Hornets seriously considering Steve Clifford for head coach


Steve Clifford, pictured in this file photo during his time coaching in Charlotte, is a candidate for the Hornets’ vacant head position. (Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/TNS)


Mitch Kupchak has witnessed a bit of everything being in the NBA for parts of six decades.

Perhaps that’s why it took the Charlotte Hornets’ general manager about a nanosecond to recall another incident similar to what he experienced last weekend when Kenny Atkinson spurned them to remain at Golden State eight days after agreeing to terms with the Hornets for their head coaching position.

“The first one that comes to mind is Steve Kerr was supposed to go to New York with Phil Jackson,” Kupchak said Thursday night, “and it looks like he made a good decision, right? He decided to take the job at Golden State. So maybe Kenny spoke to Steve, I don’t know. Maybe he said, ‘Hey, this will work out for you, right?’ I don’t know.”

Atkinson’s stunning reversal forced the Hornets to scramble for a solution and they could be turning to a familiar face. Steve Clifford is a serious candidate for the vacant head coaching job, multiple NBA sources with direct knowledge told The Charlotte Observer.

Per league sources, Clifford met with owner Michael Jordan and Kupchak this week to discuss the position. Jordan also did the same with Mike D’Antoni, who was considered the runner-up to Atkinson.

But Clifford is in tune with the organization, compiling a 196-214 record in his five seasons in Charlotte. He led the Hornets to a pair of playoff appearances prior to being let go in 2018 when a mostly new front office led by Kupchak was hired.

Clifford was replaced by James Borrego, who was fired in April with two years remaining on his contract after failing to make the playoffs in his four seasons since taking over. Clifford, 60, left the organization on good terms and that could work in his favor. He served as Orlando’s head coach from 2018-21 and was with the Brooklyn Nets as a coaching consultant this past season.

Atkinson backing out led to recent discussions among Hornets’ brass, led by Jordan.

“Our owner’s been in town since Tuesday,” Kupchak said, referring to Jordan. “So we did speak on the phone obviously when it happened. And we’ve spent a lot of time together since Tuesday and in person, going over candidates that were being interviewed, maybe some new candidates, making sure that we cover our bases.

“We have not rushed this process. We never felt the need to rush it. We wanted to pick and choose the right coach and we thought we did (in Atkinson). Having said that, we’re going to get a good coach. We’re going to get a good coach.”

Kupchak didn’t offer a timetable for a decision. The NBA’s offseason merry-go-round is already in motion with the draft’s completion and free agency begins in less than a week.

It would be beneficial for the Hornets to have their new coach on board before it commences at 6 p.m. Thursday. That way they can give their input on possible roster moves, offering suggestions on how the personnel may fit in their offensive and defensive schemes.

With looming determinations on the futures of restricted free agents Miles Bridges and Cody Martin, among others, the Hornets’ current situation is far from ideal. But Kupchak underscored they have a plan of attack ready to execute soon.

“We know what we want to do with our free agents,” he said. “That’s not going to change with a coach. Having said that, free agency starts in six days. Maybe we’ll have a coach in six days. Maybe we’ll go 10 days. So, I would like to have a coach.”

One thing’s for sure: It won’t be Atkinson at the end of their bench.

“Disappointed,” Kupchak said. “Disappointed and still feel like he would have been a good selection. I’ve known Kenny for a long time. He’s a Long Island guy, which is where I’m from. So there is the Long Island basketball mafia that really supported him. We are a little bit different in age, but I’ve known him for a while. I think he would have been a good pick, but if he’s not comfortable I’d rather find out now than a year from now.”

This story was originally published June 24, 2022 8:07 AM.

Roderick Boone joined the Observer in September 2021 to cover the Charlotte Hornets and NBA. In his more than two decades of writing about the world of sports, he’s chronicled everything from high school rodeo to a major league baseball no-hitter to the Super Bowl to the Finals. The Long Island native has deep North Carolina roots and enjoys watching “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” endlessly.
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