Steve Clifford agrees to return as manager of the Charlotte Hornets


Steve Clifford agrees to return as manager of the Charlotte Hornets

Steve Clifford has agreed a contract to coach the Charlotte Hornets and return on the job for a second run, the team announced on Friday.

Clifford, who led the franchise to two playoff appearances in a five-year run that ended in 2018, is returning after Golden State assistant Kenny Atkinson changed his mind about taking the Charlotte job and opted to do it instead to stay with the Warriors.

Always having a close working relationship with Hornets owner Michael Jordan, Clifford fit the profile of what Jordan and general manager Mitch Kupchak wanted for this developing, young roster: a coach who could improve them defensively and turn them into a playoff team . Highly respected among his fellow coaches, Clifford is respected for maximizing talent on his rosters at both Charlotte and Orlando.

“We believe his past experience and coaching philosophy make him the best coach for our team,” Kupchak said in a press release. “Steve has a proven track record of improving defense and is detail oriented. He has a long history of maximizing players’ talent and working with them to develop and expand their skills. Steve is keen to play with the same offensive pace that our fans have grown accustomed to over the last few years. We’re confident he will help our young players continue to grow as we try to take the next step as a team.”

Clifford has been meeting with ownership and management in recent days, and his candidacy for the return quickly picked up steam, sources said.

The Hornets are also heavily considering Mike D’Antoni, who recently interviewed Jordan, sources said.

Clifford, long considered one of the NBA’s top defensive line coaches, will be tasked with leveling that end of the court for a Charlotte team that has been three of the NBA’s bottom 10 defensive scoring teams for the past four seasons — including the 23rd place 2021-22.

In his five seasons with the Hornets, Charlotte’s defense has ranked in the top 10 three times. His defense has ranked eighth and eleventh in two of his three seasons as coach of the Magic.

Charlotte finished last season with the NBA’s eighth-ranked offense and has plenty of firepower at this end of the court, including between all-star guard LaMelo Ball, restricted free agent forward Miles Bridges, guard Terry Rozier and forward Gordon Hayward.

“This is an exciting young team with a lot of talented players,” said Clifford. “Charlotte is a great city and I know firsthand the passion that Hornets fans have for this franchise. I can’t wait to get back to the city and work with our players.”

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

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

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

After being fired by Charlotte in 2018, Clifford 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 sides agreed to part ways after one campaign 21-61 in 2020-21. He spent last season as an advisor to Steve Nash with the Brooklyn Nets.

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

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 resign from the team earlier this month.

ESPN’s Tim Bontemps contributed to this report.

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