New Charlotte Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak’s first order of business: firing the coach.
The Hornets axed head coach Steve Clifford after five seasons at the helm, the team announced on Friday. Clifford compiled 196-214 record, leading Charlotte to a pair of playoff appearances since 2013, including an impressive 48-win season two years ago that ended in a seven-game first-round series.
The Hornets finished this season 36-46, firmly out of the playoffs for a second straight season.
The highly respected Clifford took a leave of absence from the Hornets in December to address health concerns related to the job. After addressing the headaches that stemmed from insomnia, he returned a month later. By then, the Hornets faced an uphill battle to make the playoffs in an improved East.
The next Hornets coach will face the same obstacles as Clifford. Charlotte owner Michael Jordan places high demands on his roster, despite stewarding a team that has been saddled with overpriced contracts and underwhelming draft selections. The Hornets owe $68 million to Nicolas Batum, Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in 2019-20, and that’s before they decide what to do with their best player, All-Star point guard Kemba Walker, who will be a free agent after next season.
The Hornets reportedly made Walker available before the trade deadline, hoping to tie one of those aforementioned cumbersome contracts to him in exchange for cap space and “a good, young player or a first-round draft pick.” The right offer never came along, but you can be sure they’ll keep trying.
Charlotte will have another lottery pick this June (currently slotted 11th) to add to a handful of high picks from the previous five years — Kidd-Gilchrist, Zeller, Noah Vonleh, Frank Kaminsky and Malik Monk — who thus far haven’t met expectations. It’s quite a stretch to lay that at the feet of Clifford.
The Hornets owned a top-10 defensive outfit for the first three seasons of Clifford’s tenure, and they fell into the middle of the pack on both ends over the past two seasons, when they’ve been riddled with injuries and their biggest acquisitions were out-of-date centers Roy Hibbert and Dwight Howard.
Sometimes teams just needs a change, and Charlotte made one in the front office and on the bench. Clifford — a 56-year-old basketball lifer who began as a high school coach, spent 15 seasons at the college level and served as an assistant for the Knicks, Magic, Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Lakers from 2000-13 — will be the change another team needs, whether as an assistant or at the top again.
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