Steve Clifford began his head coaching tenure in the NBA in Charlotte. He has been an NBA coach for nine seasons. Three were with the Orlando Magic, and add six more between his two tours in Charlotte. He has guided four of those teams to the postseason. He’s genuinely considered a competent coach, capable of instilling young teams with important NBA principles. The most compelling principle he conveys to groups is his steadfast love of defense—usually the side of the ball that young teams struggle with the most.
Clifford was hired by the Charlotte Hornets a second time. That indicates that the franchise was overall pleased with his performance and that he had good relationships with people even after he left. This time around was a bit different.
What is being asked of Steve Clifford?
For instance, before Clifford took the job the second time around the head coaching position had been offered and accepted by Kenny Atkinson. Days later, Atkinson turned around and decided to stay with the Golden State Warriors. Essentially Clifford came as a second choice.
Another distinction on this time with the Hornets is that he was hired to get this team over the play-in hump. The previous two seasons, the Hornets were a handful of wins away from making the postseason. When he was first hired for the 2013-14 season, the team was coming off a disappointing 21-win season. There, Clifford’s job was more about making the Bobcats (as they were known at the time) a more respectable franchise and not just an NBA punchline. With far more specific goals (like reaching the postseason), there is now more pressure to perform.
Clifford has earned a reputation as a defensive coach. Part of that is because he is from the Van Gundy coaching tree—he was an assistant for both Jeff and Stan Van Gundy. In five of his nine seasons, he has captained his team to a top-10 defensive efficiency rating.
The team he is coaching now will come with its own areas of need for improvement. While the defense went from 23rd in efficiency in the 2021-22 season to 20th in an injury-plagued 2022-23 season, the offense finished dead last in the league. And part of the improvement for the coach that was brought in to get the team to the postseason will be to develop the young talent on the squad.
According to Basketball Reference, Clifford has never coached a player that has ever received a single first-place vote for rookie-of-the-year. Because of Clifford’s steadfast desire for high-quality defense, rookies sometimes take a back seat because of the steep learning curve of playing defense in the best league in the world. In fact, when asked by the Charlotte Observer’s Scott Fowler this past season about playing time and rookies he said, “Player development is about minutes earned [in practice]”. In short, Clifford isn’t a fan of giving minutes to players just because they are a high draft pick.
This may be Clifford’s most difficult coaching assignment of his career. He was brought on to push a middling team to the postseason. Injuries last season made that a nearly impossible ask. And as a result, the team earned the second pick in the NBA draft. So now, on top of guiding the team to heights it hasn’t reached since his first stint in Charlotte, he will have to help bring along Mark Williams and whomever the team decides to select number two overall–to say nothing of the other four picks the team has in the upcoming draft.
Clifford will have his hands full with high expectations, as well as performing a skill he hasn’t widely thought to possess.