As former Charlotte Hornets Head Coach Steve Clifford prepares to ready his current team for the bubble in Orlando, we take a look at where his overall numbers stack up among the other coaches in franchise history.
It’s been over two years since Steve Clifford was let go as the head coach of the Charlotte Hornets. Since then, he has coached the Orlando Magic to a 72-75 record. His team made the playoffs last season and this year, are among the 22 teams playing in the restructured resumption of the NBA season in Orlando.
Charlotte, of course, is not, so many of their fans are left in the lurch, at least until the newly rescheduled NBA Draft Lottery gives them something on which to commiserate. So, while they wait, we’ll take a look back at Steve Clifford, who spent five years in the Queen City after being an assistant for teams like the Los Angeles Lakers, Orlando Magic, and the New York Knicks.
Clifford first came to Charlotte in the 2013-2014 season when the team was still the Bobcats. They would see immediate success, making the playoffs with a 43-39 record in his first season. They had the unfortunate fate of meeting LeBron James and the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs, and the team was subsequently eliminated in a four-game sweep.
Steve Clifford was one of just a handful of successful Charlotte coaches.
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The following season, the team would regress by 10 games, with a record of 33-49, but they had, at least, regained the beloved Hornets’ name. Next season would see one of the biggest improvements in franchise history, with the team winning 15 more games than the previous year.
Sadly, they would again fall to the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs, but it was much closer, with the series going to seven games. The team would finish the next two seasons with identical 36-46 records and while that wasn’t terrible, those totals hardly told the tale of ineptitude that the front office had woven under owner Michael Jordan.
Very little of this was Clifford’s fault, of course, as the team’s management failed to make sound decisions behind the scenes. Handing out massive contracts to players like Nic Batum and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were just the tip of the iceberg and while GM Rich Cho was relieved of his duties, Clifford would be as well, being fired just three months later in April of 2018.
Touted as a defensive-minded coach, Clifford almost immediately turned the team’s defense around, at least during the early part of his tenure, and with Kemba Walker blossoming into a star on the offensive end, both factors would make themselves apparent.
In the first three-years under his tutilage, the Bobcats/Hornets were in the top-ten in the league in opponent points per game, giving up an average of just 98.3 points a game over the course of those three seasons. That’s not a 100% accurate barometer of defensive success, but it’s a vast improvement from where they were before that.
So, where does Steve stack up with the other coaches in team history? Quite well, actually, and one could make the case that he’s one of the best (if not the best) coaches the team has ever seen.
He is tied with Allan Bristow for the most games coached, with 410. He has the second-most wins with 196, just 11 behind Bristow. His .478% winning percentage is fourth all-time in team history, just a few points below Paul Silas.
Looking at his playoff production is a different story and where the discrepancies really show themselves. Only five coaches in the entire 30-plus year history of Charlotte basketball have taken the team to the playoffs and Clifford’s three wins and .273% winning percentage are both the second-lowest of any of the five coaches.
Larry Brown is the only coach on this list with a lower percentage and fewer wins, but that’s by virtue of getting swept in his lone appearance in the playoffs as the coach of a Charlotte team.
Again, not all of that was his fault as the cast he was given on a nightly basis wasn’t the best, especially compared to some of the teams in the 1990s. For even more perspective, Paul Silas’ career playoff winning percentage is exactly equal to Clifford’s entire regular-season winning percentage.
That’s comparing apples to oranges, though, as Silas’ teams were usually much better and Steve obviously coached many, many more regular-season games than Silas did playoff games. Still, it doesn’t negate the fact that Clifford’s teams just couldn’t get it done in the postseason.
If that 2015-2016 team gets by Miami in that seven-game series, we may be putting Clifford’s name up there as the best coach in team history. He’s still in the conversation of the best the team has known, yes, but that’s still a small sample size.
He’s certainly proven that he can coach at the NBA level, as he has a chance to make the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time in his head coaching career. If so, fans of the Charlotte Hornets just hope that he doesn’t forget where he first made his mark as a head coach.