In one of the more surprising coaching hires in recent memory, the Charlotte Hornets are rehiring someone they let go of in 2018, Steve Clifford, to be their new head coach, the team announced Friday. The Hornets had initially landed on Golden State Warriors assistant Kenny Atkinson as their head coach, but Atkinson backed out after the Warriors won the championship. That forced the Hornets to pivot, and they landed on a coach they know quite well.
Clifford coached the Magic from 2013-18 and made the playoffs twice in that span. He was fired at the end of the 2017-18 season and took over the Orlando Magic from there. He took the Magic to the playoffs twice as well, but when Orlando pivoted into a rebuild, the two sides mutually decided to part ways. Now Clifford returns to the Hornets team that gave him his first shot as a head coach.
When Atkinson was hired for the job initially, reports indicated that former Houston Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni and former Portland Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts were the two other finalists. The two of them were seemingly set to compete for the job Atkinson turned down, but the Hornets went in an entirely different direction by landing on Clifford.
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Defense has been the organization’s priority in seeking a new coach. James Borrego could never build one without a steady starting center, and that resulted in two play-in losses over the past two seasons. D’Antoni and Stotts are known for their offensive acumen, and while that would have benefitted star guard LaMelo Ball greatly, Clifford’s reputation as a great defensive mind surely helped his case here.
The Hornets know Clifford better than any other team in the NBA. Their decision to hire him back says everything you need to know about him as a coach. They know what they’re looking for and believe they’ve found it.