Clifford back as Hornets coach, sources say

Steve Clifford has agreed to a deal to become Charlotte Hornets coach, returning for a second run at work, sources told ESPN on Friday.

Clifford, who led the franchise to two playoff appearances during a five-year run that ended in 2018, returns in the wake of Golden State assistant Kenny Atkinson, who switched opinion on accepting Charlotte’s job and instead decided to stay with the Warriors.

Clifford has always had a strong working relationship with Hornets owner Michael Jordan and fit the profile of what Jordan and general manager Mitch Kupchak wanted for this young, developing roster: a coach who could improve them defensively and turn them into a playoff team. Clifford is well regarded among his coaching peers and respected for maximizing the talent of his teams in Charlotte and Orlando.

Clifford has met with ownership and management in recent days and momentum has quickly gathered for his return bid, sources said.

The Hornets also highly considered Mike D’Antoni, who recently interviewed Jordan, sources said.

Long considered one of the best defensive coaches in the NBA, Clifford will be tasked with improving that end of the court for a Charlotte team that has finished in the NBA’s bottom 10 in defensive rankings three of the past four seasons – including including ranking 23rd in 2021-22.

During his five seasons with the Hornets, Charlotte’s defense ranked in the top 10 three times. His defenses finished eighth and 11th in two of his three seasons as Magic coach.

Charlotte finished last season with the eighth offense in the NBA and has plenty of firepower at this end of the field between All-Star guard LaMelo Ball, restricted free agent forward Miles Bridges, guard Terry Rozier and forward Gordon Hayward, among others.

The reunion between Clifford and the Hornets comes after the team initially agreed to a deal with Atkinson to replace James Borrego, who was let go in April after four seasons.

Clifford, 60, went 196-214 in five seasons in his first stint with the franchise, which saw him lead the Hornets to their best record since returning to the NBA in 2004 as an expansion team when They went 48-34 in 2016. The Hornets lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Miami Heat in seven games that year.

He has led Charlotte to two of its three playoff appearances in the 18 seasons since returning to the league. Clifford’s 196 wins are the second in franchise history behind Allan Bristow, who coached the team in the early and mid-1990s. Clifford is tied with Bristow for the most games coached in the league. history of the franchise.

After Clifford was fired by Charlotte in 2018, he was hired a few weeks later by the Magic, who he coached for three years – including back-to-back playoff appearances in his first two seasons – before the two parties do not agree to separate. after a 21-61 campaign in 2020-21. He spent last season in a consulting role for Steve Nash with the Brooklyn Nets.

Clifford began his career working as a coach at various colleges in the Northeast, then served as an assistant coach with the New York Knicks, Houston Rockets, Magic and Los Angeles Lakers before being hired by the Hornets in 2013 for his first position as head coach. .

Clifford agreeing to coach the Hornets leaves one team – the Utah Jazz – without a head coach for next season, after longtime coach Quin Snyder decided to step down from the team earlier this month.

ESPN’s Tim Bontemps contributed to this report.

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