Steve Clifford is in an unprecedented and very unusual situation for an NBA coach. He’s returning to the team that fired him from the same position just four years ago. Not only that, he’s clearly not the team’s preferred choice. The Charlotte Hornets had an agreement to make Kenny Atkinson the team’s head coach in late spring, but the Warriors assistant backed out at the last moment. Out of desperation, the Hornets pivoted and brought in an old friend to lead the group.
Clifford seems a little bit different early on in this second stint with the team. It’s early and real games haven’t been played yet, but he seems more relaxed in press conferences and the words he says sound more flexible than the rigid reputation he earned the first time he was here. Reviews from players have been universally positive, thought that’s not unexpected at this point.
The Hornets were good on offense last season, and Clifford will do his best to encourage this group to play a similar style on that end of the floor this season. That shouldn’t be hard to do with LaMelo Ball leading the show, but Clifford does have to work around the absence of leading scorer Miles Bridges. The Hornets new (old?) head coach has said he likes what the team did on offense last season and doesn’t want to change much, and those are welcome words for Hornets fans.
The Hornets have been good on offense for a couple seasons, but their defense has let them down badly. Steve Clifford will be expected to fix that. His teams have almost always had good defenses, even if the team’s centerpieces aren’t strong individual defenders.
There’s good reason to believe the defense will improve. In Clifford’s last season in his first tenure with the Hornets (which he called the worst coaching job of his career), the team ranked 16th in the league in defensive rating. The next season, with largely the same roster, James Borrego’s Hornets ranked 22nd while only hopping up one spot in the offensive rankings. A reversal of that trend could be enough to help the Hornets clear that play-in hurdle that’s tripped them up in recent seasons. And surprisingly, that last Steve Clifford-led team played at a faster pace than James Borrego’s first group in Charlotte.
Hornets fans have reservations about the style of play Clifford will bring back to Charlotte. His first seasons here saw him rely heavily on post touches for Al Jefferson, and there was a return to that style with Dwight Howard manning the middle in the 2017-18 season. However, when the Hornets didn’t have a big man that could function as an offensive focal point, Clifford’s teams played a guard heavy, perimeter-oriented style. In the 2015-16 season in which the Hornets were 48-34 and tied for the third best record in the Eastern Conference, they ran post-ups at the 10th lowest rate in the league, and that’s with Al Jefferson still in the rotation. The following season, with Jefferson out of the picture, the Horents posted up at the fourth lowest rate in the league.
The roster the Hornets have compares favorably to that 2015-16 season that proved to be the best season in recent Hornets history. LaMelo Ball leads the team from the point guard spot much like Kemba Walker did. There’s a versatile do-it-all forward in Gordon Hayward that is very similar to the good version of Nicolas Batum that was here. PJ Washington can be a more dynamic Marvin Williams, while Mason Plumlee is a suitable Cody Zeller replacement. The 2015-16 team didn’t have a Terry Rozier, and the rest of the depth looks better on this Hornets team than that old one.
Steve Clifford has a chance to get the Hornets headed in the right direction again despite a disastrous offseason. He can coach freely as he wasn’t even supposed to have this job in the first place. That could mean a surprising improvement for a Hornets team that many in the media expect to crash and burn this season.