CHARLOTTE, NC — Steve Clifford is back in familiar surroundings as head coach of the Charlotte Hornets — except he needs a new apartment.
Clifford was introduced as Hornets head coach on Tuesday, just over four years after general manager Mitch Kupchak fired him from the same position.
Clifford was not Charlotte’s first choice.
Golden State assistant Kenny Atkinson had accepted the job, but later pulled out after the Warriors won the NBA title for personal reasons. Clifford wasn’t even among the first set of candidates to initially interview for the job; Kupchak joked that he took over the lease of Clifford’s apartment in downtown Charlotte just days after he fired him in 2018.
“I was afraid he would ask me for his apartment again,” Kupchak joked.
The general manager kept the flat, but returned Clifford to his old job.
After being fired, Clifford said he had a great relationship with Kupchak and owner Michael Jordan. The coach added that while he disagreed with the team’s decision, he understood it after the Hornets finished with back-to-back losing seasons during his tenure.
He then coached the Orlando Magic for three seasons, reaching the playoffs twice, and feels better now than he did when he left.
“You want to grow and get better at what you do,” Clifford said. “I coached a lot more games than when I was here the first time and worked with another team. You learn a lot from that.”
Clifford inherits a Hornets team that was 43-39 last season and which he says is more talented than any he’s had in his eight seasons as NBA coach. , including the 2015-16 team that finished 48-34 before losing in seven games to the Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs.
“One of the things you look for is the growth potential when you watch a movie and I think that’s a band that can get better and better,” Clifford said. “I look at this team as well put together, they fit in well and they can play a style that matches what’s winning in this league at the moment.”
For Clifford, that means an accelerated pace with players sharing the ball.
While Clifford’s strength has been coaching defense — the Hornets have finished in the top 12 on defense in his previous five seasons — he and this team could be a good fit.
Led by All-Star point guard LaMelo Ball, the Hornets want to push the ball down the field and play fast.
Clifford plans to let Ball and company continue to do just that.
“We’re going to play offensively with a very similar focus to what they’ve been playing with for the last two years,” Clifford said. “Offense starts with playing to the strengths of your best players and Ball is a great talent with a passion for the game and a flair for playing on the court and we want to take advantage of that.”
But Clifford also knows he was brought in to improve the defense for the Hornets, who finished 22nd in the league last year.
“We knew defensively we had to step up a bit,” Kupchak said. “…But we talked (during the interview process) about playing the way our fans like to see us play – with a good pace. It’s fun and exciting. We see the game the same way and we’ve seen the way this team should move forward in the same way.”
The biggest decision facing the Hornets this offseason will be the ability to re-sign restricted free agent Miles Bridges, who has improved his productivity every year and led the team in scoring last season.
Kupchak is not concerned.
“We love Miles,” the general manager said. “We will bring him back.”
The Hornets have optioned forward Jalen McDaniels’ contract, meaning the former second-round pick will earn $1.9 million this season.