Should Steve Clifford Still Be The Charlotte Hornets Coach?


With other big name coaches getting fired after more successful seasons, why did the Charlotte Hornets keep Steve Clifford?

At the end of the regular season, the Oklahoma City Thunder had a 45-37 record, finishing outside of the Western Conference playoff picture for the first time since 2009.

Thunder general manager Sam Presti easily could have given head coach Scott Brooks a pass for a disappointing season by blaming the team’s woes on injuries. 2013-14 NBA MVP Kevin Durant missed the majority of the season with a foot injury.

Perennial All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook also missed significant time. To make matters worse, starting power forward Serge Ibaka missed the stretch run with a knee injury. Given the adversity the team faced, most people felt like Brooks job was safe.

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However mere days after missing the post-season, Brooks was fired by Presti and former Florida head coach Billy Donavan was brought in to coach the team.

Stranger still, the organization that beat out the Thunder for that final playoff spot, the New Orleans Pelicans, also fired their head coach, Monty Williams, despite the franchise’s first post-season appearance since 2011.

Clearly, there are high expectations for those organizations, and it is easy to understand why, given the talent on the rosters of both New Orleans and Oklahoma City. The success that the Golden State Warriors had this year after firing Mark Jackson despite the team’s unprecedented success during his tenure also made more teams think about a change.

Clearly a new coach can do wonders for an underachieving team. Which brings us to Steve Clifford and the Charlotte Hornets. Are they underachieving? What exactly should be the expectations given the talent on the roster?

In the 2013-14 season, I think we saw the ceiling of this team as its currently constructed. A nice season, a playoff berth, and absolutely no hope of contending for the Eastern Conference crown. 43-39 is not exactly a powerhouse team, but it was far better than recent Hornets’ seasons.

That playoff berth also guaranteed the third year in Clifford’s contract, meaning that Charlotte is on the hook for more dead money if they choose to fire Clifford, according to Marc Stein, of

So perhaps that playoff berth not only generated plenty of goodwill in Charlotte, it also gave Clifford some much-needed job security. That security was hard earned, given that he molded a collection of flawed players into a post-season team.

Clifford has his team playing excellent defense, ranking seventh in the NBA in 2014-15 in points allowed, and eighth in opponents field goal percentage. However, on offense they have been a disaster.

Charlotte finished the season 29th in field goal percentage, 30th in three point percentage, and 28th in points scored. More advanced stats show the same story, with the Hornets ninth in defensive rating and 28th in offensive rating.

Given the talent, it is not surprising that this group of players performed so poorly on offense. There is no shooting whatsoever in the back-court, with Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Gerald Henderson, and Lance Stephenson all shooting below 33% from the three point line.

Inside there is also little offense. Other than Al Jefferson, no Hornets big man commands a double team in the post and both Cody Zeller and Jason Maxiell have trouble scoring inside in any situation.

However, given the offensive limitations and the skill sets of the players on the team, it is curious that Clifford chose to limit the team’s early offense and transition opportunities. Stephenson is a good rebounding guard and is above average on the fast break.

Walker is a speed demon who should be out leading the break. Henderson is an explosive athlete capable of finishing above the rim. So why were these players forced by Clifford to slow it down and play half-court basketball?

Clifford would probably tell you that controlling the tempo was part of the defensive strategy, but even then, given the athletes on this team, it would seem they could run with anyone. Sure, those open transition three pointers might have been a problem, but the team was already 22nd in opponents three point percentage, so it does not seem like there would have been that big of a jump.

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Clifford is a good coach, but his insistence on playing to his preferred style limited this team’s offensive success. There is also a disconnect between the front office and the coaching staff, it would seem. Otherwise, why would you bring in a guy like Stephenson unless you are planning on loosening the offensive reigns?

Any style can work in the NBA, as you can see from the remaining teams in the NBA playoffs. From the high flying Warriors to the grindhouse in Memphis to the ball-sharing beautiful team basketball in Atlanta, plenty of philosophies have thrived this season.

One thing is certain though, and that is that a team’s players and its philosophy need to mesh. If the Hornets want to play grind-it-out basketball, they cannot spend $27M on a guy like Stephenson. Whether that is the fault of Cho or Clifford is unknown, but one thing is certain: Another losing season in Charlotte and both guys might be looking for a new gig.

Next: Who Is Clutch?