Early Wednesday morning, a large sigh of relief was heard around Charlotte, followed by cheers and applause. For once, it wasn't about news of the undefeated Carolina Panthers. The Charlotte Hornets, if even for a split second, stole the spotlight in town with news that fans had longed to hear for months and feared would never happen.
The Hornets signed head coach Steve Clifford to a three-year extension that will keep him in the Queen City through the 2018-2019 season and gives the team an option for the 2019-2020 season.
There is no doubt that this was a move that the franchise HAD to make. Ever since basketball returned to Charlotte in the form of the Bobcats, the team has been riddled with numerous poor decisions by the front office. Most usually involved questionable draft choices that did not pan out (see Adam Morrison, Sean May and Alexis Ajinca for starters) and cycling through head coaches. Since basketball returned to North Carolina in 2002, the franchise has been through six coaches which includes the likes of Bernie Bickerstaff, Sam Vincent and Mike Dunlap — the latter lasting just one season before getting the boot.
Clifford has already placed himself in the argument for best head coach in franchise history, despite for taking over in Charlotte with zero previous head coaching experience above Division-II basketball (he went 86-36 as a head coach at D-II Adelphi). He took over one of the worst teams to ever set foot on a NBA court and turned them into one of the best defense in the league and a playoff team in just one year. He, like any other coach, has his faults — his offense was often simplistic and boring, and he had a tendency to grow attached to certain lineups or players and overuse them.
But make no doubt, letting Steve Clifford go would have been the biggest mistake Michael Jordan would have ever made as an owner.
And yes, that includes drafting Kwame Brown.
Clifford was the first positive sign Charlotte had had in years at the coaching position. Fans had become used to seeing Dunlap and the likes of past-their-primes Larry Brown and Paul Silas at the helm of their squad, which had begun to resemble a headless chicken more than a basketball organization with a plan. The franchise itself had become a laughing stock to many others in the league, a living embodiment of inconsistency and another sign of how successful basketball players do not always make the best basketball owners.
Had the team let Clifford go, that would have been seen by some (myself included) as the straw that broke the camels back. If Clifford is not the right coach for this team, after turning them into a defensive powerhouse and (finally) building the offense he had dreamed of since he took over the Bobcats in 2013, then who was?
Rumors that other teams' (coughcoughROCKETScoughcough) interest in the coach was a sign that Clifford was indeed a great coach, despite the loud outcries of some to the contrary, but also began to show light on a terrifying fact — if the Hornets did not want him, another team would. And they would not hesitate to hire him. There had been no signs that Clifford and the Hornets had even talked extension, making the worst case scenario that much more likely.
Now, whether the Rockets were actually interested in Clifford or this was just a purposeful leak by those in Clifford's camp is a moot point — and if it was a purposeful leak, then well done Clifford's camp. It got the job done, and now it seems that the Hornets have finally found their fearless leader, the one to take them over the hump and to the next level.
Clifford's signing could also cause a chain reaction of other signings.
Nicolas Batum says he's been here two months and he loves Clifford. Having him here will be a big factor in his decision as a UFA #Hornets.— SportsFromMyEyes (@JTyree704) November 25, 2015
If resigning Clifford does indeed prove to be the deciding factor in bringing back Batum, then that alone would make the contract extension worth it.
So well done, Charlotte Hornets. And well done Michael Jordan. Months ago, I wrote how I was afraid you were leading the team to an endless cycle of mediocrity. Now, the course is being corrected, and I am beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.