as his two best players, followed closely by guard Terry Rozier. Then comes an assortment of young players with promise, a veteran whose health is monitored more closely than the pope’s in Gordon Hayward and, as usual, a series of question marks at center.

Clifford said Tuesday that the Hornets have a chance to be “exceptional.” You could also see that old look in his eye, the one that meant what he really wanted to do instead of be in that press conference was to go shut a door somewhere and start watching some film. Kupchak has given him a job but hasn’t given him an easy assignment. Clifford’s very first Hornets team the second time around is supposed to make a leap up from 43 wins. In other words, he is supposed to succeed quickly.

New Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford takes a question during media conference at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, N.C., Tuesday, June 28, 2022.
New Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford takes a question during media conference at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, N.C., Tuesday, June 28, 2022.

“We can be a better team and win more games,” Kupchak said. “Is that 45 games, or 47 or 49? I don’t know. Certainly I feel we should be in contention to make the playoff. ... I’d like to think that our goal here is not to get in the playoffs and get the eighth spot and win a round. I mean, that would be wonderful. But that’s certainly not our owner’s goal and that’s not my goal. My goal is to get this franchise into position where we can only make the playoffs and advance in the playoffs, but at some point the Eastern Conference Finals should be realistic, right?”

A Charlotte NBA team has never made it that far, much less to the NBA Finals.

This team is a long way from that. But Tuesday, at least, felt like the Hornets made some progress.